Building cognitive diversity

In the Institute’s work on best practice investment committees, we used the maxim (when talking about the composition of the committee) “if you can’t change the people, change the people”. Depending on your organisation’s politics and culture, one form of change will generally be preferred to another. We believe that the ultimate objective should be to improve the collective intelligence of the committee, a measure which is facilitated by developing greater cognitive diversity.

Managing the composition (of a group, team, committee, etc) is only one aspect of building collective intelligence. A major positive impact can be achieved by introducing constructive processes to get the most out of the people involved. In this thread, I describe two approaches below. There are others, and we’d welcome contributions based on your experience of what has worked.

The art of the pre-mortem

Simply put, a pre-mortem involves envisioning a failure scenario over a medium-term time horizon, and brain-storming, with the “benefit of hindsight” what could have been done to avoid such an outcome. The principle behind a pre-mortem is that it makes it easier for those who have concerns about a project to express them. Committee members should write down what “went wrong” independently, to generate a wider spectrum of ideas and avoid being influenced by the views of others.

Research by the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence highlights the need for turn-taking and social sensitivity in order to optimise a team’s collective intelligence. The pre-mortem hard-wires these into the discussion process: turn-taking is facilitated by having members explain their reasons for the project’s failure, and social sensitivity is (artificially, perhaps) improved by forcing the committee/team to deal with their (hypothetical) accountability in the face of a bad outcome.

Appointing a devil’s advocate

This approach seeks to deliberately create a dissenting view within a team that is otherwise in agreement on a particular strategy. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, David Burkus explains: “Conflict is an indicator that diverse viewpoints are being considered and that the competition for ideas is still ongoing.” The article discusses how Pixar have reframed the devil’s advocate approach into a more positive technique (which they call plussing) where new ideas are seen as additive to the project plan. This process supports a wider spectrum of views, and brings out diversity of thought that might otherwise have been suppressed.

While neither of the above tools are novel, they are probably under-used. Daniel Kahnemann cites anchoring and a bias to overconfidence, particularly among leaders, as crucial barriers to creativity and considering the full range of potential solutions. Despite being aware of them, the investment industry is not immune to these pitfalls. . The key to testing a plan’s robustness seems to be to stress-test it from as many conceivable angles as possible. To quote Voltaire “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”