The Power of Cognitive Diversity on Innovation

The Power of Cognitive Diversity on InnovationAs an often indefinable output, innovation can be difficult to accurately measure and even more difficult to reliably produce. What constitutes innovation at one organization may simply be called production at another. Where, in one sense, innovation is new ideas and development, in another innovation may be research or process setup. What is clear though is that despite advancements in standardization, innovation is in many ways a specified, tailored approach to creating or modifying the status quo to produce greater and more positive results.

Sounds great (if not a bit technical and boring) right? Well, the excitement comes in the fact that by opening the definition of what innovation truly is, we have the ability to open innovation up to a greater audience of people than we sometimes think.

Who are your innovators? Insert common answers here: R&D, marketing, etc.

However, with a paradigm on innovation centered on a more comprehensive, holistic approach built upon the specific needs of the company or industry, the playing field should get much bigger. This is where I’d argue that cognitive diversity brings a needed emphasis to successful innovation. Cognitive diversity goes beyond job function or titles (where even diverse multifunctional innovation teams can come together yet still fail to come up with truly innovative ideas and development) and gets to a root level differentiator of the way people look at the world and how they communicate that vision.

This kind of collaboration must be built first on cognitive respect, which is not always an easy element to engender – think of the organizational cultures you’ve been a part of…how many were based on a particular leadership approach, style or “personality” that permeated throughout the organization. And, not only can culture become entrenched in one style…the effects can be damaging to organizational performance. A blog from the Leader Lab cites a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology, addressing this danger head-on stating, “…a goal-focused style of leadership works best with employees that are high in conscientiousness and emotional stability, but can burnout (emotional exhaustion) employees that are low in conscientiousness.”

It’s tough to innovate when you’re employees are burned out…which makes it all the more imperative to have a spectrum of approaches and cognitive styles from leadership through management and teams and a respect for all points on that spectrum.

Although respect for cognitive diversity is not an easy concept to actualize, once an organization has it, the shift toward implementation and innovation is actually within reach. I attended the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Conference last week and was struck by the focus that the best minds in the business (both consultants and organizational leaders) were placing on innovation. In a presentation from DDI Worldwide on a global study of leadership, the number of leaders citing innovation as a critical skill increased more than for any other skill.

That same report goes on to say, “When people question their assumptions about stakeholders, think differently about potential solutions, experiment in order to build the highest value solutions, and get things done so that solutions are brought to market, they begin to overcome the challenges to innovation in an organization.”

Think closely about that statement and it’s easy to see that innovation isn’t about ideas…it’s about the left-brain (thinking differently on potential solutions; getting things done to get to market) and right-brain (looking more closely at stakeholders; experimentation to build high-value solutions). It’s about differing behavioral characteristics (pushing to get things done; being flexible to different options; expressing stakeholder opinion).

These traits can’t be fully accomplished by one individual…and nor can they be accomplished as effectively as possible via a like-minded team of innovators. In that kind of mind-vacuum, one trait will inevitably rise to the fore…it may be bringing solutions to market without properly vetting stakeholder opinions. It might be valuing experimentation instead of thinking differently on a common solution. Whatever the tendency, the point is that pushing for one aspect of innovation over another is detrimental to the end results.

When it comes to driving innovation assembling a way to understand, appreciate and leverage diverse ways of thinking can push any team or organization to new levels.

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Mark E MillerMark E. Miller is the Director of Marketing for Emergenetics International – an organizational development consulting company dedicated to expanding the capabilities of the one thing most valuable to every one of our clients – their people. Follow us on Twitter.

Mark E Miller




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No Comments

  1. davidburkus on June 5, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Great post Mark. Thanks so much for mentioning us. I’m glad to hear you liked Bret’s post!

  2. Morgan Browning on June 8, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Excellent post Mark, I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Terry Lee on June 9, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Great post Mark.

  4. Nancy Gade on June 9, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Mark, I agree with your premise that cognitive diversity (and behavioral diversity) is essential to innovation. Diversity creates a positive tension that encourages a new way of seeing things. I love the quote from a client who had just realized how differently his colleague saw the world then he (and most of their team) does. “When she gets involved in a project, it’s always more complicated, but it ALWAYS leads to a better result.”

  5. Kate Tripalin on June 9, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Brilliantly stated Mark! I couldn’t agree with you more. Having the experience of working in a team that has cognitive diversity (as has been proven by our Emergenetics profiles), we have been able to reinvent aspects or our organization in ways we could never have done without such diversity. It truly is amazing the difference it makes in efficiency, creativity, applicability and excellence in our work. This is proof of why your organization is so valuable…why your post is right on…and why I’m a firm believer in the work of Emergenetics.

  6. Anne Wright on June 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Couldn’t agree more Mark! Here’s to cognitive diversity and innovation.

  7. Mary Bender on June 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Excellent distinction about the value of both thinking AND behaviors. Blending right-brain and left-brain thinkers with multiple behavioral styles provides a key ingredient to innovative results. Creativity or innovation looks different for a linear or structural thinker than for someone who thinks more relationally or intuitively. Add the unique behaviors of an individual, as you suggested, creates a new appreciation for everyone’s varying contributions!

  8. Mary Case M.D. on June 9, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    You have conceptualized successful corporate innovation as a heterogenous and collegial collegial cognitive process. Brilliant.

  9. Dennis Sturtz on June 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    In today’s environment, which allows information and ideas to travel faster than ever before, I believe it is more important than ever to not only become innovative but also remain so. Organizations of nearly every size and shape are now vying for the attention of a consumer that is not only more knowledgable and sophisticated than his predecessor, but also one with far greater options to choose from. Your point about understanding diverse ways of thinking (I’d add behaving) are paramount to any organization that wishes to prosper and thrive.

    Thank you for your insightful and thought provoking contribution!

  10. Joshua Teo on June 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

    I fully agree on your comment on “It’s tough to innovate when you’re employees are burned out…which makes it all the more imperative to have a spectrum of approaches and cognitive styles from leadership through management and teams and a respect for all points on that spectrum”. I think this is where team work in cognitive diversity yet cohesive in values as you had succinctly mentioned is key. Thanks for your post Mark.

  11. Cherie Johnson on June 10, 2011 at 8:50 am

    I couldn’t agree more, Mark. So often companies become entranced with the workplace mind-vacuum that it becomes stagnant, forgettable, unmarketable, and out-of-touch with the world (and its customers)! Cognitive diversity is limitless and deep. After all – the brain runs the show! I am excited at the innovation Emergenetics has brought to my company, and to me personally. Thank you for bringing continued light to cognitive diversity!

  12. Carrie Jensen on June 10, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Great post Mark! At my organization, innovation happens best when we create teams that have each preference represented. When we do that…cognitive diversity is created and it’s amazing to sit back and watch it unfold into greatness. It is possible to take innovation to a new place.

  13. Jerry Van Leuven on June 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Very interesting Mark. I agree, it’s all about maximizing the energy of the organization by allowing individuals to do what they do well. Great article!

  14. Marsha Graesser on June 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm


    What a great post on innovation and cognitive diversity!!!!!
    I am looking forward to your next blog.

  15. Martin Lowery on June 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for this timely piece of cognitive diversity as a driver of innovation… so few leverage this powerful force to full effect!

  16. Michelle Bixel on June 15, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Great post!

  17. Jamie Kelly on June 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    I love this article Mark! You are right on target discussing the huge impact cognitive diversity has on innovation. We see teams falling into a rut of asking the same questions of the same people, so they’re bound to get the same results.

    Our company has an average tenure of over 18 years, so diversity of thought is crucial to uncovering new ways to work smarter with one another. Embedding Emergenetics has done just that. It has allowed our teams to work smarter within their team, and break down silos to broaden the diversity of perspecitves on issues from across the company.

    Thanks for the great read!

  18. Christine Testolini on June 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    What an insightful article, Mark! We tend to want to work with people who are more “like us” than “different from us” . . . yet the real opportunity for business innovation exists in developing teams where all thinking attributes (conceptual, analytical, structural and social) are combined with varying degrees of expressive, assertive and flexible behavioral styles. Here’s to cognitive diversity!

  19. Diane Lujan on June 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Great insight and information, Mark!

  20. John Megens on June 23, 2011 at 3:11 am

    Hello Mark
    You’r blog shows that you are capable of thinking in a more holistic and at the same time “out of the box” way: connecting innovation to cognitive diversity and making use of the power every individual has (working though your strenghts). That’s what teamwork is about and that is how teams can contribute in an more exponential way to innovation. Great blog, thanks.

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