An effective brainstorming team has what Harvard Business Review calls “cognitive diversity,” which they define as “differences in perspective or information processing styles.”
This diversity in thinking, more than gender, ethnicity and age diversity, was found to contribute to better problem solving in teams.
The unsurprising conclusion is that more heads are better than one only if the heads contain different ideas, so assemble a team that has diverse ways of thinking.
Why this is hard
When assembling a team, whether you are the hiring manager or the person in charge of putting together a brainstorming group, we all risk falling into the trap of what Lauren Rivera, Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management calls cultural matching, wherein we choose team members in our own image.
Today it is likely that most people are conscious of obvious biases like ethnicity, age and gender. Even so, it can be hard to resist more commonplace prejudices.
Rivera quoted one participant in her study, who said:
“One of my main criteria is what I call the ‘stranded in the airport test.’ Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them? And if I’m on a business trip for two days and I have to have dinner with them, is it the kind of person I enjoy hanging with? And you also have to have some basic criteria, skills and smarts or whatever, but you know, but if they meet that test, it’s most important for me.”
This question implies that there are certain personalities (probably like their own) that this person would favour.
But not too hard
Nobody said diversity was easy, but there are ways to make it less hard.
First, selecting a team without bias does not mean throwing all criteria to the wind – you are still free to select people who will make positive contributions. This means choosing people with expertise, an appropriate work ethic and respect for others.
Second, as a leader of a brainstorming team, you are free to set the rules of the table so that everybody’s time and contributions are respected and expected. Diversity doesn’t have to mean a descent into chaos. There needs to be psychological safety for every member of your team.
Psychological safety means making people safe to contribute with conviction. It means that participants encourage input from others and build on it in a spirit of learning and experimentation.
Why it’s worth it
A Harvard Business Review article The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams identified cognitive diversity and psychological safety as the strongest predictors of organizations that generated the best ideas.
Who knows – maybe one of those people who rubbed you the wrong way in the interview can figure out what to do – despite being stranded in an airport.
It worked in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.