The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week Six :: People :: Cognitive Diversity

Diversity has been in our corporate lexicon for about 35 years.

“In 1987, the Secretary of Labor, William Brock commissioned a study of economic and demographic trends by the Hudson Institute. This study resulted in the text titled, Workforce 2000- Work and Workers in the Twenty First Century. Workforce 2000 highlighted demographic factors that would impact the labor market in the United States. In a nutshell- the book argued that the U.S would only continue to grow increasingly diverse and suggested that diversifying the workforce was an economic imperative if companies wanted to stay competitive and attract talented employees.” – Shakti Diversity and Equity Training

Clearly the authors of the study were on to something – the workforce is now more diverse than it was then and is getting more diverse every year. Social scientists project that there will be no majority ethnicity in the US by 2045 ( And, there’s certainly been no shortage of corporate diversity programs in the ensuing years.

So, with this influx of diverse workers and the, most likely, millions of hours of diversity training, are we successfully leveraging the cultural and intellectual horsepower of today’s diverse workforce?

That brings us to this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge. We’ve done some things right in our diversity initiatives – we’ve clearly recognized the changing face of our workforce, we’ve been proactive in recruiting and we’ve sounded the trumpet for inclusivity, but I’m not convinced that we’ve unleashed the most important superpower of a diverse workforce – cognitive diversity – that is, the value of those who think differently. Silicon Valley has an incredible concentration of engineers and rightly so. But now the companies that employ those engineers are hiring art, music and philosophy majors. Why? Because they think differently.

In many ways, an education is a framework for solving problems. When you hire an engineer and especially a herd of engineers from the same school, you get people who solve problems the same way – like an engineer. So, no matter how many of them you have, they bring a similar approach to tackling a problem – an engineer’s approach. Aim a musician at the same problem and you’re likely to see a much different approach.

Many times, our diversity initiatives have focused on observable differences – gender, ethnicity, age – but have neglected a big difference that makes our organization better – a different way of thinking. If a company who hired only white, male Harvard MBAs tried to become more diverse by hiring a black female Harvard MBA, an Asian male Harvard MBA and an Indian female Harvard MBA, they’ve shortchanged themselves. I’m not discounting the innate differences in each of us nor the differences that come from different upbringings, different cultures or different life experiences, but if we want a big upgrade to the intellectual horsepower of our organization, we need people who think differently. We cheat the organization when we solve for only half of the equation.

One more observation before the steps for this week’s challenge. Almost without exception, when I work with a business owner – especially a newer owner, the first few hires are clones of the owner. It’s no wonder, we like people who are like us. And, if we’re going to trust our business to them, we want someone we trust implicitly and someone like us seems like a safe choice. I get it, but we’re missing out on the benefit of cognitive diversity in our newly formed business.

So, what do we do to leverage cognitive diversity in our business?

  1. If you’ve never defined a set of core values start here. We absolutely want people who think differently in our organization, but those people must share a common set of core values. Whenever I’m doing this exercise with a client, I never allow them to choose values like honesty, integrity or hard-working – no business is out there looking for employees who are dishonest, lack ethical moorings and are lazy. Honesty, integrity and hard-working are price of admission values. You don’t even get to play in the game without them. Instead, discover those things that are integral to the way you do business. Maybe it’s a love for small business owners. Maybe it’s love for a craft (woodworking, car mechanics, logistics). Maybe it’s an unswerving devotion to customer service. Maybe it’s a commitment to lifelong learning. Find those things to which you would be committed even if your business evaporated into thin air.


  1. Identify barriers to cognitive diversity in existing operations
    • Is dissenting opinion welcome in the organization? Is it possible that you once had cognitive diversity, but drove it away by shaming or discounting dissenters?
    • Are you hiring over and over from the same talent pool (education, experience)?
    • Are you hiring only those people who are clones of owners or other employees?
    • Is engaging in acceptable risk encouraged? Are failures OK assuming the project sponsor mitigated foreseeable pitfalls?
    • Are employees encouraged to weigh in on parts of the business that are not strictly in their purview?
    • Does your organization exhibit characteristics of groupthink?
      • Do you ever question your own decision-making process or do you believe your process is bulletproof?
      • Do you ignore facts that don’t fit in your “box”?
      • Is there pressure for unanimity instead of desire for vigorous discussion?


  1. Build cognitive diversity through engagement with existing employees and through new hires
    • In problem-solving meetings, after you’ve reached a conclusion. Ask one or two people to argue against the conclusion you just reached.
    • In problem-solving meetings, break the attendees into two groups and ask each group to take 15 minutes and create a solution. Let both groups present their solutions and argue the merits. Adopt one, create a mashup of both or go back to the drawing board.
    • Assign a small group of employees to an existing company initiative and identify why the company is doing it all wrong (to be an assigned devil’s advocate).
    • Allow employees to work on a project of their own choosing (this is how Google got gmail and 3M got Post-It Notes).
    • In recruiting, identify positions where you could hire for alignment with core values, introduce cognitive diversity and train for the specific job – can you teach a willing art major how to analyze shipping data or train new call center reps?
    • Identify cognitive biases that keep you from hiring a perfect candidate for a job because they are not “like you”.


Clearly, this can be a bit more squishy than some of the other exercises in The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge and, I apologize because this will take longer than 30 minutes, but it can generate some very powerful problem-solving horsepower in your organization.

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