How can you practically improve diversity of thinking in your team?

In our introduction to Diversity of Thought, we considered how engaging different ways of thinking could help us achieve better results. But this can be difficult to do on your own. The best fuel for diversity of thought is a team of people who are wired differently.

We usually think of that resulting from a mix of people crossing ethnicity, education and gender groups, but it can also be about personality characteristics like having a mix of extroverts and introverts. A few challenges arise when you seek diversity in your team:

• There will be different ideas
• People will disagree
• It is harder to come to consensus
• Therefore things take more time: decisions, solutions etc

How do you get the benefits of better ideas and better results whilst coping with the challenges above?  The key ingredient is to agree to disagree.

Agree to Disagree

The fact is that consensus often leads to mediocre decisions. We compromise, take the less risky option and add caveats until we have landed on a decision of diluted quality. Any ideas that may have been more ground-breaking are dismissed early on for involving risks or being too challenging for the group to agree on.

By agreeing to disagree we allow for those challenging ideas to be explored further, for risks to be mitigated or even calculated as worth giving the idea a go anyway.

One brilliant team that found this wisdom playing out in their own experience was at Project Include, who intentionally picked a diverse team with different perspectives, experiences, and thought processes.  They agreed to disagree, putting structure around what that meant. The team needed to agree only on 80% of the decisions, whilst 20% of decisions could go to a vote and be taken by the majority.

The surprising finding after two years of working together? They only had to vote on one decision: every other decision they made had 100% agreement. This is the funny thing about agreeing to disagree, it tends to lead to greater agreement and commitment to decisions.

Disagree to Agree

Why does this work? By giving people the freedom, permission and space to be heard and to know that they are welcome to disagree and raise their concerns, every person is more involved in shaping a decision that works for everyone. So surprisingly, by encouraging disagreement you will often find greater levels of agreement. How can you harness this in your team?

Don’t bother if you don’t mean it

If you have asked your team to brainstorm ideas and you want to give this diversity of thought idea a go, you need to be committed.

Unless you believe in the benefit of opening up discussion and engaging every single person, people will soon catch on that disagreement is not welcome. Whoever is leading or chairing the meeting needs to show openness to all ideas and a lack of favouritism or the whole thing will fail very quickly.

Set the expectation

For everyone to understand that this meeting is different to usual or that you have brought together new people to encourage a variety of ideas and diversity of thought, you will need to explain your thinking. Why have you brought this group of people together? What do you hope this team achieves?

Set the expectation that this means we need to disagree with each other, to raise questions that oppose others’ ideas – and that this means we all need to be open. This is not a competition for who comes up with the best idea – so please do not hold tightly to your own ideas being good, just give ideas. Each is of equal merit. It is only as we shape and challenge these ideas together that we make them better and achieve greater outcomes.

Use a structure

All of the above is difficult to do following a usual meeting structure. Six thinking hats is a simple and brilliant way of running meetings differently to engage diverse thinking.

Listen and do not interrupt”]One of the most important aspects to encouraging disagreement is hearing people out. If we all feel we can describe our thinking, concerns and ideas and be heard without interruption then we will better listen to others and be involved in designing a better outcome together.

For more on this have a look at Nancy Kline’s Time to Think, which gives great ideas on doing this well.

Work through concerns

Of course disagreement is not an end in itself. When you have a few ideas on the table and each one has its risks and concerns attached, start working through these. Can risks be mitigated without losing too much benefit?  Can ideas be worked through to address concerns?

Engage the team to solve the problem together, again where it is not whose idea wins, but how do we as a team take every idea and achieve something better than each of us could have come up with alone?