This piece first appeared as an interview in an LBB article

Thread co-founder, Michaeljon AlexanderScott, tells us what businesses can gain from leaning into cognitive diversity within the workplace. What can be achieved by untapping this superpower? Find out below

In turbulent times like these - as we businesses and governments face inflation, supply chain disruption, recession, war - it’s tempting to turn inwards, to the safety of what you know and who you know.  The familiar is both comfortable and comforting.  

Board rooms all over the world are faced with problems that don’t have a playbook:  how to respond to new types of competitors; whether or not to embrace a new business model at the risk of cannibalising their existing one; whether to buy that new start-up disrupting their category or build their own competitor. Each of these questions requires an organisation to innovate, to do something it hasn’t done before, to make a bet and take on some element of risk.

And yet,in complex times, when uncertainty is high and innovation is essential, retreating to the familiar is exactly the wrong thing to do.  

Instead, we need to do the opposite and look outside of our domains of expertise and the places we are most familiar with and actively seek different or unfamiliar perspectives.  We need to embrace cognitive diversity.

What do we think of when we hear ‘diversity’? At the forefront of our minds are areas of race, gender, religion, accessibility and sexuality. The corporate world has made much progress over the last decade in tackling diversity issues. Whilst there is still a long way to go in these areas, there is also another side to diversity which we rarely stop to consider. That is, diversity of thought - cognitive diversity.

Janine Schindler, MCC, wrote in Forbes that, ‘Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints and different skill sets in a team or business group.’ It seems obvious that having non-identical perspectives and skill sets would work to amplify teams in any setting. Yet, the corporate world in many senses doesn’t seem to have caught onto this.

As clients have to navigate increasingly complex problems, cognitive diversity becomes essential rather than a nice to have.

“If we are intent upon answering our most serious questions, from climate change to poverty, and curing diseases to designing new products, we need to work with people who think differently, not just accurately.” - Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

And we know cognitive diversity delivers real results, especially around innovation.  Teams with greater cognitive diversity solve problems 3x faster, they spot 30% more risks and they deliver more innovation than like-minded teams.

How best to start? At Thread we’ve built a Global Innovation Network of specialists to tap into for each client brief, drawing on different perspectives, disciplines and geographical experiences depending on the client’s existing context. This might mean engaging neuroscientists, architects, science fiction authors, Machine Learning engineers or sociologists to provide new perspectives on your challenges.

But a very easy place for anyone to begin is to take a more global view of your category. Many of the most innovative places on the planet are in Frontier Markets: places like China, Korea, East and West Africa and Latin America where a combination of less regulation, fierce competition for rising middle class spending and less legacy technology to disrupt leads to huge levels of experimentation around new technologies and new business models. These economies have often reimagined your sector and are testing new propositions at a scale and speed unimaginable in Europe and the US.  

Learn Faster

We’re not suggesting blindly copying what is happening in these very different contexts (what management consultants gleefully refer to as ‘lift and shift’), but using them to reframe your expectations of what is possible, and test the elements you think might translate to your own context while discarding what will not. If you want to learn about the future of education then visit India, the world’s EdTech laboratory. If you want to get a peek at the possible future of gaming and e-sports then South Korea and Finland are likely to give you food for thought. The organisations that learn the fastest have a competitive advantage, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of all the insights these markets have to offer?

Develop Your Own Flavour

Iceland is a great example of a brand that has borrowed what has worked elsewhere and developed their own take for the UK. When they saw how hard the cost-of-living crisis was hitting their customers, with many driven to food banks and loan sharks, they took inspiration from Grameen Bank in Bangladesh who pioneered the idea of microfinance – making small loans to struggling members of the community without any collateral. Working with a range of partners including ​ethical credit provider, Fair for You, with support from Nesta and HM Treasury and​ the Esmee Fairburn Foundation, they developed The Food Club card to help consumers stock up on shopping, both in-store and online, using a pre-loaded card, with interest-free credit on amounts from £25 to £75 with the support of Fair For You. 92% of users said it has reduced their use of food banks.

The interesting stuff, the things that end up changing markets and lives as we know them, happens at the intersection of disciplines, expertise and ideas. It is only when we welcome these diverse perspectives that we are able to innovate our way through the many complex challenges in front of us.  

In turbulent times of uncertainty, retreating to what you know is often the riskiest thing of all.