Addressing complex problems with diversity

Political and business leaders today are faced with a daunting and sometimes bewildering set of challenges: climate change, pandemics, war, supply chain disruptions, inflation, the ‘great resignation’, reputational risks, and many more. Against this background, how can teams be assembled to best achieve business objectives?

We all know the adage that diverse teams excel in problem-solving. However, this proposition must not be misstated or misunderstood. The causal relationship between diversity and problem-solving turns on the difference between complicated problems and complex problems.

Complicated problems have well-defined parameters. Their goal is known; the start and endpoints can be clearly identified. This kind of problem involves sequentially following several discrete steps until the desired end is attained.

Developing a new vaccine is a complicated problem. Firstly, identify or isolate some biological or chemical material. Then work systematically to produce an effective and reproducible vaccine. The course to be followed is understood at the outset like a recipe. This kind of problem can best be solved by experts, all having relevant medical or scientific skills.

Complex problems, on the other hand, are those that are open-ended, multi-faceted, and usually unprecedented. Potential solutions may vary dramatically and maybe conceptually and practically inconsistent or incompatible with each other. Each solution will have vastly different ramifications or by-products.

Developing a strategy for coping with a pandemic is a complex problem as are many problems faced daily by managers. The trick is not to treat something complex as something that is merely complicated.

What Symmetra has seen is that diverse teams really come into their own when the problem is a complex one. But it is cognitive diversity that is required, not a random assembly of individuals and demographic diversity is a very reliable indicator of cognitive diversity (though not an exclusive one).

The differing perspectives or methodological approaches introduced (rather than pre-determined thought channels) offer the greatest potential for solving complex problems. So next time you are faced with a complex problem in your organisation be sure to leverage all the diversity of thought you can find by spanning functional, divisional, geographic, and demographic boundaries. In this way, you will counteract expert thinking and generate the most innovative solutions.