Cognitive diversity to improve innovation

By Vasu Kolla (@vasukolla)

Ahead of Day 2 of our Design Thinking Workshop where participants bring back their working prototype to showcase to the judges, user experience expert Vasu Kolla shares what cognitive diversity is, and how some practices can help improve our thinking for better insights and solutions in our personal and professional life.

How can we improve our thinking for better insights?

Big companies that fail to innovate risk extinction. That’s the stark truth in the era of “digital disruption“. – BBC News

Organisations big and small are under pressure to be innovative in order to survive and succeed. Most organisations accept that employers benefit from a diverse workforce. New research proves that diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth.

There is a lot of attention given to diversity and inclusion at the workplace. In most cases, the conversations are around inherent diversity. This includes traits people are born with, such as gender, race, religion, and ethnicity. However, there is no strong correlation between inherent diversity and improved innovation. There might be societal and political reasons to aim for inherent diversity, but recent research has shown that what actually correlates with better performance is higher cognitive diversity.

Cognitive diversity has been defined as differences in perspectives or information processing styles. The focus is on how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations.  – Harvard Business Review

From the research so far the ‘cognition’ in ‘cognitive diversity’ refers to variation in team members backgrounds and experience, their knowledge, skills and abilities, their attitudes, perspectives and beliefs, or a combination of these characteristics.

How can we improve our ‘cognition’ in ‘cognitive diversity?

Given that cognitive diversity is the key to innovation, how can we improve our own cognition? It starts with changing the way we think.

A new type of thinking is essential if the mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels. – Albert Einstein

It is possible to cultivate a way of thinking and being that encourages breakthrough insights more often. The difficulty is that we often cannot separate beliefs that are formed through experiences from reality. Reality is something that is out there and concrete, whether you believe it or not.

So what can we do to break our own beliefs to see things in a new perspective? In the book Liminal Thinking, Dave Gray recommends nine practices to improve our thinking:

1. Assume that you are not objective

It is easy for us to see problems in others, but challenging to see problems in ourselves. If we are unwilling to acknowledge our own contributions to a problem, we will never see a situation clearly. The Johari window is a technique that helps people better understand the relationships between themselves and others, and is a great way to start.

2. Empty your cup

You cannot learn new things without letting go of old things. You can only do so by suspending judgement. In Zen practice, this is called the ‘Beginner’s mind’. Take on an attitude of openness, curiosity, and eagerness to learn. Have an open mind, and allow yourself to feel “dumb” and vulnerable.

3. Create a safe space

Throughout our life, we learn to avoid making mistakes and looking stupid. We also develop emotional defenses to protect our views of ourselves—to protect our ego. Protecting our ego and fear are two major inhibitors of innovation.

David Rock of the Neuro Leadership Institute has developed a brain science-based model for thinking about emotional needs to create a safe space for innovation, called the SCARF model. It states that when your basic emotional needs are met, you do better work. When you feel valued and important, you perform at much higher levels. When you have a sense of control, you take initiative. When you feel a sense of belonging, you contribute more. And when you feel you are treated fairly, you will go the extra mile.

4. Triangulate and validate

Look at situations from as many points of view as possible. Consider the possibility that seemingly different or contradictory beliefs may in fact be valid. If something does not make sense to you, then you are missing something. Try to cultivate as many theories as you can — including some that may seem odd or counter-intuitive — and hold on to them loosely. By doing so, you can start to ask questions and seek valid information to understand what is really going on.

5. Ask questions, make connections

Asking questions allows you to find in-between spaces that you may not have seen or considered. Use these spaces to find intersections between needs and solutions, and form new connections. Many new opportunities are already latent in the system, waiting to be discovered.

6. Disrupt routines

Many beliefs are embedded in habitual routines that run on autopilot. If a routine is a problem, disrupt that routine for new possibilities. Whenever you are stuck in any kind of recurring pattern, try something random. Anything you can do to throw the train off the rails will create new openings and help you to see a situation in a new way.

7. Act in the here and now

You can test beliefs even if you believe they are untrue. All you need to do is act as if they were true, and see what happens. If you find something that works, do more of it. Change is only possible in the here and now, and the way to create change is by acting in the here and now — as if that new world already exists.

8. Make sense with stories

People tend to make sense of facts through their own belief systems. The best way to promote a new or different belief is not through facts, but stories. Stories are the best way for you to share an experience so others can learn from it.

9. Evolve yourself

If you can be open about how change affects you personally, you have a better chance of achieving your aims. To change the world, you must be willing to change yourself.

Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

Focusing on inherent diversity because it is easy to measure will not make us innovative. We need to embrace cognitive diversity to solve complex problems, so that true innovation and disruption can happen.

Vasu Kolla is a user experience designer at Pebble Road, where he leads strategy and design of digital products. His work focuses on the design of websites and apps – specialising in digital strategy, design research, interaction design and usability testing.

A former instructor at General Assembly, Vasu also contributes to the local design community through IxDA Singapore and teaching at various institutes. He has a Master’s in Information Systems from NTU and recently spoke at Slush Singapore on the ethics of UX.


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