Too Much Like-Mindedness Hurts Companies, and the Country

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After the political rhetoric and partisan saber-rattling of the elections, the fiscal cliff debate, and recent presidential appointments, the country seems increasingly divided. In their book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing focus on one of the long-term trends driving the political rift. As Americans have become increasingly mobile over the last 40 years, they have sorted themselves into increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods, choosing to live near those who share similar beliefs, backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. It’s to be expected—people naturally congregate with those like them. But, as the book asserts, “we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know ‘those people’ on the other side of the political divide who often live just a few miles away.”

One of the divides in the country that came to light in the recent presidential election was the growing rift between urban and rural populations. In our Shift Index, we have followed a similar trend as we’ve tracked the effects of increased mobility on the business landscape. Interestingly, we’ve seen the migration of creative talent to urban centers. Not only are these spikes of talent forming in urban centers, but different urban centers are attracting different types of talent. Like politically divided Red and Blue counties, these different clusters of talent think differently and have different agendas. We saw this clearly in the polarizing feud between Silicon Valley and Hollywood over PIPA and SOPA. Given the increasing differences in lifestyles, political agendas, and economics between urbanites and their country cousins, it’s not too difficult to imagine a future where Silicon Valley has more in common with Bangalore or Shenzhen than Alabama or Louisiana.

The Big Sort argues that congregating physically with those with similar beliefs leads to more polarized and radical views. But what about the effects of the ways we congregate virtually? When it first became clear that the Internet would be a driving force in how we interacted, it precipitated a vigorous debate: would the Internet connect us or further divide us? Today, the Internet allows us to connect with some two billion-plus people across all geographies, grants us access to the composite of the world’s knowledge, and allows more voices to join the conversation than ever before. What potential for a renaissance of outreach and understanding!

But here’s the rub: from political blogs, to hobbyist communities, to Jihadi sites, the Internet also gives people the amazing ability to seek out and connect with people all over the world who share the exact same interests and beliefs. Because we choose what information we access and consume, we have created the potential for people to select only news and information sources that they agree with. Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2012 Report, links shared via social media account for a growing percentage of media consumption. If your news feed is your news source then your friends are the publishers. It’s not hard to see how these feedback loops create the danger of a ‘Big Digital Sort.’

So what do these broader social trends mean for businesses? Company leaders need to mix it up and create the potential for more productive serendipity for the health of their corporate community. Sometimes the most valuable interactions occurs with those completely different from us. They’re often the ones that come up with that completely unexpected insight or creative approach to a problem precisely because they come from such a different perspective. For example, a Harvard Business School professor, Karim Lakhani, has shown that the solutions to challenging research problems posed on the Innocentive problem-solving platform more often than not come from people outside the original discipline.

When we talk about diversity, we don’t only mean ethnic or gender, but cognitive diversity in the broadest sense. If we want the full benefit of diversity, we need to bring together people of different ages, personalities, and professional backgrounds. Companies often rely on very specific and standardized hiring criteria. But what are the chances that hiring graduates with the same degrees from a small handful of schools year after year will produce the most creative organizations? By hiring people with similar passions but different backgrounds, you can bring together people with radically different thought processes and leadership practices from different disciplines without compromising the group’s focus. As Scott Page demonstrates in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, this kind of diversity leads to superior insights and ideas.

The challenge for organizations is not only getting the right people into the organization, but maximizing  opportunities for people to connect with each other. Sometimes executives can explicitly configure teams that bring together people with diverse perspectives. Often training programs and other kinds of company events can create the context for unexpected encounters. Even the physical layout of a facility can be helpful in shaping serendipitous encounters. Lunch lines and common areas create opportunities for employees to meet people outside of their silos. Social media and digital platforms can also help, but as we have seen above, without some nudges, there is a tendency for people to seek out others like them.

Organizations that host a diverse and broad range of members have a resilience that results from cross pollination. They have the ability to sense trends and react quickly and creatively to problems as they arise. As the lines between industries increasingly blur, this capability becomes more important, and is one of the advantages that large companies can have over small ones. In a world where we respond to increasing uncertainty by seeking out others like us, companies can play a significant role in building diversity and creating the mechanisms to enhance the potential for serendipity. Those who figure this out are likely to build a significant competitive advantage in resilience and creative thinking over firms that let us stay in our comfort zone.

John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, based in Silicon Valley.  John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

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