How Diversity Improves Collaborative Problem-Solving

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Is diversity necessarily a good thing when it comes to solving problems? We tend to assume that we’ll get better results from groups of people from different backgrounds and possessing a variety of skills than we we would from groups with a single orientation. That means diversity of many types, not only differences of culture, ethnicity and gender, but also variety of expertise, intellectual perspective, values and interests. They are all important for collaborative public policy.

We may believe in the value of diversity from intuition, ideological conviction and personal experience. But do we have rigorous models and empirical evidence to support this belief?

Scott Page says that both logic and evidence prove the benefits of diversity in his thought-provoking book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies How Diversity Improves Collaborative Problem Solving.

Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics, provides a firm basis for the value of diversity, but the case he presents is not a simple one.

Cognitive Diversity

He finds that all forms of diversity are not equally effective. To get to his main conclusion. It’s the differences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems that most often lead to better outcomes. This is what he calls cognitive diversity. Variety in the way problems are framed and interpreted helps a group get unstuck when a single approach can’t produce a workable solution.

Differing ways of looking at the world, interpreting experience, solving problems and predicting future possibilities work together to produce a distinctive mental tool set. Groups with this sort of variety consistently outperform groups working with a single problem-solving perspective.

Identity Diversity

When it comes to convening a collaborative policy group, though, diversity usually refers to cultural, ethnic and gender balance. Identity diversity, as Page sees it, satisfies the crucial need for fairness and equity, but, by itself, doesn’t ensure better problem-solving. Again, the picture is complicated because there are many forms of identity diversity – culture, gender, age, socio-economic status, among others. The evidence of this study points to cultural diversity as having the most significant impact. Read more »

                        author

John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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