If Your Company Is Going to Succeed Today, It Needs to Leverage Intellectual Diversity

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PlaneImagine you are sitting in a conference room. You and various other members of the company are discussing a major new marketing initiative (or any sort of business strategy or plan, really). Now, imagine that, out all the people sitting in this room with you, two stand out to you in particular:

  1. Person A is quick with their words, a loud, passionate speaker. It is clear that, whenever Person A speaks, they are confident about what they have to say, and this confidence is contagious.
  2. Person B is much quieter. When Person B does speak, they’re usually asking a question. They use a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in their speech. Person B also seems to look around the room a lot. Sometimes, it doesn’t even seem like they are paying attention to what others are saying.

How do you feel about each of these people? If you’re like most of us, you probably look at Person A and think, “Wow, now that person is smart.” On the other hand, you probably discount Person B as relatively useless. After all, they aren’t contributing to the discussion! They’re just asking a bunch of questions.

The problem is that Person B may be in the process of formulating a breakthrough idea that will take your marketing initiative (or whatever it is) to the next level — except, Person B will likely get drowned out as all the attendees of the meeting latch on to Person A’s charismatic style.

Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking With People Who Think Differently, a new book from Dawna Markova, Ph.D. and CEO emeritus of Professional Thinking Partners, and Angie McArthur, current CEO of Professional Thinking Partners, aims to address precisely this problem — that is, our lack of ability to understand and leverage intellectual diversity.

Markova and McArthur define collaborative intelligence as “the measure of your ability to think with others on behalf of what matters to you all.”

“The premise of the book is that we understand diversity when it comes to culture, race, and sex, but we don’t really understand thinking diversity, nor do we have the tools to leverage it — especially in the meeting place at work,” McArthur explains.

The book, which centers around four strategies for activating collaborative intelligence, seeks to help people and companies “actually leverage diversity, instead of having it be a barrier,” McArthur says.

To learn more about what collaborative intelligence is and why it matters, I sat down for a long chat with McArthur via phone. What follows is a transcript of our talk, minimally edited for style and clarity.

Recruiter.com: Why is now the time for collaborative intelligence to come to the forefront in our lives? What makes the matter so pressing? Girl

Angie McArthur: Never before have we had to work across so many different barriers and boundaries. For example, I was on the phone this morning with a man from India. I’ve never met the man before in my life. At work today, we really have to understand how diversity shows up — not only culturally, but also in terms of thinking diversity.

I also don’t know of one single challenge that we’re facing right now that doesn’t require some of the greatest minds to show up with their full capacity. Especially the young minds coming out of college, the millennials — they have so many great fresh ideas, so many great abilities that we want to capitalize on. How do we bring that more to the forefront?

We have a lot of old, stagnant ways of thinking together, but what I think this time requires of us is ways in which we can really think together across time zones, boundaries, age differences, etc., because the challenges that we are facing are so extraordinary.

RC: You mentioned earlier that you define collaborative intelligence as “the measure of your ability to think with others on behalf of what matters to you all.” Can you expand on that?

AM: This work came from sitting boarding meetings and corporate meeting headquarters all over the world for the last 50 years, watching what was happening. We saw how homogeneous many teams had become in their thinking. Companies would hire us to help them understand what their real issues were, and the challenge always turned out to be: we hire people who think just like we do.

When someone is completely different from us — when they show up with different behaviors and different ways of thinking — we tend to reject them. That’s because these differences don’t show up in tiny, neat packages. There’s a breakdown when these differences show up.

For example, say I’m highly procedural, and I’m looking for timelines and specific ways to roll out a strategy. Then, I go to a meeting, and someone there is saying things like, “Wait, what if we do this? What if we could do this?” I may see that person as “pie in the sky” or way too crazy. I’m going to reject their thinking before I’ve even heard it. This is what happens over and over and over again.

What our work does is try to give you a framework to quickly understand the differences of thinking that are in the room. We have all these really quick ways in which we start seeing people and we discount their thinking because of how we were raised, how we go to school. We don’t consider that there are actually many ways that people pay attention and therefore participate in their thinking in any collaborative effort.

RC: How did you guys go about developing the four strategies in this book?

AM: The first strategy, which is all about mind patterns, is my coauthor Dawna Markova’s life work. This is what we consider the “hardware” of the mind. Mind patterns are the ways in which we think, learn, and communicate that are the most natural and innate to each of us.

CashIn this society, we tend to value only a focused state of attention. When you look really alert and alive, we value that as the only form of attention. In fact, we generate ideas and come up with insights and have total breakthroughs in our thinking when our minds slightly space out — when they get wider and more open.

When we’re in meeting rooms and we’re trying to collaborate with one another, we have to know what our unique ways are of generating those open states of attention. Without that, we become mechanized and homogeneous. For some, they may need to get up and wander around the room; others may need to talk an issue through; others may need to spend an hour drawing ways in which a strategy can play out. These are all ways of thinking — but we don’t invite them into the meeting place. We stagnate and limit the capacities in the room.

The other three strategies are basically there to help you, as an individual, to understand your own mind and your own thinking process. You can build your own capacity, and by understanding yourself, you then build up your understanding of other people. When differences show up in the room, you don’t discount them.

It’s like seeing an orchestra. If you just hear an entire orchestra playing at once, you don’t necessarily see the wind instruments or see the string instruments, but once you start to see all those different components, you see what is missing, what you need more of, and what you might need less of.

The four strategies help us to better understand other people’s ways of thinking. As diversity shows up in the room, we can actually use that diversity — not discount it.

RC: Usually, when we talk about diversity, we just focus on things like race and gender. We don’t often think about diversity of intelligence or thought. How optimistic are you that this concept will catch on with people? Do you think people will understand it – that it will become a form of diversity that we readily recognize?

AM: I think that’s already started. Look at companies that have been able to make breakthroughs. Look not at the content of what they’re doing, but how they generated those ideas. There’s usually a very untraditional setting. When you look at how the best ideas are brought forth, it’s not the old-fashioned way of sitting around a meeting room and talking it out.

Look at the Google campus, where they have these conference bikes, and people bike around the campus while exchanging ideas. That’s an example of thinking diversity.

I also think the millennials are really driving the concept of thinking diversity to the forefront. Many of them are so frustrated with how we’ve been doing things.

And technology pushes us in new ways, too. Dawn and I wrote this book over Skype. She lives 3,000 miles away from me. Eight hours a day, we collaborated, using tech to support us. When we were stuck in our thinking, we were able to overcome by understanding how each of us is different and what each of us needed in that moment to get unstuck.

So, yes — I’m really optimistic.

By Matthew Kosinski