The War for Diverse Talent
John Pollock, Annmarie Dixon-Barrow OBE & Raj Tulsiani
Other particulars we will consider separately; but it seems
proper to prove, that the supreme power ought to be lodged with
the many, rather than with those of the better sort, who are few;
and also to explain what doubts (and probably just ones) may
arise: now, though not one individual of the many may himself
be fit for the supreme power, yet when these many are joined
together, it does not follow but they may be better qualified for it
than those; and this not separately, but as a collective body; as
the public suppers exceed those which are given at one person's
private expense: for, as they are many, each person brings in his
share of virtue and wisdom; and thus, coming together, they are
like one man made up of a multitude, with many feet, many
hands, and many intelligences: thus is it with respect to the
manners and understandings of the multitude taken together...
Aristotle (384-322 BC)Politics: A Treatise on Government, Book III, Chapter XI (Translated by William
Image: Papyrus scrap of Aristotle’s Politics
Tom Peters, excellence guru, covers much the same territory in a couple of minutes of video.
1. The half-minute version
The War for Diverse Talent is a new take on an old truth: that in difference lie possibilities. It takes a fresh look at the war
for talent in the context of an organizational world experiencing unprecedented change. (‘Managing uncertainty’ and
‘attracting & keeping top talent’ are now top concerns for global business leaders). We present recent mathematical
research to crisply redefine diversity – and simultaneously strip off the unhelpful political baggage. Our analysis suggests
this more rigorous approach to diversity offers a new lens on this fast-changing world as well as a powerful and highly
competitive way to tackle ‘the talent crunch’.
2. The war for talent
When McKinsey launched The War for Talent a dozen years ago, it touched a nerve. Although organizations live or die by
their talent-base, fundamental demographic changes – in particular ageing rich world populations – are reshaping the
talent pool. Throw in globalization, migration as well as cultural shifts, and the struggle to find (and retain) talent remains
sharper than ever. This problem is not going away, even in the economic downturn. Some basic figures tell the tale. Today’s
students will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. One in four workers has been in their current role for under a year – half for
less than 5. The top 10 ‘in demand’ jobs of 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. No wonder American business leaders place
“managing uncertainty” (1), “attracting and keeping top talent” (3) and “innovation” (5) in their top five worries. This
paper tightens the focus on the large, but relatively untapped, pool of talent lying in diversity. It further demonstrates that
forging the right combination of vision and processes in delivering diverse talent can add significant and enduring value.
3. All change
We live in an ever more complex world, undergoing an unusually intense period of change. Punctuated equilibrium, a term
coined by evolutionary biologists, captures this well: it suggests most systems stay in a steady state for long periods before
undergoing a phase of rapid, repeated change. The seemingly relentless speed and ferocity of this change is difficult to
grasp, but a couple of statistics give a flavour. Mobile phone penetration in Africa happened faster than anywhere on
earth, and now stands at over 50%. To reach a market audience of 50 million took radio 38 years, television 13 years, the
internet 4 years, the iPod 3 years and Facebook 2 years. No wonder people talk of “exponential times”.
Deloitte’s 2009 Big Shift report uses time-series data to capture some of this change, suggesting several fundamental shifts
across three core indices. First, the foundation is moving. The digital world has interacted with global policy changes to
create a perfect storm: relentless innovation, with many new players as the barriers to entry tumble (or are eradicated).
Second, we’re going with the flow: shifting from “stocks” to “flows” of knowledge. (So it’s not what you know – we’ve got
Google for that – but how you deploy it. Social networking is transforming this process). Finally, impacts: rising
productivity, less easily maintained ‘leadership’ edge – and growing market power for talent.
4. A new agenda
Much of the thinking and action around ‘diversity’ has been captured by politics, in particular the New Left. A politicised
emphasis on identity diversity (how people appear on the outside) has obscured the most important underlying factor:
cognitive diversity (how people think on the inside). Identity diversity is an imperfect, albeit generally robust, proxy for
different ways of thinking and problem solving. Nevertheless most ‘diversity training’ simply doesn’t work. Squaring this
circle is straightforward: making people feel ‘policed’ about difference is unproductive. Helping people understand
variation as a mathematically proven way to succeed – well, that’s worth talking about. That way lies progress for all.
5. Competitive difference
Recent work on evolutionary and complexity economics, using frameworks informed by our understanding of ecosystems,
is generating exciting new insights on how businesses and organisations thrive or fail. Evolution is essentially the product
of two forces: variation (or diversity), and selection (amplified over time) on that variation. This process lies at the very
heart of competition for finite resources. Diversity is thus essential to the ability to evolve at all. Further, in a period of
punctuated equilibrium, previous evolutionary strategies (which may have tended towards the monocultural) are less likely
to succeed. The importance of deploying new and diverse approaches to help enhance adaptation thus becomes even
more critical to success (or survival).
6. The great escape
The latest research by McKinsey suggests a growing awareness that ‘top talent’ is just one part of a more complex war for
talent. Further, it reports that for all the increased focus on talent in organizations, successful strategies remain elusive. In
part, this is due to a lack of concentration on human resources (HR) at the most senior levels, coupled with over-formulaic
approaches to and by the HR function. The status of HR needs enhancing – but HR people need to up their game, too.
Acquiring a deeper and more profound understanding of the importance of diversity, and the need to ‘garden’ such talent
over time, offers a good start, as well as a way out of the thicket of unproductive but procedurally driven recruitment.
7. The mathematics of diversity
Recent work by Dr Scott E Page has unpacked the power of diversity to a startling degree. His two most profound findings
are sufficiently robust to have the status of theorems. The Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem demonstrates that, under a
reasonable set of conditions, diverse groups consistently outperform expert groups. The reasoning is essentially that
experts, who tend to share much of their cognitive ‘toolsets’ in common, provide an excellent partial view of a problem. By
contrast, although the diverse group may have less tools on average than individual experts, between them they cover off
those experts tools, while adding several more – they offer a good complete view. Furthermore, diversity confers a
mathematical property known as superadditivity. In short, diversity isn’t simply a shuffling of risk like a well-balanced share
portfolio – it adds more. The Newtonian analogy of “standing on the shoulders of giants” to see further helps: diversity
provides a wider array of perspectives, and helps groups see ‘further’.
Page’s second theorem is more formally mathematical: ‘Crowd error’ = ‘Average error’ – ‘Diversity’. This asserts that the
error or failure rate in a crowd, society or organisation is comprised of the average individual error-rate and the degree of
diversity. Traditionally we seek gains by reducing the ‘average error’, for example by attempting to recruit better-qualified
individuals and so on. This insight suggests we can achieve greater gains by bringing more diversity into the equation.
Further, it shows diversity is not simply a side issue, a sprinkling on of difference as it were: it’s a fundamental strategy.
New insights about diversity are emerging from evolution, economics and mathematics – and on Broadway, too. A study of
teamwork by Dr Brian Uzzi and others looked at decades of Broadway shows. Traditionally, success or failure on Broadway
gets established brutally and quickly – often overnight. And while it may be show business, successful shows are sure
business, too. Uzzi and his colleagues found that when the core creative team comprised people with previous experience
working together and ‘fresh blood’, success followed – whereas those consisting of either only ‘old hands’ or entirely new
teams tended to fail. They have explored this effect across several sectors, and it shows that, where teamwork and
innovation are needed – which would be most organizations facing a challenging landscape – diversity, once again, is
demonstrably beneficial. This work also highlights a need to think about a ‘diversity of diversity’.
8. Diverse leaders
On the one hand, we see the recently documented failure of most diversity training schemes, growing uncertainty, rapid
change and ongoing problems in the war for talent. On the other, we have a strong new set of tools, including the
mathematics of diversity, insights from evolutionary thinking, and deeply practical and diverse hands-on expertise. As well
as this paper, Diverse Leaders are instrumental in pushing forward a global conversation around diversity among business
and other leaders. We are generating diverse connections across sectors, industries and continents while also developing a
varied set of practical and results-oriented approaches to diversity. By stripping away the choking undergrowth of an over-
politicised and underpowered approach to diversity, we have helped clear new ground to sow some fresh seeds. We bid a
long overdue goodbye to tedious and erroneous diversity “training”. Instead, welcome to a diverse new world of games,
Talent Boutiques, social networking events, dinners, debates and global high-level conversations. Tailored, bespoke and
stylish solutions – not one-size-fits-all Dear Leader totalitarian drab. There’s no reason why diversity should be dull – life
isn’t, and as the poet William Cowper put it “Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour.” So if you are
interested in joining a new kind of conversation around diversity, with the leaders of today and tomorrow, read on – and
do get in touch.
Starter for ten (billion)
“In difference lies possibility”
Scott E. Page, mathematician, 2006
The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies
Talent may be its own reward, but the word’s origins in the Biblical parable of the talents are inextricably
bound to money. The war for talent is ancient – Homer’s The Iliad hinges on it (even if Achilles, being semi-
divine, was only partly a ‘human resource’). In 1998, McKinsey popularised the concept in business,
although The Economist had used the phrase several times half a dozen years earlier. In The War for
Diverse Talent we outline how diversity can act as what the military call a force multiplier (rather than an
Achilles’ heel). We explore recent mathematical proofs for the extraordinary power of cognitive diversity,
including its ability consistently to trump expertise. We also cut through the tendentious political readings
of diversity to explain how, in uncertain times, a more rigorous understanding of diversity can let
organisations deploy a new Trojan horse.
Fast forward from the Bronze Age, and a mere three thousand years (or 120 generations) later we are in
the Digital Age. Yet for all the rapid change around us, we still carry the traces of our past patters of
thought. Even in the face of recent (ahem) global underperformance, we continue to value “the experts”
beyond their station. Yet mounting evidence, including recent mathematical work – don’t worry, we’ll be
gentle – suggests we may be reaching ‘peak expertise.’ Just as fears of peak oil may prove exaggerated as
new and unconventional sources are found, so we too argue that diversity offers a rich, largely untapped
resource of talent. For our next wave of big gains, therefore, we should look to organizational increases in
variance – the intrinsic core of cognitive diversity. Not coincidentally, we’re collectively growing less
convinced by a focus on talented individuals (whether politicians, bankers or columnists) as we see how
many real, measurable benefits emerge from intelligently-designed, multi-disciplinary teams, groups and
organisations. Talented individuals sometimes resent this insight, overlooking John Donne’s lines that “No
man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (“No, nor women
Google is a good example of a company actively seeking strong diversity among the clever pool of talent
eager to work in the Googleplex. One power of diversity recently getting attention is “the wisdom of the
crowd.” Google search returns over 2.5 million results for “the wisdom of the crowd”. Yet, as of writing, it
finds a mere 64 results –sixty-four – for “the wisdom of the organisation.” For all the tidal wave of expert
words pouring forth from ‘centres of excellence’, books, magazines and blogs, most organizations (with
honourable exceptions, obviously, such as yours) are, let’s face it, pretty stupid creatures. They tend to
adapt slowly, if at all. In periods of relative stability, they can heap up rich rewards, and engineer benefits
from their incumbent status or market inefficiencies. But the Digital Age has not yet stabilized – and it’s
already bequeathed us massive disintermediation, particularly of information (the WD40 of organizations)
and, of course, our current period of incredible turbulence. To use evolutionary biologist speak, we are in a
period of punctuated equilibrium. All bets are off.
Meanwhile, life goes on...and on. The UN’s ‘worst-case scenario’ predictions for global population suggest
Spaceship Earth may reach its full payload of around ten billion souls in coming decades. We might like to
consider organising ourselves a little better in order to create the intelligent and wise new solutions,
products and services we’ll need. And a major element to that lies in leveraging Professor Scott E Page’s
Diversity Prediction Theorem. This states that Crowd Error = Average Error – Diversity. Quickly unpacked
(we go into more detail below) it looks a bit like this. The error or ‘failure rate’ of a crowd (whether society
or an organization) is the average of its members’ individual level of ability less the amount of diversity
across that group. Now, you can tinker with individual ability somewhat – traditionally it’s what we try to
do with recruitment. But the real magic in this recipe (actually, formal mathematical proof) lies in the
diversity bit. If we pour in a diversity of perspectives, heuristics, interpretations and mental models, Page
found diversity consistently trumps ability. Put another way, experts give great partial but diverse crowds
give better complete. This is the E = mc2 of diversity. The implications are enormous – and stretch well
beyond the war for diverse talent. (If that doesn’t whet your appetite, please feel free to go elsewhere –
perhaps to that other gift of the Digital Age: YouTube, currently uploading 24 hours of new and diverse
content every minute).
It’s a jungle out there
“Better talent is worth fighting for”
Opening line: The War for Talent, McKinsey (1998)
In 1998, a handful of management consultants kicked off a war. McKinsey published The War for Talent as a
research paper then a book, with further reports from the front in 2001 and 2008. They argued that talent
is vital to organizational success and that supplies were dwindling. The concept detonated in the world of
organisations, its aftershocks resonating with Ministers, Boards of Directors and Human Resources (HR)
In the month The War for Talent was published the Iraq war brewed, Al Qaeda bombed, interest rates
tumbled, stocks rocketed and, in Britain, a microchip was embedded in a human for the first time. Next
month Google arrived. By innovating relentlessly, it soon became one of the world’s largest media
companies. The world was accelerating, and hasn’t stopped since (apart perhaps from a pause for breath,
and a glass or two, at the millennium, when the bug didn’t).
In an era of mass travel, migration, globalisation, fundamental technological change and long-term
demographic shifts, we are more connected than ever, obeying E.M. Forster’s famous dictum to “Live in
fragments no longer... Only connect!” No wonder a recent survey of top American executives finds over
two-thirds (65%) rate “managing uncertainty” as their top worry. Number three, after “fuel and raw
material prices” is “attracting and keeping top talent” (38%), followed by concern for the declining dollar. At
number five “innovation” (20%). We can’t do much about the cost of fuel or the value of the dollar, but we
know a lot about talent, and how to ensure it’s truly innovative – and additive.
At the core of The War for Diverse Talent is a new analysis. We take a long hard look at diversity, stripping it
back to basics, unshackling it from much of the politics, jargon and tedious political correctness that’s done
so much to, well, stereotype thinking about it. We turbo-charge our analysis with recent mathematical
proofs by Scott E Page, Leonid Hurwicz Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at
the University of Michigan, spiking the brew with ideas emerging from evolution and the new economics
based on complex adaptive systems. Then we well offer a practical emphasis on how to get the recipe right.
If that sounds too much, don’t worry: along the way we take in a few Broadway shows, explain why radios
sometimes fade out, and serve up some chicken tikka masala…
“Fortune favours the prepared mind”
Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille (1854)
“All is flux, nothing stays still” said the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus 2500 years ago, adding “Change is
the only constant”. A change is gonna come is still a popular idea (same as it ever was). But it takes only a
moment in time to pause and look back a few short years, to realise that the period of flux we’re living
through is unusually intense... Remember waiting and dating without a mobile phone? Working with those
eerie glowing green lines of WordPerfect on early computers? Watching a video the size of a hardback book
(actually, you may still be doing this)?
This stuff is recent. We are not talking about jumping back a few generations to horse-drawn carriages:
we’re looking back at to our own earlier life-stages. Some thinkers have dubbed this process The Big Shift
and it’s happening at a very compressed rate indeed. We may argue about exactly what is changing, but we
can surely agree that, after a long period of relative stasis, we now live in an unusual period of repeated,
rapid change. (Evolutionary and social theorists call it punctuated equilibrium).
Getting a grip on all this change is difficult, to say the least. Deloitte’s 2009 Shift Index makes an impressive
stab at it, pulling together time-series data to help organizations examine bottlenecks, plan strategies – and
adapt quickly. It’s designed to “give rise to a diversity of models and a stronger collective sense of the pace
and nature of change”. (NB “diversity of models” is a crucial insight generally: and especially here). The
report’s macroeconomic overview of exponential change used 3 indices and 25 metrics, highlighting a
recent shift from Neoclassical economics to a more complex, dynamic systems approach. The top line
implication: fundamental changes to the way we think about the way we organise ourselves are afoot.
The Big Shift report commences:
“In the midst of a steep recession, when it’s all too easy to focus on cyclical events, there’s real danger of losing
sight of deeper trends”
Its three core indices are:
The Foundation index Fast, relentless evolution of digital infrastructure, combined with global policy
reducing barriers to entry and movement. Innovation is accelerating, new players are
intensifying economic competition – as well as new ways to compete and collaborate.
The Flow index Sources of economic value are shifting from ‘stocks’ to flows of knowledge.
Individuals are finding diverse new ways to share (across porous organizational walls)
while increasing migration shows the virtual world is not enough. Meanwhile,
passionate workers are connecting via social networks to turn knowledge flows into
The Impact index Foundations and flows are fundamentally reshaping the economic playing field. It’s
getting ever more competitive as technology both enables and unleashes new levels
of productivity. ‘Leader’ companies are under threat as never before, while
performance pressures are increasing the rate of executive turnover. Talent is getting
better compensation – and, as they gain market power, becoming choosier.
There’s a lot in both McKinsey and Deloitte’s work, but for those disinclined to read lengthy reports, a
pleasingly diverse alternative exists: Did You Know is a short Powerpoint (then video) presentation,
originally put together by Karl Fisch for a faculty meeting of 150 Colorado teachers. It’s a living example of
foundation, flow and impact. It looks at the new world children, and their talents, are growing up in. At
least 20 million people have seen it.
Business as war
“Intelligence is the ability to make connections”
Edwin Boring, psychologist, 1939
Business as war is a popular metaphor – Google has 323 million results. The marketing firm Vsente note
mutual features like competition, strategy, logistics, skills, leadership and intelligence. They particularly cite
the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 100-5 definition of battle command:
Decision making: knowing if to decide, then when and what to decide. These are tactical, operational, and
strategic judgments [and]
Leadership: taking responsibility for decisions; being loyal to subordinates; inspiring and directing assigned forces
and resources toward a purposeful end; establishing a teamwork climate that engenders success [and] providing
It wryly continues, “as such, command is more an art than a science.”
Good decisions demand good intelligence. Traditionally, this meant gathering and analysing various types
of ‘intel’ including scientific, technical and human intelligence (HUMINT), while seeking a high signal-to-
noise ratio. Frankly, the diversity world has often had a low signal-to-noise ratio. (A massive 2009 meta-
review of 985 published and unpublished studies by Elizabeth Levy Puck and Donald Green found much, if
not most, workplace diversity training doesn’t work very well). This is why we take if not an axe then at
least a small cheese knife to current ideas of “diversity”. We’re keen to strip out the politicised ‘discourse’
and ‘agenda’ (and corollary poorly constructed interventions) in order to clarify its true underlying value –
which is significant – and identify how it can be deployed.
We are opening up a new front in the talent war because as military historians and strategists like to note:
Generals are notorious for their tendency to “fight the last war” – by using the strategies and tactics of the past to
achieve victory in the present. Indeed, we all do this to some extent. Life’s lessons are hard won, and we like to apply
them – even when they don’t apply… fighting the last war, is often a losing proposition. Conditions change. Objectives
change. Strategies change. And you must change. If you don’t, you lose. [Italics added]
We believe that while the core of McKinsey’s “war for talent” remains as strong as ever – and the last
decade has seen organisations sharpen their focus on talent – the serious new front opening up in that war
will be the battle for diverse talent. Meanwhile, profound and compelling new insights from the emerging
cross-disciplinary schools of mathematical economics and complexity economics offer a compelling
explanation as to why that war is hotting up.
The War for Diverse Talent is as much an intelligence briefing aimed at ‘generals’ – senior management,
CEOs and Ministers – as at those charged with ‘supply chain management’ and ‘logistics’ – the Human
Resources (HR) experts delivering personnel ‘up the lines’. (Military historians are also fond of discussing
how supply lines can make or break success in a battle zone). We also outline strategies and tactics with
which this war can be fought – and won.
The Nature of Competition
“Every case of extinction of a species is a failure to provide any variations which could have been
used to meet and overcome the circumstances which were leading the species downhill.”
HG Wells, Julian Huxley & GP Wells, The Science of Life, 1930, p415
Competition – and appallingly destructive competition at that – is at the heart of war, but in the complex
universe of businesses and organisations, there is also co-operative competition (also known by the ugly
neologism co-optition). But to comprehend a world seeing shifts from ‘zero sum’ to ‘non-zero sum’ games
(i.e. from win-lose towards win-win) we still need to understand competition. There’s no better way to do
this than to grasp at least the core of what has widely been hailed “the most powerful idea humanity has
ever had” – evolution. Evolution’s power as an idea lies in its explanatory insights into the most complex
system we know of: you. (Well, and the rest of Nature). These ideas are increasingly being applied to other
complex systems, too, like societies, economies and organizations.
Evolution relies on Natural Selection, which goes (very) roughly as follows:
a. Nature has an abundance of variation, known as biodiversity
b. Nature constantly creates new variations by having offspring, which are a bit like their parents, but
slightly different (ask anyone with teenagers)
c. The eternal competition created by finite resources selects and amplifies among this variation.
Economies and organisations create variations, too, and at a phenomenal rate. In his book The Origin of
Wealth: Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Remaking of Economics Eric Beinhocker describes how the
Yanomamo, a stone-tool making hunter-gatherer tribe living on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, make a
good proxy for the very earliest economic activity we can imagine. Their lifestyle is similar to that led
perhaps 2.5 million years ago. The Yanomamo have around a few hundred SKUs in play. (SKUs are retailers’
Stock Keeping Units, used to describe distinct products e.g. a pair of jeans in one size in five different
colours equals 5 SKUs, in five sizes it would be 25 SKUs). Compared to the Yanomamo, an average New
Yorker has access to several billion SKUs.
Alternatively, imagine the internet as an ecosystem. Billions of web pages, millions of websites, with new
variations constantly added. Shops, blogs, news, dating, maps, chat, music, videos, photos, jokes – anything
you can name (and an awful lot you couldn’t). Some of these variations are ‘selected’ for by the core
environmental pressure: intense competition for your attention. As people select (and then amplify by
sharing) these variations succeed more than other variations – soon you get Amazon, Ebay, Facebook,
Twitter and...extreme sheep. Others fade away, or succeed only in their own little corner of cyberspace.
This is like evolution on crack – it happens much faster than Nature’s version. Meanwhile you could
similarly look at markets, or just a single part of them – fashion, say, or even just handbags – and you’ll see
much the same process at work.
This is how Nature works, and it’s not far from the way complex systems work, too. Individuals are ‘born’.
They compete among others. Some win, some lose. We evolve.
The beating engine at the heart of evolving change is variation. Or to use another word: diversity.
(Actually it’s just a tiny bit more complex than that, but that wasn’t too hard was it?)
The war of the words
"A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion"
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher (1889-1951)
The words diverse and diversity have been around since at least the 12th
century – Chaucer was fond of
using them (and of diversity itself). The world of words is subject to evolutionary pressures too. Thus in Old
French, as well as variety, diversity carried the meaning repugnant. And there are people who still find the
concept of diversity unpalatable – not for the ‘obvious’ reason that they’re supposedly discriminatory, but
because something about the way diversity has developed and been deployed in recent decades hasn’t
worked. And, perhaps surprisingly, in many ways we agree.
Diversity has become associated in many minds with a particular political point of view. More specifically:
that of the ‘New Left’. (Indeed, the Ideology section of Wikipedia’s article on Diversity politics says: “Main
articles: New Left and Multiculturalism”). In short, the so-called “diversity agenda” has been captured by
one political position – and subject to long and often tiresomely unproductive squabble as a result.
We’re simply not interested in that. We’re much more concerned to wrest the core concept of diversity –
with its properly scientific, indeed mathematical, underpinning – from the jaws of political debate, and
place it where it actually belongs: at the heart of successful groups, firms, schools, organizations and
This is not to undermine those who have helped place the idea of wider representativeness into
mainstream thought, but to evolve and move on from that work. (This, crucially, means a willingness to
drop – or fail to select and amplify – that which doesn’t work). For diversity, deeply and importantly, is not
about what sociologists call identity diversity – differences on the ‘outside’ (of gender, colour, physical
ability, class, sexuality and so on).
Our concern is pragmatic, and focused on how the diversity of what’s inside our heads matters to groups,
organisations and societies struggling to adapt to rapid economic, social, technological, geopolitical and
demographic change i.e. all of them. Take a quick browse through this raw and uncut list to get a sense of
how, ahem, variegated the very definition of diversity has become:
Main entry: Diversity
Part of speech: noun
Related adjectives: a hundred, a million, a myriad, a thousand, a thousand and one, a world of, all kinds of, all manner of, all manners
of, all sorts of, allogeneous, and heaven knows what not, and what not, anidian, briarean, characteristic, crowded, daedal, decuple,
dedal, desultory, different, differing, dioristic, discriminating, discriminative, disparate, distinctive, distinguishable, divers, diverse,
diversified, diversiform, eclectic, endless, epicene, ever so many, full many, half a dozen, half a hundred, heterogeneous, in
profusion, indiscriminate, irregular, manifold, many, many, modified, more than one can tell, mosaic, motley, multifarious, multifold,
multiform, multigenerous, multinominal, multiple, multiplied, multispiral, multitudinous, multiversant, multivious, myriad, nice, no
end of, no end to, not a few, not the same, numberose, numerous, numerous as the hairs on the head, numerous as the sands on the
seashore, numerous as the stars of the firmament, of all sorts and kinds, of every description, of various kinds, omnifarious,
omniform, omnigenous, omnigruous, other, peopled, plenty as blackberries, pluripotent, polymorphic, populous, profuse,
proletaneous, protean, rough, several, some forty or fifty, something else, studded, sundry, teeming, thick, thick as hops, thick
coming, unequal, uneven, unmatched, varied, variform, various, very many, widely apart.
Chicago Manual Style: diversity.
Any which way you cut it, diversity is a complex ‘word’ i.e. a tool in the form of a noise, and some symbolic
notational squiggles, that helps to ‘map’ (a degree of) collective agreement about a recognisably
distinct(ish) concept. We therefore think a bit more precision in the matter not only a good thing, but
rather overdue. (We’ll leave the often rather loose definitions of ‘talent’ out there for another occasion).
The monoculture cult (now in stereo)
“It's been demonstrated over and over again, but businesses refuse to learn the lesson:
Homogeneity is its own punishment in the world of business.”
Monoculture Is Bad For Business
Anil Dash (Founder, Expert Labs, UN Social Media Envoy on malaria, &c)
The world of the monoculture had a good run in the 20th century. Most political and business leaders
looked, dressed and sounded the same. (A lot of grey was par for the course). Big organisations like IBM,
Ford, Governments and Universities faced little real competition. Barriers to entry were high. Knowledge
and news were scarce, so powerful media barons held sway. (Newsrooms, printing plants, studios and so
on were expensive). A small pool of talent did rather well, thank you very much. In a relatively stable world,
there was little pressure to change. But just as agricultural monocultures are highly vulnerable to new
diseases, so that world was ill-prepared when the cultural and digital revolutions crept in. The costs of
communication started to drop, and, as other embedded historical costs got stripped out, it became
apparent that the real business differentiator lies in talented people. Diversity had been crowded out as
monocultures selected for – and then amplified the presence of – ‘familiar’ types. But diversity didn’t go
away. It can’t. Because variety is the very engine of change and, especially, of adaptation. [This paragraph
is now available in a TV format, as Mad Men].
Adding diversity into the talent equation is happening anyway, but not as well as it might – even in the face
of continuing problems. In their 2008 follow up to The War for Talent, McKinsey argue that:
The [talent] problem remains acute – and if anything has become worse. Companies face a demographic
landscape dominated by the looming retirement of baby boomers in the developed world and by a dearth of
young people entering the workforce in Western Europe. Meanwhile, question marks remain over the
appropriateness of the talent in many emerging markets.
They reinforce this with two major surveys. In 2006, respondents thought finding talented people “likely to
be the single most important managerial preoccupation for the rest of this decade.” A year on, about half
expect “intensifying competition for talent – and the increasingly global nature of that competition – to
have a major effect on their companies over the next five years.”
They also reflect a widespread perception that much of the substantial effort to address the talent crunch
has essentially failed. They note a tighter focus on human resources: but as a short-term tactic rather than
as part of long-term strategies. The list of talent-related problems, from those at the top not focussing
enough on talent to underperformance on underperformance, and from frustrating hierarchical structures
to a lack of long-term career-gardening – makes depressing reading. McKinsey also note aspects of
diversity, observing that “different things make people of different genders, ages, and nationalities want to
work for (and remain at) a company.”
They identify three core external factors: globalisation, demographic change and the rise of the knowledge
worker. Globally, they see the talent pool in emerging countries growing, but also highly variable in quality,
with significant issues around culture, English language ability and leadership skills. Demographically, they
point to the younger generation bringing different expectations and attitudes to work. (They bring different
sandwiches, too). Meanwhile, a third of US companies have failed to address their ageing workforce.
McKinsey also talk to the complexities of knowledge worker management – and how technology is
beginning to drive changing practice.
Added to this mix are short-termist approaches to talent that leave HR executives feeling trammelled and
trampled by process and procedure. Further, UK salary surveys find top HR people are often underpaid and
undervalued. All in all, not a recipe we recommend trying at home.
Source: McKinsey, Making talent a strategic priority, 2008
Responding to this tangled web – which might be summarised as a failure to get right the ABC of aligning
the H with the R – McKinsey several offer new insights for “the talent war”. First, they suggest looking
below the leader level (which previous work emphasised) at what Aviva call “the vital many” – recognising
both the power of variation within levels, as well as the potential power of social networks that bridge
Next McKinsey refine their ideas around creating powerful “employee value propositions” (EVPs) to include
a recognition that most organisations, by definition, have diverse employee structures – and therefore a
variety of different EVPs and career pathways might obtain. Finally, they emphasise the need to boost,
significantly, the HR function’s role – and credibility – in thinking strategically.
McKinsey refer to this shift in perspective as concentrating more on “the soft side”.
With the greatest respect, the diversity stuff we want to emphasise isn’t soft.
Diversity: the mathematical proof
“People often speak of the importance of tolerating difference. We must move beyond tolerance
and toward making the world a better place. When we peer out of our silos and see people doing
strange things with ketchup (in the cupboard? on eggs?), when we meet people who think
differently than we do, who speak different languages, who have difference experiences, training,
and values, we should see opportunity and possibility. We should recognise that a talented “I” and
a talented “they” can become an even more talented “we.” That happy vision rests not on blind
optimism, or catchy mantras.
It rests on logic. A logic of diversity.”
Scott E Page, closing paragraphs,
The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, 2007
We hear a lot these days about the wisdom of the crowd, crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, open source and
the like. (You can read about them all on Wikipedia, a living breathing demonstration of crowd-powered co-
creation, among over 3.2 million other articles). There is, of course, a lot of complexity underlying these
concepts, but a key feature is that the cost of connecting people has fallen in recent years – until it has
become almost negligible. Forget leafleting the neighbourhood on a rainy night: set up a Facebook page. In
short, we can now work together, on mutual projects, in a variety of clever and innovative ways, across
networks that encircle the globe. As social communication guru Clay Shirky says in his book Here Comes
Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations: “When we change the way we communicate,
we change the world.”
The observation that, under the right conditions, a varied crowd will outperform experts is longstanding.
Aristotle made the insight (see epigraph), and in 1906 the distinguished 85 year old scientist Francis Galton
demonstrated it at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition. 800 people paid sixpence to guess
the weight of a fat ox after it had been slaughtered and ‘dressed’. Although individual guesses varied a
great deal, the average guess among this collection of visitors – not all experts by any means – was 1,197
pounds. The actual weight? 1,198 pounds.
Galton’s 1907 letter to Nature observed that:
The judgements were [unbiased] by passion and uninfluenced by oratory and the like. The sixpenny fee deterred
practical joking, and the hope of a prize and the joy of competition prompted each competitor to do his best. The
competitors included butchers and farmers, some of whom were highly expert in judging the weight of cattle;
others were probably guided by such information as they might pick up, and by their own fancies. The average
competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average
voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge
justly was probably much the same in either case.
James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How
Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations offers a series of demonstrations into
this effect. It’s been verified with stock prices, betting, information markets – even on Who Wants To Be A
Millionaire (where the the crowd’s “ask the audience” hit rate is 9 in 10, far higher than random or the
‘expert’ friends’ 2/3 success rate). Surowiecki notes how several of Galton’s points have since been widely
recognised: the need for independence in individual judgements, the concentrative power of incentives
and, of course, the echoes with democracy.
Scott E. Page, a professor of economic mathematics and social scientist at the University of Michigan says in
his book The Difference – How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies,
that we instinctively think of making crowds smarter. For example, by increasing the average ability of its
members – that expertise thing again – by improving education or recruiting better qualified people. And,
with caveats, this is broadly true. But he also notes that “if we make the individuals more diverse, we get
the same effects: better teams, smarter groups, wiser crowds”. [Emphasis added]
It has taken a diverse collection of clever people, including serious mathematicians, statisticians,
economists, psychologists and others, working together across several papers and presentations, and then
in Page’s book, to fully unpack this more subtle logic and place it on an authoritative footing. And now
there’s proper mathematical proof, we can tuck into the pudding.
Here’s another way to look at the way diversity trumps ability. Imagine a group of top-notch, extremely
bright and undoubtedly well-remunerated experts. (Management consultants, perhaps?). That’s who you’d
choose to solve a difficult problem in need of creative and innovative solutions, right? Wrong. Take 10
experts, all with a way above average IQ. Oxbridge or Ivy League educations. The chances are that they do
in fact bring lots of clever problem-solving ‘tools’ to the table: theories, findings, mental models, particular
perspectives, heuristics (“rules of thumb”), approaches – all that and more. In spiffy suits. Unfortunately
they are likely to share more than their tailors: they probably have many of their ‘power tools’ in common,
too. After all, they were trained in much the same thinking, by many of the same people, in broadly similar
institutions. In short, they’re likely to resemble a monoculture, albeit one with common preppy jeans –
Hilfiger? Ralph Lauren? Jack Wills? – that peppy genes.
Let’s call those experts’ tools A, B, C, D and E. Expert 1 may have tools A, B, C and D nailed. Expert 2,
meanwhile, deploys B,C,D and E (and so on). Basically, there’s an awful lot of overlap. Now set that bunch
against a much more diverse group. Some have high IQs, some are average – maybe there’s someone with
a much lower one. (Some may wear moleskins, kilts – or, whisper it, skirts!) But what tools do they have?
Between them, they may well cover off the experts’ tools, even if one has only A, another just B and C and
someone else C, D and E. But they will also tend – statistically, measurably – to have greater variance (or
diversity) so there may well be an H tool, too, perhaps a J – possibly even an L, M and N. (We’ve taken
control of the O tool, so there’s no need to keep looking for it. Move along now).
So, when the pool of clever solutions needs to really stretch and go beyond the central tendency of A-E,
they’ll win. And they do, repeatedly. “Diversity”, says Page, “trumps skill”.
The mathematical modelling underpinning this agent-based approach is, to be honest, really quite squiggly.
These are intelligent “problem-solving agents”, modelled to act in computationally complex ways. Such
computer simulations are relatively new (we needed computers to come along first), but they’re not easily
dismissed. Some even argue that we’re shifting from a ‘model-based’ view of the world to a ‘simulation-
based’ one. (In fact, it’s likely you have already enjoyed their benefits when getting into a modern car or
onto an aeroplane).
The finding that diversity consistently trumps skill mathematically is rather amazing, to say the least. So
let’s revisit it, only this time without the mathematics. Many examples in Scott Page’s book betray a
distinctive gourmet tendency, so in honour of that we use the (admittedly disputed) claim about what’s
been called Britain’s national dish: chicken tikka masala.
The story goes like this. A customer in a Glasgow curry-house was served chicken tikka, prepared by
Bangladeshi chefs – our “expert group”. The customer was, frankly, ignorant about this famed dish, beloved
of the Mughal Emperors. He was, clearly, no expert. But he did find it “dry”. And he did know about gravy.
So he asked for some. And legend has it that the enterprising Ali Ahmed Aslam, proprietor of Shish Mahal
Restaurant, used spices soaked in a tin of condensed tomato soup to create a sauce: and thus was the first
chicken tikka masala born. A dish so successful it’s now exported back to India.
Whatever the truth of this story, it shows how an entirely new economic category (‘fusion cuisine’) can
bloom from the fruitful meeting of ‘experts’ and ‘others’. More important, it highlights another critical
feature Dr Page demonstrates mathematically: diversity doesn’t merely displace – merely spreading out the
options in case of a rainy day, like, say, a stock portfolio. No: it literally adds. In fact, it shows the quality
mathematicians call ‘superadditivity’. Put another way, you get a sum that is considerably greater than the
And this is why diversity is not merely a good hunting ground for talent – a fine enough reason itself – but
also about real competitive advantage. Because it’s about variety. And the maths of variety, Page
demonstrated (somewhat to his own surprise: so he had it independently checked by a statistician, a
computer scientist and an economist, using different notations) is extraordinary.
With his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and
Societies Dr Page has made a major and readable (even if you do choose to skip the maths bits)
contribution to our thinking around a highly complex but fascinating subject, of relevance to us all. It’s
important, too, because it wrests diversity out of a politicised discourse, and places it on a firm, solid,
scientific – indeed, mathematical – basis. (Frankly, a great relief).
Dr Page also makes a very simple, rather obvious, but extremely important point. When it comes to talent,
we have got to stop thinking in narrow ‘measuring stick’ terms like IQ scores and SAT scores. An IQ score,
incidentally, may sound impressively precise but is merely mental age – itself a controversial concept –
divided by chronological age, multiplied by a hundred for that added precise-number feel. At most it might
range up to 200. Instead, Dr Page argues, we need to think of people as more like a box of tools – and
highly varied tools at that. Such ‘tools’ come in a near infinite variety (that’s a big number that gets even
bigger when tools are combined).
Imagine though that there are just 52 tools in the world, like cards in the pack. Sunny has 20 – a lot, he’s an
expert – and Jim has 12. He no expert. We’d instinctively assume Sunny was a better ‘choice’ than Jimmy.
But what are the chances that Sunny has mastered all the tools Jimmy has? Assuming a serious guess is not
in your bailiwick, and that the tools are independent (i.e. you didn’t need to master tools in a ladder-like
series), the odds are quite high. In fact, they are nearly 1 in 290 million or about 3.5 in a billion. In a world
where talented people’s tools number rather more than fifty-two – there are nearly that many in this list of
suggested competencies for effective leadership in an organization – the numbers quickly becomes
This is a very different way of looking at diversity. (Looping back to our collection of experts, in groups as
small as 15 to 20, given a complex problem and a reasonably bright bunch, a big gain in diversity quickly,
mathematically, outstrips gains in individual ability).
There’s a big issue here: essentially, we need to redefine what we mean by ‘diversity’ to breathe useful
lessons into organisations. We must go beyond the monoculture, and then beyond the crude response to
that monoculture: “mix in something different”. Metaphorically, we need to start really painting with the
full palette of colours that diversity represents. (Interestingly, we think of the rainbow as seven colours –
red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. We can name many variations like turquoise, Saxe-
Coburg blue, Prussian blue, and artists can name many more. Yet the human eye can distinguish 10 million
colours – about ten times the entire number of words in the English language)
As if that insight weren’t enough, Dr Page has a further killer proof, what he calls the “Diversity Trumps
Ability Theorem.” The implications are extraordinary for something that looks as simple and elegant as this:
[Crowd Error] = [Average Error] – [Diversity]
As he puts it, “our collective ability is equal parts individual ability and collective difference” [Emphasis
Essentially we tend to consider ‘society’ (or, say, a large organisation) as the ‘sum of its parts’. It’s a crowd,
and we tend to think of its ‘error-rate’ (it’s failure to reach heaven on earth as it were) as the average error
summed across all those individuals. But the mathematics of this theorem – and this is proper, grown-up,
maths like Pythagoras’ Theorem – highlights something much more profound: diversity isn’t a small player
in this game.
In short, diversity is as important as ability.
Put simply, we can reap major benefits from diversity if we can learn to share our tools – because by so
doing, we can solve more problems, be more creative – and add economic value.
In the real world, if we wish to keep innovating and avoid the perils of group think, says Page:
[W]e must encourage the creation of new and diverse perspectives. We should invite physicists into chemistry
departments, psychologists into economic departments, and political scientists into business schools. We should
include engineers in marketing meetings and marketers in engineering meetings. And when forming committees
and teams, we should choose people who come from different backgrounds and have diverse identities. If not,
we’re shutting out perspectives. We’re slamming the door on potential savants…
...These results have implications for organizational forms and management styles, especially for problem-
solving firms and organizations. In an environment where competition depends on continuous innovation and
introduction of new products, firms with organizational forms that take advantage of the power of functional
diversity should perform well.
A few obvious caveats: communication between diverse people needs to be good, individuals need to be
pretty bright – and the problems relatively complex. But satisfy those criteria – which most organisations
seeking talent do – and you’re getting close to a new recipe for talent.
There is, frankly, a lot more to it than that – in terms of the evidence, the theorem’s structure, the
mathematical proofs, and the insights that fall out of this work. We strongly recommend interested readers
explore this highly original work via Scott E Page’s homepage or the peer-reviewed research paper in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. (Yes, it’s as prestigious as
it sounds – Abraham Lincoln created the Academy in 1863, shortly after its cousin, the Royal Society of
London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, or Royal Society, was founded in 1660). A much better
option for interested lay readers in The Difference book or if you prefer, you can go online and attend his
video lecture. As the Russian proverb has it, “trust, but verify.”
Indeed, even a cursory glance through an international collection of proverbs – themselves, of course, the
product of countless variations that have been created, selected for and then amplified down the years –
demonstrates another key feature of Page’s work: the power (and magic) of diverse cognitive perspectives,
tools, heuristics and models. Page unpacks these concepts to help us see clearly both the underlying
mathematics (yes, well, moving swiftly on) and the different ways in which cognitive diversity operates:
Diverse Perspectives Ways of representing situations and problems
Diverse Interpretations Ways of categorizing or partitioning perspectives
Diverse Heuristics Ways of generating solutions to problems
Diverse Predictive Models Ways of inferring cause and effect
This analysis also helps confer a deeper sense of how diverse ‘toolboxes’ play out in terms of identity
diversity as a kind of proxy for cognitive diversity:
The claim s not that identity differences produce benefits directly but rather that they do so through the diverse
cognitive tools that the various identities foster. A person’s age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, and
physical appearance influence her life experiences. They contribute to how that person sees and interprets events,
outcomes and situations – that is, experiences change the composition of each person’s toolbox.
There’s a lot more to this than we have room for, and we have barely done justice to this breakthrough
work. (Mathematicians – they’re so precise, aren’t they?) Nevertheless, we hope we’ve stimulated your
curiosity enough to look further and deeper into these profound findings.
The show must go on
“We need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
Given the degree to which the “diversity agenda” has so often been politicised, it is perhaps unsurprising
that the more interesting work on the subject has quietly been happening elsewhere, among scientists and
technologists for whom diversity is simply an interesting ‘property’.
To a telecommunications engineer, a diversity scheme is not about sitting in a room being told how to
behave: it’s a way to improve a signal’s reliability (and so reduce fading) by using two or more
communication channels with different characteristics. To a biologist, diversity is a crucial measure of the
health of an ecosystem. (2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity). To an agronomist, diversity is the
way to reduce monoculture’s susceptibility to disease. (Highly relevant is you want to avoid famines or
enjoy a reliable cup of coffee). To an historian, the reduction in knowledge-diversity created by Spain’s 1492
expulsion of the Jews is one explanation of Spain’s failure to capitalize on the enormous wealth it was
shortly to acquire in the New World (Columbus returned from the Americas that very year). There’s a lot of
variance in diversity.
For engineer, sociologist and lifelong fan of Broadway musicals Brian Uzzi, holder of the Richard L. Thomas
Distinguished chair in leadership at the Kellogg School of Management, diversity offers a lens to look at
successful teams. Together with Luis Nunes Amaral, Roger Guimerà and Jarrett Spiro, whose diverse and
multidisciplinary backgrounds include chemical and biological engineering, sociology and organisational
behaviour, he looked at what makes for a Broadway success. And it’s not catchy songs.
Uzzi took a data set of all the Broadway musicals that opened between 1945 and 1989 – 321 of them and,
as Prospect report, looked closely at whether the top team – producers, director, choreographers and
writers – had worked together before:
After crunching the statistics, he discovered something remarkable. Teams who had never worked together,
perhaps unsurprisingly, fared poorly: their “weak” networks meant a lack of creative vision, and lots of duds. And
at the other extreme, teams that had worked together successfully also tended to produce flops… Groups with
exactly the right mix of new and old participants reliably produced hits. This variation in the “density” of the ties
allowed easy communication and fostered greater creativity – new ideas from the outsiders meshed with the
experience of the insiders. It didn’t matter if a musical was about cats or rollerskating trains, or who starred in it.
Its success came down to the structure of the network binding its team together. The same thing has been found
to be true of scientific invention or business innovation.
So there you have it. Dream teams need diversity – but different types of diversity.
“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”
W. Edwards Deming
American consultant, Japanese guru, founder of Total Quality Management (TQM)
Deploying diverse talent is as much art as science. Like cooking, getting the right ingredients in place is just
the start. Billions of dollars have been spent on diversity training and other initiatives. And billions of dollars
have been lost as a result of reduced diversity in decision-making. The research picture on the recent global
downturn has yet to emerge, but a recent finding, based on looking at 2.7 million – yes, million – investors,
found that during the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis, men were much more likely than women to sell at
stock market lows. It’s critical to understand though that we can’t say “women are better than men” here
(although obviously we can say it at home, where it’s clearly true): because the differences among women,
and the differences among men, are greater than the differences between men and women. The point is
that the underlying diversity counts: on the bottom line.
You would expect diversity specialists to offer a highly diverse range of strategic and tactical services to
organisations. But in a case of “physician heal thyself”, all too often that simply isn’t the case. Again, this
comes back, in part, to the ideological nature of much of the diversity narrative – itself emerging from the
‘equal opportunities’ “agenda”. (Anyone familiar with student politics, or Stalin’s purges, will be aware that
among ideologues, any real diversity of thought is often to be ruthlessly expunged. This is perhaps most
perfectly captured in this discussion – with one or two swearwords, be warned – of the ‘splitters’ of the
Judean People’s Front).
The initiatives emerging from Diverse Leaders are rather more concerned with practical progress. This
means generating a lively and varied range of diverse approaches. Then making sure they’re demonstrably
innovative (after all, one of the key benefits of diversity), while stripping away the cant and worthiness that
can be so off-putting – and being utterly indifferent to whether you prefer your coffee black, white, “with
milk” or whatever else the self-appointed language police have dreamt up that day. It’s about removing
shackles, not adding new ones.
So what does that look like in real terms? Well, recently we’ve been focussing on developing a global
conversation among leaders about diversity. (This paper is a contribution to that discussion). A diverse
conversation, of course, as we bring together a wide array of talented leaders to meet each other – with an
instant gain in cross-fertilising diverse perspectives among those leaders that immediately underlines the
benefits of mixing outside ‘the usual suspects’.
We’re tapping into sets of networks that aren’t always as obviously ‘visible’ as those traditionally used, but
that are distinctive and powerful nonetheless. And we are connecting networks to networks, adding yet
another order of diversity.
We also hate being lectured to in a boring drone (with lots and lots and lot of Powerpoint slides, naturally)
as much as you do. So we sometimes play games. Games that add the spice of competition to create a
learning environment, one which works without the whiff of a show trial.
Mentoring the career pathways of the leaders of tomorrow, and helping organisations ‘garden’ their
diversity, is another major element of our work, and again, it’s carefully done to ensure that innovative
connections are a prime outcome too.
We know that firms without visible diversity attract less diverse applicants (because they’re less attractive),
so we also look at existing diversity (it’s often there, you just may have failed to see it) and also creating
new opportunities to show it in action. Our Talent Boutiques, for instance, pull together all sorts of people,
outside the usual hierarchies, and with a strong social component (humans being the social animal par
“Variety’s the very spice of life,” wrote the poet William Cowper, “That gives it all its flavour”. And diversity
is the spice of variety. There are by definition no ‘one size fits all’ solutions. As soon as someone offers that,
they’re demonstrating a failure to understand the essence of variation.
So our approach is evolutionary. We generate lots of varied approaches, select the ones that work for the
particular organisational environment, and then amplify the results with strategic and tactical programmes.
It’s not rocket science, but it does involve a lot of contextual expertise and paying careful attention to the
context of cross-cultural communication. Because even rocket scientists can get that wrong sometimes, as
Scott E Page recounts:
In 1999, NASA’s 125 million-dollar Mars Climate Orbiter was lost forever owing to miscommunication across
perspectives. The orbiter had traveled some 416 million miles to get to Mars, only to have its navigators
misinterpret English measurements for metric measurements... The story of the orbiter’s demise is that simple.
Lockheed Martin programmed the computer using pounds, an English unit of force. Jet propulsion Laboratory
navigators thought that their instructions were being sent in Newtons, a metric unit of force...The thruster rockets
had been fired many times during the voyage but the discrepancy... had gone unnoticed...and the orbiter crashed
into the atmosphere. Oops.
We’re already seeing research showing that as tasks become more complex, so too does the need for, and
benefits from, diversity. (And of course we’re seeing the world get more complex every day). As Taylor Cox
Jr., the key founder of this area of research reports in a detailed review of the evidence base:
Bowers (2000) reviewed data from 13 studies involving a total of 2,258 people. The types of diversity included
gender, personality and ability. Measures of performance included some combination of the quality, quantity and
accuracy of teamwork. He concluded that although none of these types of diversity appeared to have significant
direct effects on team performance, when the task to be performed was rated as highly difficult (complex),
significant performance advantages occurred for the diverse groups compared to the homogeneous groups.
Also interesting is another finding in the research literature, which suggests that if teams are given
‘diversity training’ in a way that implies an obligatory style of almost political education, it doesn’t work
very well. (There’s a surprise). But focus on the benefits, explain that diverse teams are better, cleverer,
more innovative and more competitive – as the research indicates – and you start getting impressive
We think this is because it’s being honest – and excited – about the possibilities, rather than obliging others
to pay lip service to a particular worldview. (Never a pleasure, frankly: think of those conversations where
you’ve felt socially obliged to feign an interest in someone’s personal obsession with, say, a wheat-free diet,
or the latest developments in Formula 1 engines).
Getting it right is about combining expertise with variation. It’s about getting the ingredients in place and
the recipe right. We live in an age where we can put a lifetime’s endeavour – say, the complete works of JS
Bach – onto a chip smaller than a baby’s nail. Our iPods contain multitudes of varieties, designed to shape
and support our different tastes, at different moments. We can watch Shakespeare – himself a master of
the mashup as he trawled previous creations for stories – in musicals and in minutes. As the Bard wrote:
“The world is your oyster”.
Diversity is a powerful tool we can use to see deeper, wider and further. The individual genius may get us a
long way, but in a world of teams, that last little bit may come from unexpected directions. (As that noted
genius Isaac Newton observed: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”)
Diversity is everywhere – it always has been, and always will be.
It’s time to use its power to cook up something we can all enjoy – and be nourished by.
“We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to
his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature.
But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as
immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.”
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859)
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
Child with speech difficulties
School entrance exam failure
Nobel Prize winner