Scott E. Page on The Diversity Bonus

What if workforce diversity is more than simply the right thing to do in order to make society more integrated and just? What if diversity can also improve the bottom line of businesses and other organizations facing complex challenges in the knowledge economy? It can. And The Diversity Bonus shows how and why. Scott Page, a leading thinker, writer, and speaker whose ideas and advice are sought after by corporations, nonprofits, universities, and governments around the world, makes a clear and compellingly pragmatic case for diversity and inclusion. He presents overwhelming evidence that teams that include different kinds of thinkers outperform homogenous groups on complex tasks, producing what he calls “diversity bonuses.” These bonuses include improved problem solving, increased innovation, and more accurate predictions—all of which lead to better performance and results. Drawing on research in economics, psychology, computer science, and many other fields, The Diversity Bonus also tells the stories of people and organizations that have tapped the power of diversity to solve complex problems. The result changes the way we think about diversity in the workplace—and far beyond it. Read on to learn more about the Diversity Bonus.

What is the Diversity Bonus?
The diversity bonus refers to the increase in performance that results from cognitive diversity.

When team members think differently, when they bring different representations, categories, heuristics, models, and frameworks, their collective performance includes a diversity bonus, an extra amount. That bonus is a quantifiable, measurable value add.

Can you give examples of diversity bonuses?
I’ll give three. When multiple people make predictions, their collective error (the error of their average guess) depends in equal amounts on their average error and on the diversity of their predictions.  If each person made the same prediction, the crowd would be as accurate as the average person. If they make different predictions, the crowd is more accurate than the average person. In one study involving thousands of predictions by professional economists, the crowd was better than the average economist by 21%. That 21% is the diversity bonus.

Creative tasks produce similar bonuses. Psychologists measure the creativity of a person by the number of ideas she can generate. They measure the creativity of a team similarly. A creative team therefore requires creative people. It also requires diversity. If the creative people all have the same ideas, then the whole only equals the parts. If they differ in their ideas, they produce a diversity bonus.

Finally, when solving problems, diverse representations create what Stuart Kauffman called different adjacent possiblesA smart person can be stuck on a problem and another person might present a new adjacent possibility and get that person unstuck. New adjacent possibles create diversity bonus.

Where do you see evidence of biggest diversity bonuses?
The evidence from the academy is overwhelming. It used to be that most papers were written by one or two people. Now teams predominate, as noted in a major report by the National Research Council. Multiple studies based on about 20 million academic papers written by, among others, Brian Uzzi, Ben Jones, Richard Freemen, and Wei Huang, find that working with people from other schools or from different ethnic groups results in substantial diversity bonuses. Lada Adamic and coauthers find similar effects for patents. The deeper dives on both papers and patents shows a correlation between the number of ideas, and combinations of novel ideas. In brief, the evidence from almost every academic paper ever published and every patent ever issued by the United States strongly aligns with diversity bonuses.

I should add that in creative domains, diversity bonuses could be even larger. Just as the academy has now turned to teams, so has Hollywood and the music industry. Not that many people are aware that the modal billboard hit now has multiple songwriters. Pop music has followed the same trend as physics and computer science. The same goes for movie scripts. Most films are now written by teams.

Your core argument rests on cognitive diversity. When most people talk about diversity they mean identity diversity.   Are the two related?
Great question. Yes. The two types of diversity are interwoven. The connection merits a careful unpacking. Identity diversity refers to differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical capabilities, and culture. Cognitive diversity refers to differences in information, knowledge bases, representations, categories, heuristics, causal models, and frameworks. In thinking about how identity diversity correlates with and influences cognitive diversity, we must guard against simple one to one causal claims such as their being something called a “woman’s perspective.” Better to recognize that our identities consist of multiple dimensions that collectively influence what we know, how we see, and how we think.  Our whole selves contribute to our cognitive repertoires. We cannot pull out one component of identities and map it to one component of our cognitive repertoires.

While identity matters, it is also not the only contributor to cognitive diversity. Our experiences, formal training, work activities, social networks, and preferences all contribute to how we think. Identity interacts with each of these and how much it contributes in any one instance will vary. I would guess that identity matters more in discussions of health care than in a statistical analysis of the evidence for the Higgs’ Boson.

The contribution in any one context will be up for empirical studies to reveal. That said, I’m a theorist and I would warn against placing too much weight on empirical studies until we better learn how to work in diverse teams. As we learn how to achieve diversity bonuses, we will increase the likelihood and magnitude of those bonuses.

Do diversity bonuses exist for all problems?
No! Diversity bonuses will only exist on complex, high dimensional tasks. On routine tasks like processing claims forms, packing boxes, or chopping down trees, no bonus will exist. The performance of the team equals the sum of the performances of the individuals. Economists call such tasks separable.

Diversity bonuses arise in complex, high dimensional contexts. As work becomes more cognitive—most high value workers solve problems, design, predict, and create—diversity bonuses become more and more important.

How do diversity bonuses challenge current thinking?
Diversity bonuses challenge narrow “meritocratic” thinking. Diversity bonuses mean that the best team will not, as a rule, consist of the best performing individuals. The best team will include diverse thinkers. Hiring, college admissions, and promotion decisions tend to make direct comparisons among individuals rather than think about what a person brings to teams.

How does an organization produce diversity bonuses?
That’s a great question. It used to be that organizations had diversity policies. Now, almost all organizations speak about diversity and inclusion. That’s because diversity bonuses do not come for free. You cannot just toss diverse people in a room together and expect bonuses to fall from the sky. Bonuses happen for a reason. They have an underlying logic. The book lays out that logic to guide you to diversity bonuses. Without that logic, to paraphrase Da Vinci, you are setting sail without a rudder or compass.

The logic suggests the following: you must identify the tasks where diversity bonuses will exist, you must create space and opportunity for people to contribute, you must reduce biases in hiring and recruiting, you must adopt policies and protocols that enable diversity bonuses, and, most important, you must practice.

 

PageScott E. Page is the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies and Diversity and Complexity. He has been a featured speaker at Davos as well as at organizations such as Google, Bloomberg, BlackRock, Boeing, and NASA.