Meaning Guide

Do you have time for diversity?

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value … of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

This quote from John Stuart Mill comes near the end of Matthew Syed’s wonderful new book on cognitive diversity, Rebel Ideas. To meet new challenges we need new ideas, but it’s hard to generate new ideas when everyone is thinking the same way. When the CIA questioned why they had failed to anticipate 9/11, the main answer was that they were overwhelmingly white, Protestant and male. As one of their deputy directors explained: “If the composition of the US national security community is such that almost everyone has one world view, we are not in a position to understand our adversaries and anticipate what they are going to do.”

Syed weaves examples and stories together to bring the central idea to life, and I fail to see how anyone could read the book and not come away more committed than ever to the importance of embracing diversity. It really is a cracking piece of work.

But there’s a catch. Syed has a lot to say about the benefits of people thinking differently, but not so much about the costs. The cost I want to talk about here is directly related to shared meaning, and it’s this: that although cognitively diverse teams have more potential to generate fresh ideas, they also have a harder time understanding each other.

Now, whatever the context, as soon as we use the word ‘diversity’, we meet a shared meaning problem, which is that the word’s primary associations for many are no longer just about ways of being different, but about adjacent concepts like equality, inclusion, discrimination and power. Syed tries to avoid these associations by claiming that he is only addressing ‘cognitive’ diversity – i.e. different styles of thinking – but his claim is somewhat belied by his choice of examples (as with the CIA above). Is there a term we could use that would capture the central idea of ‘differentness’, but without the other associations? There is: systems scientists uses the term ‘variety’ to describe the number of possible states a system can be in, and this is exactly what we’re talking about with the cognitive diversity of a team. The greater the variety of perspectives people bring, the more potential for innovation, due to the higher number of possible combinations.

Let’s use this language to get back to the point: when there is a greater variety of perspectives, there is not only more potential for innovation, but also greater difficulty in realising that potential, because it comes with a greater variety of language. For example:

When we hear people speak, we interpret their words in terms of what they mean to us, but rarely slow down to understand what they mean to them. If everyone’s thinking the same thing anyway (low variety), then this isn’t a problem. But when everyone’s thinking something different, it can be a huge problem. Think of the kind of comments you typically hear when a team is pulled together from a group of very different individuals: “We’re just not on the same wavelength”, “they don’t get it”, “what planet are these people on?” Variety is something they are more likely to complain about than celebrate.

It’s easy to say that this is all just a question of attitude: if we were more willing to embrace variety, then we would be more inclined to ask questions and see the world from other people’s points of view. This is absolutely right, but even if we have an inexhaustible supply of curiosity, we don’t have an exhaustible supply of time.

The cost of variety is measured in time

How does time relate to variety? Well, if you’ve ever attended any management training, you’ll have been told how all teams go through the Tuckman stages of development (forming, storming, norming, performing). But how long does this process take? If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, you’ll know that for some teams, storming remains the norm for their (often brief) lifespan. It’s not that they couldn’t perform given enough time and support, it’s that the organisation simply can’t afford to wait, so give the job to someone else.

As a team manager you find yourself in a bind: Insufficient variety and the team can’t adapt to the challenges it faces (per Ashby’s law), but too much variety and team members can’t adapt to each other. Again, it’s not that people who are very different can’t find common ground, it’s that it takes more time.

The usual response to this kind of non-functioning team is to upskill them: send them on a high-performance team course, find them a team coach, appoint a facilitator. This is all great, but we’re still measuring the cost of variety in time, whether that’s the time the team needs to take away from the job to develop its ways of working, or the time it needs to buy from third parties to provide support.

The value of shared meaning

Now let’s take these three strands – language, time and variety – and weave them together. Teams can only coordinate their behaviour in an efficient, timely way when the language they use (words, diagrams, pictures, models etc.) have sufficiently aligned meanings. For example, if I think ‘initiative’, ‘project’ and ‘workstream’ are all names for the same kind of thing, but you think they’re very different kinds of thing, at some point you’re going to get frustrated that I’m not delivering what you thought I was going to deliver. If I think an outcome and an objective and a goal are all different things, but you think they’re the same, then we’re already going in different directions. This may sound obvious, but it’s incredible how many programmes we join months or even years in, where these simple distinctions have never been bottomed out.

Now tie in the variety thread: Unless we have enough words like this that mean sufficiently similar things, conversations about different things aren’t possible. If we agree what we mean by a goal, as opposed to an objective, then we can have a meaningful difference of opinion about which goals or objectives we should be targeting. Out of that conversation could arise a new, innovative solution to the problem that wasn’t possible without the variety of perspectives being in the room. But if we don’t have enough shared meaning to be able to recognise that we are or aren’t talking about the same thing, then we’re not even participating in the same conversation; variety will be actually slowing things down.

Let me put this in Syed’s terms. He illustrates his message using a series of diagrams, each involving a rectangle that represents the ‘problem space’ a team is operating in, and each circle representing the knowledge or expertise of an individual in that team:

The ideal team, obviously, is the one in the bottom left – where the expertise of the team has the most coverage in the defined problem domain. But surely the first question is, who gets to define the box? How do we know where we are in relation to one another and the problem space, unless we have enough shared language to describe what it is we are trying to achieve?

To use terms coined by Maturana, we are talking about a breakdown between the ‘cordination of behaviour’ (in our case, how a team actually performs) and ‘the coordination of coordination of behaviour’, which is the language that it uses. It’s easy to spot ‘coordination of behaviour’ problems in a team – I thought you were going to do X, you thought I was going to do X, X didn’t get done etc. – but it’s much harder to spot when the language we use is uncoordinated. How do you do this?

The first thing is to accept that there will be an element of trial and error. Some people seem to assume that if you do something the rest of us don’t expect, it doesn’t mean anything apart from that you’re strange, ignorant and/or incompetent. Whereas in a high performing team, unexpected behaviour is seen as an opportunity for dialogue and learning. Modern delivery methods like scrum make a virtue of this – it’s very hard to deliver through a series of rapid sprints without creating shared meaning, because the methodology forces you to rapidly make and learn from the misunderstandings you generate with each iteration.

But I think we can do better than this, just by being more aware of the nature of the problem. Think back to Maturana’s distinction between the coordination of behaviour and the coordination of that coordination, or to put it in plainer terms, the distinction between the work we do together and the way we talk about the work we do together. If the challenge in a varied team is that these levels come apart, then the solution is to find ways to put them back together. Here are some preliminary thoughts on how to do this:

  • Firstly, cut the word count. Decide as a team how you are going to label your key concepts, then coach each other to keep using the same labels to refer to the same concepts. It doesn’t matter which word you use as long as everyone uses it to mean the same thing.
  • Secondly, don’t just stick to words. A project glossary is a good start, but it’s still using words to explain the meaning of other words; much better to draw pictures, shoot videos, create diagrams, build models, recount stories, because the mode of representation is then brought closer to the shared experiences of the team members.
  • Thirdly, keep these representations consistent. It drives me nuts how the only visual consistency that is enforced within organisations tends to be internal branding. What a missed opportunity to do the same thing at a semantic level! If the same concept is used on two slides in different presentation packs, it should still look the same. Create a visual vocabulary that people can copy and paste from.

Finally, nothing is possible without an atmosphere of psychological safety. The fastest way to coordinate meaning is to talk about it, but people don’t question the meaning of words when they sense they will be judged as stupid or rebellious for doing so. When leaders go first by expressing uncertainty, asking questions, and clarifying what other people mean by what they say, they create a context in which the team’s variety is seen as an opportunity to learn and innovate, rather than just another challenge to overcome.


  • Steve. This is an excellent discussion on Syed’s assertions on cognitive diversity. Funny – but when reading it through I found your use of the word “variety” a bit odd! Would also be interesting to consider luck in the broader discussion.

    • Hi Scott, ‘variety’ in this sense comes out of cybernetics, but whenever I read it it still makes me think a bit of things like chocolate box selections! The trouble is there doesn’t seem to be a mainstream word for ‘diversity’ that actually just means differentness, because at policy level it’s become used as a container-word for anything to do with equality, inclusion etc. You can say that there’s a cost to everyone thinking differently, but as soon as you say there’s a cost to diversity, it starts to sound racist/sexist/etc …

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