Investigating diversity's impact on problem solving
Have you ever been stuck on something?
You’re trying to imagine a solution to a problem, and despite all of your expertise and experience, you simply cannot think of anything that would work.
Perhaps you’re trying to solve a difficult equation. Maybe you’re trying to write an article, and you have no idea how to begin. Or you’re looking for your keys, and retracing your steps isn’t working for you. But as soon as you ask someone for help, the answer becomes obvious. It was in front of you the whole time.
We solve problems by first looking at our own experiences, habits, culture and understanding of the world.
This helps us efficiently determine whether or not we have faced such a problem before, and how we can go about solving it. Psychologists call this framework for problem solving a “mental set.”
A more involved definition from the American Psychological Association defines it as follows: “a temporary readiness to perform certain psychological functions that influences the response to a situation or stimulus, such as the tendency to apply a previously successful technique in solving a new problem.”
Mental sets are incredibly useful. They help us save valuable time and energy in the decision making process. But mental sets can also hamper our abilities to problem solve, because of those same biases towards previous knowledge.
Our brains are wired to efficiently process information, and part of that requires using our own previous experience to solve future problems. That can be limiting. But what if we bring in a new perspective? What happens to our ability to problem solve then?
The impact of diversity:
Let’s say you’re drafting a marketing plan for your company. As you work on this task, you’ll likely think of the marketing efforts of companies you’ve encountered in your life, as well as any previous marketing plans or strategies you created.
Your goal as a marketer is to imagine someone else’s problem and offer a solution. But so far, you’re using your own experience and knowledge to do just that.
By bringing one other person into the process, you’re already combining two people’s separate experiences and knowledge. You’re already closer to approximating what another person might feel, by inviting diversity and including it in the decision-making process.
Let’s get specific.
That’s the simple case for the impact of diversity: the concept that people with different experiences bring greater value to the collaborative process.
Diversity has come to signify many things, from that simple concept to political and social reimagination. But ultimately, the truth of it really is that simple.
But let’s take a deeper look at what diversity brings to the table. Hypotheticals are one thing, real world results are another.
Deloitte, citing Juliet Bourke’s Which Two Heads Are Better Than One?, posits that a diverse group is more innovative, whilst simultaneously spotting and adjusting for more risks.
By eliminating any chance of groupthink, an organization can actually boost innovative thinking by 20%, and reduce risks by 30%. The same source notes that innovative cultures are six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.
Looking at a study posted in the Harvard Business Review back in 2017, we can see this in action. According to the study, teams with greater diversity of perspective and knowledge were able to quickly and successfully complete tasks, while those with less diversity took longer, and sometimes failed.
Diverse teams are well equipped to solve problems. But as the world becomes more connected, a second argument for diversity emerges.
Diversity leads to stronger products, creating solutions that impact a larger group of people. Diverse teams not only achieve better results, but wider-reaching results too.
And with consumers beginning to look into the inclusivity of companies they buy from – in Deloitte’s 2017 study, 50% of customers made a purchasing decision based on an organizations support for equality – business need to be looking at diversity on both sides of the equation to maximize success.
What it all means
It’s clear to see that diverse inputs are beneficial across the board, but now what?
How do we take tangible action here?
The first step is looking inwards. Who are you taking to? What are the news sources you’re looking at? How do you get your information?
As you diversify your own supply chain of ideas and input, you’ll be able to make larger changes, perhaps at work or in your personal projects.
To look back to our marketing plan example, perhaps you can share your plan with a few friends who work in different sectors. You could look into marketing plans for other businesses, and even other industries. And, of course, you can bring new people into the fold: ideally with different experiences than your own.
Our mental sets might channel our brains in particular ways, but our first judgement or thought might not always be the best option. It’s hard to truly create impact when you’re operating in your own head, without diversity.
By bringing in new ideas, outside perspective, and taking time to get outside of your own head, you’ll find yourself getting stuck less. Ultimately, different backgrounds promote understanding and collaboration, and help us become the best we can be.