Diversity Beats Ability

Diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems

According to Steven Johnson, “The causal link between diversity and group intelligence is one of the most robust findings in the social sciences over the past twenty years.” Johnson considers The Difference, by University of Michigan professor Scott E. Page, to be the most important work in this field.

“Homogeneous groups tend to fall into all the traps of groupthink, confirmation bias, overconfidence; heterogeneous groups are more creative, more willing to challenge their assumptions, more likely to stumble across a new approach to a problem,” according to Johnson. “Page refers to this as the ‘diversity trumps ability’ principle. Pack a room with a bunch of high-IQ but like-minded individuals and ask them to solve a problem that requires creative thinking; then do the same with a lower-IQ group with a more eclectic mix of backgrounds. The diverse group will, more often than not, find its way to a more creative solution.”

The diversity of a group can be measured by:

  • Gender
  • Economic status
  • Nationality
  • Ethnicity
  • Profession
  • Age

“As we understand more about different learning and communication styles,” said Johnson, “there’s an increasing emphasis on the value of cognitive diversity in solving complex problems: assembling a team of people whose minds work in very different ways.”

A New York Times review of The Difference said Page suggests that we can be more productive together by creating “messy, creative organizations and environments” with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.

Page said, “Diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it….The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place….Diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.”

When will we understand that it is not a good thing when we look around—in our neighborhood, at work, at play, at school, at church, at the voting booth—and see only people like us? And, more importantly, what will it take for us to make a change when we do?

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