The truth is that great minds don’t think alike
Whether you’re cracking codes or running a Whitehall department, a team of wildly differing talents is the key to success, says Matthew Syed
Do you groan when you hear the word diversity? Do you think of political correctness and dubious social engineering? If so, you are not alone.
I went to a human resources (HR) conference a while ago and heard a presentation on how all organisations would become more effective if only they could become more diverse. It was positioned as a matter of logical necessity.
The problem emerged during the Q&A.
A bespectacled chap at the back posed a question about an Olympic relay team.
· If the coach decides to recruit the four fastest runners, but they all happen to be the same race, gender, age and sexual orientation, would this be a problem? “If the coach diversified the team,” he went on, “wouldn’t that mean selecting slower runners?”
The question was met with murmurs of disapproval. It was as if he had farted in church.
To me (and, I am guessing, at least a few others), the question was perfectly valid.
Diversity isn’t — in and of itself — a panacea. A sprint relay coach should select on the basis of speed. Any other criterion is going to make the team slower.
I suspect that this underlying, often unspoken thought is one of the main reasons why diversity initiatives make so little impact. Leaders bang on about its importance but few within organisations are convinced it will make any difference to the bottom line.
But I would like to suggest that diversity, freed from its politically correct baggage, can make a huge difference, not just to the performance of organisations, but to all of us. It can help us to become smarter, more dynamic and more creative. And it can help us to break out of the echo chambers that so often surround us.
Perhaps a good way to see how is to analyse the amazing team that cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley Park.
Some historians argue that the intelligence provided by this group shortened the war by up to three years. Winston Churchill described it as “the goose that laid the golden egg”.
Now, if you were hiring a team of codebreakers, I am guessing you would want world-class mathematicians. This was precisely the approach of Alastair Denniston when he was asked to head the Bletchley Park operation. In 1939, he hired Alan Turing, then a 27-year-old fellow at Cambridge, and Peter Twinn, a maths prodigy from Oxford. But Denniston realised that solving complex problems requires “cognitive diversity”.
This is not the way we typically think about diversity today.
Most organisations are focused on demographic diversity: differences in race, gender, etc. Cognitive diversity, on the other hand, is about differences in the way people think: differences in insights, perspectives and knowledge. A group of Alan Turings — even if such a group existed — would not have got the job done.
This is what Dominic Cummings, adviser to Boris Johnson, was getting at in a blog post on Thursday calling for “wild cards” and “weirdos” to shake up the civil service.
· “What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ . . . but more genuine cognitive diversity,” he wrote.
This is why Denniston cast his net thrillingly wide.
His recruits included Leonard Foster, a scholar of the Renaissance, Norman Brooke Jopson, professor of comparative philology, and AH Campbell, a legal philosopher, a point made by the author Michael Smith. He also tapped up JRR Tolkien, an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon. Although Tolkien took a course at the Government Cypher School, he ultimately decided to stay in Oxford. Cryptography’s loss was literature’s gain: during the war, Tolkien would write the bulk of The Lord of the Rings.
These recruits looked odd to many in codebreaking circles. Why not just hire great mathematicians, they wondered?
But these “wildcards” were cognitively diverse, providing critical insights about cultural context and language that would have been missed by mathematicians. Bletchley Park also recruited Stanley Sedgwick, a lowly clerk at a firm of City accountants. Sedgwick was the ultimate wildcard, a crossword whizz, who learnt to play on his daily commute from the suburbs. In the winter of 1942 he impressed during a competition on Fleet Street — and the secret intelligence services hired him.
Sedgwick would prove instrumental on a challenge known as “cillies”. These were sequences of three letters used by German signals operators for the message settings on the machines, for which they would often use girlfriends’ names, or perhaps the first three letters of a swear word. These were known as cillies because one of the first spotted was CIL, an abbreviation of Cillie, a German girl’s name. These “tells” helped to narrow down the task of cracking the code.
Crossword enthusiasts are brilliantly placed to crack cillies. Why?
Because they are superb quasi mind-readers. As the science writer Tom Chivers explains: “Crosswords are about getting inside the mind of your opponent, and in the same way, codebreaking was about getting inside the mind of your enemy. The codebreakers came to know the people encoding the messages individually, by their styles, as crossword-solvers come to know setters.”
Sedgwick was placed in Hut Ten, which focused on intercepting weather codes. These were crucial for Bomber Command but were also used as cribs for the Naval Enigma. Cracking this code turned out to play a key part in the Battle of the Atlantic, turning the tide of the war itself.
One of the obstacles to gaining the benefits of diversity is that we are unconsciously attracted to people who think just like ourselves. It is comforting to be surrounded by people who mirror our perspective. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view. Indeed, brain scanners suggest that when others reflect our own thoughts back to us, it stimulates the pleasure centres of our brains. This helps to explain why, for all its promise of diversity and interconnection, the internet has become characterised by echo chambers: people surrounded by the ideologically like-minded.
This isn’t just about the internet. In one of my favourite social experiments, 100 people were invited to a Friday night social mixing event. The researchers could not have done more to encourage intermingling. In the centre of the room was a large table of hors d’oeuvres, on one side there was a table with pizza and on another was a bar serving wine and soft drinks.
On average, the participants knew about a third of those in the room, but were unknown to the majority. This was a chance to broaden their social group. Indeed, many of the attendees said in a pre-mixer survey that their main purpose was to make new acquaintances and friends.
But what happened? Instead of connecting with new people, attendees gravitated towards the minority who were already in their network. As the researchers put it: “Do people mix at mixers? Our results show that guests at a mixer tend to spend the time talking to the few other guests whom they already know well.”
These subtle dynamics were well known to the Ancient Greeks. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: people “love those who are like themselves”. Plato notes in Phaedrus that “similarity begets friendship”. The phrase “birds of a feather flock together” is taken from the early pages of Book One of Plato’s masterpiece The Republic. Indeed, if you look closely enough, the danger of intellectual conformity is an abiding preoccupation of Greek culture.
This is why we need to make a conscious effort to break out of our echo chambers. Working with similar others might be fine on simple tasks (like a sprint relay) but we need to embrace diversity if we are going to crack codes and come up with new ideas. We need to work with people who can help us to see our own blind spots, and who we can help to see theirs.
Seen from this vantage point, demographic diversity can have great value — not as a box-ticking exercise, but as a way of enlarging cognitive diversity. Take primatology. Before Jane Goodall came on the scene, the field was dominated by white, western males. They adopted Darwin’s view of evolution, focusing on competition among males. In this framework, female primates are passive and the alpha has access to all females. But this perspective contained a blind spot. Only when primatology recruited a critical mass of women was it realised that female primates are more sexually active, insights that created a more explanatory theory of behaviour.
Why did women scientists see something that men had missed?
In her book The Woman that Never Evolved, the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes:
· “When, say, a female lemur or bonobo dominated a male, or a female langur left her group to solicit strange males, a woman fieldworker might be more likely to follow, watch and wonder than to dismiss such behaviour as a fluke.”
Primatology benefited in a similar way when more Japanese entered the field. As one review put it:
· “US primatologists . . . tended to focus on male dominance. Rarely were individuals or groups tracked for many years. Japanese researchers, in contrast, gave much more attention to status and social relationships, values that hold a higher relative importance in Japanese society.
· This difference in orientation led to striking differences in insight. Japanese primatologists found that females had a rank order, too, and that the core of the group was made up of lineages of related females, not males.”
Look at many law firms, army leadership teams, senior civil servants and even executives at some tech companies. To say that many of these groups are cognitively homogenous is not to criticise any individual; it is to note that when smart individuals have similar ways of thinking, they can become collectively myopic. The inverse problem occurs when people who start out with diverse attitudes gravitate towards the dominant assumptions of the group. This can lead to a situation where teams may look different, yet who are — in cognitive terms — anything but. They have all been at the organisation so long that they have come to share identikit views, identikit insights, identikit patterns of thinking.
These are the twin dangers that Bletchley Park pre-eminently overcame. They were diverse across multiple dimensions. Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. There were high-ranking Jewish cryptoanalysts. The majority of staff were women. Mavis Batey, a brilliant lateral thinker who helped to crack the Italian Enigma, crucial to winning the Battle of Cape Matapan, worked out that two of the Enigma operators had girlfriends called Rosa.
When diversity is precision-engineered, not to tick boxes but to maximise true collective intelligence, the results can be staggering. The team of Bletchley Park rebels may have looked idiosyncratic but they were collectively ingenious, described by George Steiner, the philosopher and critic, as “the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-45, perhaps during the 20th century as a whole”.
This is how cognitive diversity changed the course of history.
How the CIA got it wrong
In the years after it was founded in 1947, the CIA operated rigorous hiring policies. Potential analysts were put through a back-ground investigation, polygraph examination and psychological and medical exams. And it certainly hired exceptional people.
And yet most looked very similar: white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans. In their meticulous study of the CIA, the academics Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn write:
“The first consistent attribute of the CIA’s identity and culture from 1947 to 2001 is homogeneity of its personnel in terms of race, sex, ethnicity and class background.”
Why did this matter? Because in intelligence, demographic diversity matters.
A startlingly high proportion of analysts had grown up in middle-class families, endured little financial hardship, or alienation, or signs that might act as precursors to radicalisation, or any of a multitude of other experiences that might have added formative insights to the intelligence process. Each would have been assets in a more diverse team. As a group, they were flawed.
This helps to explain multiple debacles, from the Cuban missile crisis to the Iranian revolution, to the failure to anticipate the 9/11 plot. As Jones has put it:
· “Each of these failures can be traced, directly and incontrovertibly, to the same blind spot at the heart of the agency.”
Matthew Syed is the author of Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking (John Murray)
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