By Victor Assad

We have long advocated the importance of cognitive diversity for successful innovation. Successful innovation teams have much higher cognitive diversity. The trick is identifying cognitive diversity among people for more successful teams.

Recent articles document the success of cognitive diversity over demographic diversity with innovation teams.  We have been particularly guided by the research of Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, who have worked with executive teams of university classroom students on innovation and published their findings in the Harvard Business Review.  

Innovation teams need cognitive diversity

They run a strategic exercise with executive groups focused on managing new, uncertain, and complex situations. They note that the conventional wisdom is that the more diverse the teams in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender, the more creative and productive they are likely to be. “But having run the execution exercise around the world more than 100 times over the last 12 years,” they say, “we have found no correlation between this type of diversity and performance.” 

Cognitive diversity, Reynolds and Lewis note, has been defined as differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age. Here, the authors are interested in a specific aspect of cognitive diversity: how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations. 

They have run a strategic execution exercise more than 100 times and observed big differences in the performance of teams. They decided to use their exercise to measure the level of cognitive diversity in groups. Their analysis across six teams who recently undertook the exercise shows a significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance.  

They discovered that three teams that completed the challenge in good time (teams A, B, and C) all had diversity of both knowledge processes and perspectives, as indicated by a larger standard deviation. The three that took longer or failed to complete (D, E, and F) all had less diversity, as indicated by a lower standard deviation. 

Reynolds and Lewis point out in their HBR article that cognitive preferences are established when we are young. They are independent of our education, culture, and other social conditioning.  

My observation is that many organizations use academic training and professions to generate cognitive diversity in teams. Often, innovation teams have members from different organizational departments and professions. For example, teams may be set up with a chemist, mechanical engineer, electronic engineer, quality engineer, manufacturing engineer, clinical trial expert, and members of marketing. This is a good start and an easy process to begin to generate cognitive diversity. As the authors point out, though, often more diversity is needed, and it is hard to see. 

Reynolds and Lewis assert that cognitive diversity is less visible than ethnic and gender diversity. They observe: 

Someone being from a different culture or of a different generation gives no clue as to how that person might process information, engage with, or respond to change. We cannot easily detect cognitive diversity from the outside. It cannot be predicted or easily orchestrated. The very fact that it is an internal difference requires us to work hard to surface it and harness the benefits. 

The authors worked with a startup biotechnology company. When its R&D team members tried our strategy execution task, they performed terribly. The team, mixed in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity, was homogeneous in how it preferred to engage with and think about change. These were PhD scientists who had been attracted to biotech to explore their specialties. But, with little cognitive diversity, they had no versatility in how to approach the task. They never finished. 

On another occasion, the authors worked with a group of IT consultants on the same exercise. If the authors had not called a halt, we would have had to cancel dinner. All activity ceased, as each individual tried to work out a solution in their own head. 

Conversely, the authors have observed siblings of the same sex, generation, and schooling, typically considered a low-diversity group, demonstrate a high degree of cognitive diversity and solve the task at speed. Recently, two teams of European middle-aged men went head-to-head on the challenge. One failed to complete it; the other succeeded.  

The difference? The successful team had a much higher cognitive diversity. 

The authors also assert that there is a second factor that makes it difficult to have cognitive diversity in teams: Cultural bias. Again, the authors explain: 

There is a familiar saying: “We recruit in our own image.” This bias doesn’t end with demographic distinctions like race or gender, or with the recruiting process, for that matter. Colleagues gravitate toward people who think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, organizations often end up with like-minded teams. When this happens, as in the case of our biotech R&D team, we have what psychologists call functional bias — and low cognitive diversity. 

To overcome these challenges, the authors note, make sure organizational recruitment processes identify differences and recruit for cognitive diversity. (I will explain this later.) And when you face a new, uncertain, complex situation, and everyone agrees on what to do, find someone who disagrees and cherish them. 

Finally, they stress the importance of psychological safety. (Most of us call it building trust.): 

If cognitive diversity is what we need to succeed in dealing with new, uncertain, and complex situations, we need to encourage people to reveal and deploy their different modes of thinking. We need to make it safe to try things multiple ways. This means leaders will have to get much better at building their team’s sense of psychological safety. 

Other research supports the success of Cognitive Diversity 

Other research dating back to 1976 supports the importance of cognitive diversity in solving problems and being innovative. Dr. Michael J. Kirton, a renowned British psychologist, provided the world with a practical explanation of these differences in the form of his Adaption-Innovation Theory and Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory, the latter of which measures how a person prefers to solve problems. 

Under the theory, there are two types of thinkers, adaptors and innovators. Adaptors are highly organized and structured, preferring to solve problems by figuring out how to win within the system that’s already in place. Innovators, on the other hand, are more fluid and boundary-free, often solving problems by changing (or bucking) the structure, system, or conventional wisdom. It’s not that a person tries to be one or the other; rather, the preferred style is innate. It’s how a person lives life, solving problems along the way. Whether one is an Adaptor or Innovator is determined by the strength of the preference for structure. Most people are somewhere in the middle. 

The more Adaptive members of the team suggest tried-and-true techniques and commence the planning, setting out timelines and task lists. They start devising a very granular, detailed, and structured plan. They want to plan so that they can get started. The more Innovative team members, on the other hand, begin brainstorming completely new approaches — spit balling ideas that lead to more ideas. Some ideas are so out there, of course, that even the Innovators laugh and dismiss them almost as soon as they’re conceived. Energy and enthusiasm abound as the number of ideas mount. Innovators are eager to solve the client’s problem elegantly and without the tedium of overly detailed planning. 

The problem is that both the Adaptors and Innovators may judge the other group to be wasting time, producing annoyance on both sides. Most of clients’ problems are truly complex problems that require solutions that fuse Adaptive and Innovative approaches. The real cost, therefore, is the team’s failure to harness the brilliant bits and pieces of both Adaptive ideas and Innovative ideas necessary to solve these complex problems. 

Four Innovation Styles 

Other researchers such as Andy Wu, Goran Calic, and Min Basadur have identified four types of innovators that they believe every organization needs. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the authors after 40 years of research that included 112,497 people have identified four innovation styles. They are Generators, Conceptualizers, Optimizers, and Implementors, which the authors describe below. 

Generators find new problems and ideas based on their own direct experience. For them, physical contact with, and involvement in, the real-world alerts them to unresolved gaps and inconsistencies — problems that might be worth addressing as opportunities and possibilities. However, generators only find these problems at a high level; they do not necessarily gravitate towards articulating a clear understanding of a problem’s specifics or its potential solutions. 

Conceptualizers define the problem and prefer to understand it through abstract analysis rather than through direct experience. Like generators, they like to ideate; but in contrast they prefer to model the problem clearly — integrating the various parts, relationships, and insights together — which can then be used as the basis for one or more solutions. 

Optimizers evaluate ideas and suggest solutions. They prefer to systematically examine all possible alternatives in order to implement the best solution among the known options. 

Implementers put solutions to work. They enthusiastically (and sometimes impatiently) take action, experimenting with new solutions before mentally testing them and then make adjustments based on the outcome of these experiments. Implementors are the most common style, representing 41 percent of the author’s participants. Optimizers represent 22 percent, Conceptualizers 19 percent, and Generators 19 percent. 

Improving your organization’s cognitive diversity 

How do you build cognitive diversity when it is hard to easily identify? It starts with recruiting. Organizations need to move away from culture fit recruiting (hiring people who think, look like us, and are from the same universities). Instead, they need to recruit individuals who will bring fresh experiences and thinking into the organization. This can be achieved by using longer, 90-minute structured interviews that spend time exploring the candidates’ experiences on previous innovation teams and learning their role. Were they adaptors, innovators, implementors? In addition, there are assessments that can be used to identify employees who have an adaptor or innovative approaches. These assessments include One is from Foursight. (This is not an endorsement.) 

Second, you can look for innovators, or what I call mavericks, in your workforce and seek to add more. Learn more here.  

Third, build a culture of innovation. Overwhelming research by InnovationOne, John Kotter from Harvard, and others shows that transparent, learning innovation cultures are significantly more innovative, productive, and profitable.  

About Victor Assad 

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and Managing Partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted in business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 

About InnovationOne®, LLC.

InnovationOne®, LLC helps organizations worldwide build a culture of innovation and make it sustainable. InnovationOne® uses a scientifically developed assessment to measure, benchmark, and improve your company’s culture and capability to innovate and enjoy better outcomes and financial results. Companies scoring in the top quartile of our InnovationOne Culture Index© reported higher financial performance than bottom quartile performers by as much as 22 percent. Measure and ignite your culture of innovation.