Diversity management, according to "The Wisdom of Crowds" author James Surowiecki, has two main hurdles: overcoming a natural tendency to associate with similar people and the need to develop trust. That's why it's so hard to get different ways of thinking in organizations.
Surowiecki presented these key insights on diversity management from his book at DiversityInc's Innovation Fest! Click here to view all of the Innovation Fest! presentations.
The audience noted the relationship between innovation, business success and cultures that encourage opinions and ideas from people from different backgrounds. He discussed how the collective intelligence from a diverse group of individuals more frequently delivers a more viable and innovative solution than from an individual or group of homogenous individuals, even those with higher IQs.
For example, he noted that when a game-show contestant is given an opportunity to poll the audience for a correct answer, the audience gets it right 91 percent of the time.
The reason the wisdom of crowds works—and why it's especially valuable in a large organization—is because it provides access to an unspoken diverse knowledge base and bypasses bureaucratic obstacles, such as information hoarding and a disrupted flow of information.
But Surowiecki did have a stipulation: The group must be diverse so everyone can make different kinds of mistakes. "Problems arise when the group is homogeneous—that's when you make poor decisions. Diversity is fundamental in that sense."
Going Against the Crowd
Actually achieving this diversity, however, is a challenge for diversity-management leaders, as it goes against human nature, Surowiecki said. "We like to work with people who are like us and who we agree with. It's easier; it's smoother and runs well," he said, noting that "we need to get over that. The best decisions don't emerge out of a quick consensus."
The fundamental key, he said, is finding comfort in that disagreement. There needs to be an established trust between individuals—i.e., between company leaders and their employees—so that people can have candid conversations and voice their opinions. "It's not easy to get people to say what they think," said Surowiecki. "We are worried about what others think of us. We don't want to appear too far from the center."
"Diversity makes it easier for people to think for themselves," said Surowiecki. He pointed out that crowds are wisest when people act as much like individuals as possible, as independence is fostered by having diverse points of view.
"This is why having diversity advocates really matters. We need people who can really push for it, who can foreground the benefits of diversity and remind us why it matters," said Surowiecki.