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Discerning with diversity: Why cross-company dialogue delivers

Teams typically desire harmony above all. The most common fear is that of conflict.

By Adam Kingl 05 March 2013

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What would a team look and feel like if it did not equate vigorous dialogue with ineffectiveness, if it actively sought to add to its diversity and actively encouraged its members to disagree before coming up with answers?

Managers who maintain a well balanced team and value conflicting or disparate ideas more highly than consensus may actually expect a higher performing team. Why is this? The more diversified a team’s knowledge, the more solutions it can consider.  Let’s look at an illustrative and fun example.

A considerable problem in Alaska is how to remove ice from power lines.  A cross-disciplinary dialogue among people with different specialisms1 is more useful than a single expert view in a complex problem-solving context:

Person A) There are a lot of bears in Alaska; maybe we can use them somehow.

Person B) Yes, and we could make them climb the poles, thus making the power  lines vibrate, so that the ice will fall off.

Person A) Yes…and if we place fresh meat on the top of each pole, this will attract bears and make them climb the pole to get the meat.

Person B) Yes, and let’s use helicopters to bring the fresh meat to the top of the poles.

Person A) Then we need stockpiles of gasoline in the area for the helicopter.

Person B) Hey, what about pouring gasoline on the wire and burning the ice away?

Person A) Yes, and we could wrap heating elements around the wires to heat it off?

Person B) Hey, why don’t we let the helicopters hover over the power lines. Their hovering will vibrate the ice off the lines, thus solving the entire problem.

Person A has knowledge about animal behaviour as well as logistical knowledge about helicopters. Person B has knowledge about the principle of vibration to remove ice, logistical problems in the coastline areas of Alaska and the heat capacity of gasoline. Each idea inspires the next but there is no direct connection: knowledge builds from a number of different fields.  

This dialogue is also productive because the participants are utilising a classic innovation technique of ‘Yes..and’.  In other words, they are building on each other’s ideas before they volunteer new ones.  A simple way to encourage each idea’s implications before running to the next is to ask each person in the discussion to begin their sentence with ‘Yes…and’.  This technique explores the realm of the possible, giving each thought its due, instead of simply listing options without any depth.  An additional advantage of this method is that any eventual solution is more likely to achieve buy-in from all members of the group, not because they all came up with the same idea, but their individual ideas were explored in more depth and therefore people are confident that the decision making process was fair and thorough.  

All of this may be intuitive, but what it tells us about knowledge sharing may not be: the variety of information from different disciplines is more valuable than the status of the knowledge. The best solution may not come from an expert in the field.

An individual amateur would not typically outperform an individual expert.  But there is considerable value in the diversity of a larger crowd.  While no one person in a group with diverse experiences would be expected to outperform a professional on his or her own topic, as a group, the crowd possesses geographically and functionally nuanced information that an expert could not possibly retain.  So recruiting diverse teams and creating a strong framework for cross-organisational working could yield real benefits for an organisation.

London Business School Professor Gary Hamel, in his brilliant book The Future of Management2 , describes the example of Best Buy in soliciting diverse opinion to achieve better insight than the so-called experts.  Best Buy’s Vice President of Consumer and Brand Marketing, Jeff Severts, conducted an experiment to prove that the company’s forecasts were too aggressive rather than his advertising spend being ineffective.

As a controlled experiment, Severts wanted to see if an average group of Best Buy employees could predict gift card sales more accurately than the organisation’s expert forecasters. he asked several hundred employees to participate in guessing gift card sales for the following month, having only very little historical data.  The experts were historically accurate within 5%.  A tough test for the amateurs…

The several hundred employees were diverse: stockists, customer service representatives, store managers and back office functions.  Their collective, average guess turned out to be only 0.5% off the actual sales figure.  The employee sample was ten times more accurate than the so-called ‘experts’!  

Why would this be so?  The store manager in Minnesota, for example, may recognise that she is having a particularly harsh winter and so will discount her estimate, thinking that there will be fewer shoppers this year.  The stockist in Miami has noticed that the new store was placed on a busy shopping street, and so will be more optimistic in his guess.  All of those tiny, local adjustments become part of the average estimate.  At the same time, those individual forecasts that are widely off are pushed to the radical ends of the bell curve, and so influence the average less than the more widely held view.  And there you have it – a concrete argument for leveraging both diverse and collective opinion.  

To ensure the result was not a fluke, Severts conducted a larger experiment.  This time he asked for forecasts of the company’s total sales. He asked Best Buy’s expert forecasters as well as hundreds of random employees, incentivising them to make an estimate with a small prize for the most accurate guess.  This time, the experts’ forecast was off by 7%, and the average collective guess of the employees was 99.9% accurate!

I am mindful in writing this that we conduct a team exercise on several London Business School Executive Education programmes that illustrates that the view of the expert in the team must still be given its due.  I would argue that the smaller the team, the more this lesson is true.  With larger teams, I recommend a balance between considering the expert view and leveraging the collective wisdom inherent in diversity and numbers.

 

Size of Team
Use of Experts Use of Diverse Group
Small

 

Experts likely to provide the best answers

 

May not have diversity in a small number so less likely to provide the best answers

Medium

 

Solicit their opinion

Discuss and test the experts’ views separately before bringing the experts back into the dialogue
Large

 

Solicit their opinion; test the average collective view with them

Survey their views and look for trends and averages
Organisation

 

Gather a group of experts with diverse views to test the emerging views of the wider organisation for rigour and/or to ask follow-up questions

Use social media to collect large samples, ‘votes’, and discussion boards to test ideas

 


I must make an important distinction when I use the term ‘diversity’ in the context of this article.  The utility of diversity discussed here is in relation to different perspectives, world views, experiences and expertise rather than diversity of gender, race, creed or sexual orientation.  Having a mix of genders and nationalities may or may not achieve the benefits illustrated here.  Therefore, team leaders must do more due diligence in the recruitment stage to understand above all the perspectives (rather than the superficial profile) of applicants, and have the courage to select the novel, the challenging, the unique view to insert into his or her team.  

Where diversified knowledge is valued and its contribution from employees across the company is encouraged, it is also possible that the organisation would have enhanced morale and motivation from the inclusive culture created, that their leaders trust their opinions enough to solicit them in the first place, and satisfaction from witnessing the results of their higher performance through thoughtful dialogue.  

A diverse group’s mosaic of views, some perhaps ignorant or radical, balances the important but sometimes narrow view of the expert. The challenge for the manager is to leverage the incentives and cultural norms that make the soliciting of views a regular occurrence, while identifying patterns, averages and trends in those views. Instead of following the cliché of ‘agreeing to disagree’, perhaps embracing multiple and diverse points of view could lead to the stronger paradigm of ‘disagreeing to converge’.

[1] Byrge, C and Hansen, S. The Creative Platform: A didactic for sharing and using knowledge in interdisciplinary and intercultural groups.

[2] Hamel, Gary.  The Future of Management. Harvard Business School Press. 2007.

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