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How Cognitive Diversity Boosts Innovation and Teamwork

cognitive diversity innovation

Explorations > Teamwork > COGNITIVE DIVERSITY


Ghenghis Khan, the Mongol leader who killed and conquered his way to owning the largest contiguous empire in history, is one of the world’s most misunderstood people.


And he probably would be glad to hear it.

That’s because the chief strategy that made the Great Khan so successful at toppling his rivals was to make sure that you could never predict what his next strategy would be. 

On paper, the Mongols really shouldn’t have taken over most of the world. They were a largely illiterate people. Genghis himself came from nothing; his only education was in haggling and fighting. His armies were usually far from home and almost always smaller than those of the enemy. 

Yet they did take over the world. They hardly ever lost a battle.

Many forces were at play in those years when Genghis Khan conquered so many kingdoms so quickly. But historians tend to agree that the underlying reason he was able to was because he and his generals thought differently than any before them. 

In his youth, Genghis united the warring Steppe tribes under one empire by upending the rules that had governed these people for centuries—and creating a more effective social system that the common people preferred so much that they abandoned their own tribal leaders to join it. In his later years, as he conquered China and Persia and the rest, the Khan’s war system was constantly upending the rules and best practices of conflict—to the point that taking over empires and city-states became almost too easy. 

From battle to battle, campaign to campaign, the Mongols’ strategy was one of continuous innovation. 

Like many so-called innovative leaders in history—whether we’re discussing war generals or business titans—success like Genghis Khan’s is often credited to the leader’s brilliant ideas. Genghis was the genius warrior. Just like Thomas Edison was the genius inventor. And like Steve Jobs was the genius technologist. When they were gone, things were never the same—a testament to their personal ability to “change the game.”

And yet, in each of the cases I just mentioned, the ideas that changed the world were not invented by the person who got the credit. Thomas Edison had factories full of engineers coming up with ideas for him; Tom just managed them and patented their inventions. Steve Jobs’ brilliance was in his ability to paint a vision of a future that other brilliant men and women got on board with, and then he pushed them to invent that future.

Side Note:

Before we continue, here’s probably a good place to make some acknowledgments and clarifications: Genghis Khan killed a lot of people. He’s not a role model on the humanitarian front.

So I know it may strike some readers as weird to use his story as the anchor for a topic like this one. However, breakthrough thinking happens when we draw from unlikely sources—which is exactly the point of this article.

That said, while I am in favor of learning lessons from anything we can, I’m also personally opposed to all violence.

On the other hand, much of the horrible stuff that’s attributed to Genghis Khan today is actually stuff that his descendants or his ancestor Attila the Hun did. A few of the things that many people don’t know about Genghis include: he was fiercely anti-torture and gave torturers the (ironic) penalty of death; as a rule he optimized for minimal loss of life in his battle strategies; and he did not have a giant harem—in fact, he only had four sons.

To learn more about what’s true and what’s myth, I’d suggest the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

So what exactly did Genghis Khan do that made him “innovative?” And what does all this have to do with the modern discussion of diversity?

Let’s start with

the definition of innovation:

Innovation is the act of improving the way something is done, by fundamentally changing the way it’s done. 

In other words, innovation is not doing more of something, or doing something a bit more efficiently. If you can get ahead by cutting a little corner, adding a little more salt, or coming into the office on Saturday—that’s not innovation.

Innovation is not playing the same game; it’s changing the game. 

And that means innovation starts with thinking differently.

This is where the traditional “genius narrative” usually comes in. Who thinks differently about things in a useful way? A genius, of course!

But when we dig into what’s actually going on in the head of a “genius,” we find a pattern. Thinking differently is not about inventing things from nothing—it’s about combining different things that haven’t been combined before.

For instance: Einstein didn’t come up with the theory of relativity out of nowhere. He worked on the formula, tried a lot of things—and not coincidentally, he made his breakthrough about the connection between space and time after spending a lot of time at his day job as a patent clerk looking at inventors’ designs for long distance clock synchronization devices

It’s like cooking. Or chemistry. Or the fundamental law of matter. Matter is not created from nothing; everything is a combination of elements. Hydrogen is a proton mixed with an electron. Planets are recycled stardust, smashed together. 

In other words, innovation is like making pizza. 

Pizza is a combination of disparate things: dough plus cheese plus tomato. And dough is a combination of things too: flour plus water and yeast and oil. A tomato is a bunch of different plant cells—skin and juice and pulp and vitamins—and each of those things is a combination of different molecules, which are combinations of different atoms, which are combinations of different subatomic particles.

Artists are well aware that creativity is about mixing colors and connecting dots. As Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Albert Einstein put it a little more nerdily when he wrote, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Even the Greek concept of The Muses and inspiration plays into this: The ancient Greek heroes didn’t get their flashes of inspiration from nowhere; a Goddess with a particular creative flair gave mortals the cognitive ingredients (and sometimes nudge) they needed.

Neuroscientists who study creativity back this up when they show through brain scans that the process of “inspiration” occurs when someone’s brain makes a connection between two things. 

So a genius, really, is someone who’s very good at combining things. And like a good chef or artist or invention manager like Edison, the process of figuring out which things combine to make something better often takes a lot of tries. Hence all the research and quotes about how genius is mostly about perspiration.

Some people are naturally better at this than others.

Research shows that some people just have fewer inhibitions about playing with new ideas through combining and connecting dots. These are people who we generally label as “creative.” 

But here’s where it gets really interesting. 

Research also shows that people whose creativity is consistently useful—artists and inventors who produce more than a one-hit wonder—tend to be voracious consumers of information.

They fill their heads with lots of stuff from which they can then connect dots. Creativity researcher Allen Gannett makes an elegant case for this in his book The Creative Curve where, among other stories, he tells the tale of how a teenager named Ted watched every movie in the video rental store where he worked. He did this so he could make better recommendations for video renters. And eventually he became Netflix’s head of content and producing numerous blockbuster and Oscar-winning films and TV series. You’d better believe that guy had a lot of creative potential to draw from.

In psychology terms, we call a situation where humans have lots of ideas to combine—whether it’s a lot of different movies in your head or a group of people with a lot of different perspectives between them—“cognitive diversity.” 

This is the starting point for innovation. Having different mental material to draw from is table stakes for coming up with anything new.

Cognitive Diversity is having different ways of thinking in the same place

When we look at the history of innovation, there are generally two ways we see cognitive diversity turn into new and useful ideas inside of someone’s head.

The first is where you have a very smart person who explores their field deeply and pushes the boundaries—and then combines what they learn in that exploration into some other application. This is actor and pianist Hedy Lamarr applying music theory to radar technology and inventing the precursor to WiFi. It’s Lonnie Johnson applying jet propulsion theory from NASA to toy design and inventing the Super Soaker.

The second is summed up well by researcher Waqas Ahmend’s work on Polymaths and author David Epstein’s work on Range—which show that people who explore a lot of different areas of study are generally able to solve problems more cleverly. This was the original objective of the university, in fact. In the Rennaissance era, it was desirable to become a suitable expert in science, art, politics, and letters—and therefore become a “universal man.” (Of course—and unfortunately—it was just men, then.)

Experiments by researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis show that when business teams have more cognitive diversity and a set of conditions that allows them to make use of it (e.g. not a boss who forces them to do things a certain way), it takes them less time to solve hard problems together. The mathematician and professor of complex systems Dr. Scott Page of University of Michigan takes things even further by mathematically modeling exactly how groups of different people can potentially be smarter together based on the different perspectives, heuristics, and predictive models between all their brains.

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For my book Dream Teams, I spent a great deal of time breaking down the elements of cognitive diversity and making the above math simpler to grok, because once you understand what that math tells us, it’s impossible to miss this conclusion:

Cognitive diversity is the only way to solve a problem in a novel way.

And knowing that gives us a practical, pragmatic reason to expand our pool of people we work with, consult, and pay attention to. Many people believe that this is a good moral thing to do as well (myself included)—but research is clear that even a psychopath would do well with more cognitive diversity in his life.

The thing that makes this tricky, though, is how cognitive diversity comes into play with what we typically think about when we invoke the word “diversity.”

How does cognitive diversity relate to visible diversity?

Even though “diversity” means “an array of different things” and can refer to almost anything, a few types of diversity have become synonymous with the word itself. That’s because of business, politics, and public relations, really. And it’s fine, except for when we want to talk about diversity that isn’t necessarily about gender or race or orientation—and then it gets confusing.

That’s why I think a helpful habit for anyone who’s reading this is to, from now on, use an adjective every time you say the word “diversity,” so we know what you’re talking about. E.g.:

  • Cognitive diversity = different ways of thinking

  • Demographic diversity = different demographics of people

  • Racial diversity = people of different races

  • Gender diversity = people of different genders

  • Age diversity = people who grew up in different generations

  • Personality diversity = people with different ways of rolling

  • Simply: diversity = unclear which of the above you are referring to

Semantics aside, the tricky thing about cognitive diversity is that even though what we’re talking about is what’s inside someone’s head, visible characteristics like gender and race are often pretty good indicators of probable cognitive diversity. 

As are other physical traits:

  • Taller people see the world differently—and therefore think differently in some ways—than shorter people

  • Disabled people navigate the world differently than more abled people—and therefore think differently in many ways

  • Older people grew up in a world that’s different than younger people—and therefore think differently in many ways

  • People of different races are often treated differently and therefore navigate the world differently than each other—and therefore think differently in many ways

  • Men, women, nonbinary, and transgender people are often treated differently and have different physical traits, and therefore navigate the world differently than each other—and therefore think differently in many ways

  • (And so on)

On the other hand, whereas visible diversity is correlated with cognitive diversity, it sometimes can be deceiving. We can’t know for sure what’s inside someone’s head just by looking at them. We can’t infer their story—we can only guess.

Two people who look entirely different could have the same educational background and area of expertise. A racially diverse group of mechanical engineers who all have worked at Boeing for 30 years will probably think very similarly about many things than a racially homogeneous group of people who do different jobs in different industries.

In other words, sometimes having similar non-visible backgrounds can lead a group of visibly diverse people to have exactly the same perspectives on the topics at hand—especially when we’re talking about areas where personal attributes are less relevant than industry-related attributes. (Business bigwigs often call this “functional bias.”)

So whereas visible diversity can give us clues about probability for cognitive diversity, we can’t know exactly how different someone thinks without getting a better picture of their story.

And that’s great, by the way, because thinking about people in terms of cognitive diversity can help us to avoid reducing people to a single trait—which is both very useful and another morally good thing.

(I dig into all of this in depth in Dream Teams (both the book and the training course), so I’d encourage you to check those out if you want to understand more about the mechanics of cognitive diversity. The focus of this article is on the applicati…

(I dig into all of this in depth in Dream Teams (both the book and the training course), so I’d encourage you to check those out if you want to understand more about the mechanics of cognitive diversity. The focus of this article is on the application of it rather than the science of it.)

So. If we want to maximize our chances of thinking innovatively, we need to get cognitive diversity. The more of it we have, and the deeper it is, the more our chances of combining the right things and inventing a new pizza.

Of course, once you’ve invented the recipe for pizza you can certainly improve upon it by adding different amounts of salt, cutting it into triangles, and coming in on Saturday to perfect the recipe. That’s when the challenge changes from invention to persistence, resilience, and detail work. Which we need, too. And some people are naturally good at detail work without wanting to die, just like some people are naturally good at upending norms and testing different combinations without freaking out.

And this finally brings us back to Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan can teach us almost everything we need to know about The Relationship Between cognitive diversity and innovation.

They say that “two heads are better than one,” but on the face of it, Genghis Khan disproved the cliche. His outnumbered army had way fewer heads than the Chinese and Turkic and Persian armies that he defeated. 

Most of the time, when we combine two heads, we get strength in numbers. And we get a group that’s only as smart as whichever of those heads is smartest or most powerful. In the case of the Mongols’ enemies, the powerful leaders of the cities they defeated were the ones making all of the decisions—and they, groups of people with more heads, were defeated by a smaller, smarter group. It didn’t matter how many people the Jurched kingdom had; its collective intelligence was limited by its very small amount of cognitive diversity.

But how was Genghis Khan’s group so smart? They were uneducated, illiterate. Besides, were they not limited by how intelligent their leader was, too?

Throughout history, this is how war has worked. Whoever had either the biggest army or the smartest leader won. 

But what Genghis Khan realized early on in his battlefield career was that he didn’t have to be the smartest himself in order for his army to be the smartest. His collective intelligence could be higher than his enemy’s. 

Genghis actually articulated this when he exhorted his sons, as he prepared them to take over his empire when he passed, to never think of themselves alone as the smartest or strongest. “If you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead,” he added.

Here’s how he did it:

Principle #1: The Goal MatterS More Than Any Specific Process

Genghis Khan did not care about winning wars the way you were “supposed” to. He just cared that he won. To him, the goal what was mattered. Not pride. Not tradition. Not “best practices.”

In his day, Steppe warriors fought a certain way. They lived a certain way. They worked a certain way. Even if it got them killed.

Genghis Khan said whatever the ancient Mongolian phrase was for “fuck that.” This rejection of a “right” way to do things was the starting point for innovative thinking to happen.

In a time and society that was rigid and specific about how things were supposed to be done, Genghis Khan focused on the goal instead of process. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have rules. He did care about certain elements of morality.

For that, he overlaid a couple principles to guide him: However it is that you need to accomplish the goal, make sure you never lie to your friends, and aim for the least amount of harm to human life and body.

In the culture Genghis Khan grew up in, retreating during a battle was a sign of cowardice. But he didn’t care about that. In fact, he realized, doing so-called “cowardly” things could often prevent lots of people from dying.

As such, one of the battle tactics he used over and over again was a cowardly retreat: Start attacking, then retreat as if you’re scared—and let the enemy break ranks to chase you… right into your trap. 

Too often we decide not to pursue an innovative tactic because we’re afraid of how it would look to other people. People who break norms are called stupid or crazy… until they change the game and suddenly they’re called genius.

It was this mentality that led Genghis Khan to the principle that helped him unlock cognitive diversity:

Principle #2: Absorb Ideas From Everywhere

This was the principle that transformed Genghis Khan from a local leader to a global emperor. 

Every time he conquered a new place, the Khan absorbed its ideas and people into his own. Once you surrendered to the Mongol army, you became part of the team, so to speak, and Genghis Khan afforded you every bit of protection and privilege as his own people. Unlike other conquerors who routinely destroyed everything about the cultures they took over, when they could, the Mongols preserved the architecture, artifacts, and artisans they found among the people they overtook. 

One of the first things that would happen after taking over a city would be to find all the scientists, scholars, and anyone with a trade—and to learn from them. Thus the Mongols learned how to mine and to craft new technologies (unfortunately not Minecraft itself!), use new weapons, and create new fighting strategies. Even if these new fighting strategies flew in the face of Mongol tradition, they wove them in.

And so the mongol war machine was constantly being reinvented and upgraded using different ways of thinking.

This is what made the Khan’s army not have to depend on just how smart he was as the leader. In other words, cognitive diversity in your own head is nice, but you know what’s better? The cognitive diversity of a group that has the potential to be smarter than you ever could on your own. 

Side note: How did he keep such a motley empire unified, you may ask? Genghis implemented rituals and holidays to give the peoples he absorbed a common set of things to tie hem together. But importantly, he also let his conquerees keep their own religions and languages intact. (Genghis Khan was the first major world leader to grant freedom of religion.) He declared that though the Mongol empire should be one, the people should not think as one—they were more innovative and less dangerous to him if they didn’t converge into homogeneity.

In other words, Genghis Khan encouraged culture-add over conformity. The thing that ultimately united his motley group was a goal, not a set of behaviors. “Without the vision of a goal, a man cannot manage his own life, much less the lives of others,” Genghis told his court.

Now, just because the Mongols thought different didn’t mean that every new idea always worked out. The first time they tried to flood an enemy city by diverting a river actually ended up in them flooding their own army camp.

In the same way, just having cognitive diversity doesn’t mean that everything you get from it will be relevant in every situation. But you are increasing the chances that you will eventually make a breakthrough.

Like the Mongols did. When they finally managed to divert rivers the right way—after experimentation with various different methods—this became one of their most effective strategies for conquering cities with minimal loss of life.

In business today we get too hung up on the “right” way to do things. On the “best” practices. We get too hung up on the “culture fit” and the “unity.” When what we ought to be hung up on is the ultimate goal, and the idea that it’s precisely our different ways of thinking that will help us to get there better, faster.

In society today we get too hung up on who “belongs” as part of our team. But is our goal to be the same, to keep things the same? If our goal is to break boundaries, then we need to start thinking of everyone as potentially part of our team.

Continuous innovation happens when we figure out a way to constantly think differently. And that happens most reliably through a process of importing cognitive diversity—all the time.

For more on Cognitive Diversity, check out the book Dream Teams

For more on Cognitive Diversity, check out the book Dream Teams