The limits of diversity: how much is right?

celebrating diversityNowadays no one needs to prove that cognitive diversity is an important factor that enables groups to act intelligently as a collective. James Surowiecki took the trouble of explaining it in his “Wisdom of Crowds”; so today I am not going to talk about how good diversity is for collective intelligence but about a less covered aspect, that is, to question if there are degrees of diversity that, under certain circumstances, could end up being detrimental.

Some time ago I discovered that diversity is a factor that, at a certain level, creates noise punishing group intelligence. I have seen this in a few projects so I set out to find argumentation to help me confirm my observations. A book I finished this weekend has been handy, and it is well worth a blog post of its own, “Too big to know”, by David Weinberger.

Based on the experience of Beth Noveck (an academic that worked a few years on Obama’s Open Government initiative), Weinberger explains that in environments where there is pressure to get things done, where apart from cogitation action is needed, the point where diversity becomes a problem, rather than part of the solution, must be pinned down.

We enjoy diversity until we discover what it really means”, and this is completely valid when managing high impact projects, where there are clear expectations about results. So it seems that there is a “correct degree of diversity”, after which we start getting into trouble, because the cost of reaching consensus or aggregating opinions exceeds the benefits of having different points of view. At the tipping point feasibility begins to be more important than diversity.

It may be indispensable to cut back a degree of diversity in order the group make progress on a subject within the terms that define the group. Imagine, for argumentation’s sake, that a political party launches an initiative to establish its electoral program. It will require space to confront ideas, but without relinquishing its identity as a party. In this case it is obvious that the party needs as much diversity as it can manage with reasonable efficiency (and no more).

David Weinberger’s description of Noveck’s experience clarifies further:

Too little diversity and you end up thinking it’s a great idea to invade Vietnam. Too much diversity and you have citizens haranguing you about Hawaiian birth certificates when you’re trying to come up with standardized formats for open government data. What counts as the right degree of diversity is highly context dependent. If you are holding a forum on the legitimacy of the Obama presidency, you want to make sure you have multiple sides represented. If you are organizing a rally to protest the legitimacy of the Obama presidency, you don’t want to invite to the planning meetings people who are dead set against you politically

So diversity must be optimized for each context and challenge. “The more diversity the better” is just too simple.  It is key to distinguish situations where the objective is to explore different points of view from situations where action and results are expected at a specific deadline.

Collective Intelligence performs better when diversity is combined with what Tom Atlee calls Commonalities”: 1) A common goal, 2) A common language. In short, the trick appears to be to have just enough diversity for your purpose. And “just enough” in this case is usually measured, according to Weinberger, “in scoops smaller than we had assumed”.

Notes: This post was translated into English with the help of Peter Hodgson. The image of the post belongs to the album of Patricia van Casteren in Flickr. Read this post in Spanish (Lee este post en Español)

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