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9 November 2019

The Power of Diverse Thinking

Tag(s): Leadership & Management, People, Languages & Culture
I recently attended an event at the Royal Society of Arts, where I am a Life Fellow, when best-selling author and Times columnist Matthew Syed presented a radical blueprint for the future: one that challenges hierarchies, encourages constructive dissent and forces us to think hard how success really happens. In his book Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking[i] Syed draws upon cutting-edge research in psychology, economics and anthropology, and takes lessons from a range of case studies, including the catastrophic failings of the CIA before 9/11, a tragic communication breakdown at the top of Mount Everest and a moving tale of deradicalisation in America’s Deep South.

Syed is careful to distinguish the kind of diversity which can be a function of social engineering, or even political correctness, based mainly on demographic factors, from cognitive diversity. As the son of a Pakistani father and a Welsh mother he is perhaps on stronger ground than most of us to explain this. It is not a box-ticking exercise but rather dependent on context. If, for example, you want to pick an Olympic 100 metre relay winning team of four then provided your men can pass the baton to each other you simply want the fastest four men over 100 metres you can find. And if they’re all Jamaicans of African descent then so be it.

But we are naturally attracted to like-minded people. It was Plato who coined the phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together’, though I suspect it didn’t rhyme in Ancient Greek.

In the months after 9/11, multiple investigations were launched to work out why such an audacious plot was not foiled by America’s intelligence agencies, a group totalling tens of thousands of personnel and in command of a combined budget of tens of billions of dollars. Many of these investigations concluded that the inability to prevent the attack represented a catastrophic failure. Leading experts called it ‘a second Pearl Harbor for the United States’ and ‘the greatest debacle in the history of the CIA.’

There were numerous clues or pointers. Al Qaeda had broken its taboo on suicide bombings in 1993. Bin Laden constantly turned up in raw intelligence reports about Arab terrorist groups. He publicly declared war on the US in September 1996. The idea of an aeroplane being used as a weapon first appears in 1994 and in 1995 police in Manila filed a detailed report about a suicide plot to crash a plane into CIA headquarters.

Al Qaeda stepped up their activities with mass killings in Egypt in 1997, Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 with Bin Laden always connected. Six months before the attack on the World Trade Centre the Russians submitted a detailed report providing information on 31 senior Pakistani military officers actively supporting Bin Laden in 55 bases in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban foreign minister confided to the US consul general in Peshawar that Al Qaeda was planning a devastating attack on the USA. He feared that US retaliation would destroy his country.

In the months leading up to the attack there were numerous reports of the flying lessons being taken by suspicious Arabs paying in cash and seeming only interested in learning how to fly, rather than take off and land. I have flown a plane and flying in the sky is easy. Taking off and landing are the hard parts.

So how if there was so much information did they miss it? Was it, as the CIA would later say, that there is always lots of information and it is very hard to spot the real ones? Or as the IRA used to say, “we only have to be successful once in an attempt to destroy or kill a target. Those defending them have to be successful every time”.

The CIA was founded in 1947 and right from the beginning it set out to only recruit the best. They accepted just one candidate for every 20,000 applicants. But somehow most of these recruits also happened to look very similar: white, male, Anglo-Saxon Americans. By 1964 it had no black, Jewish or women professionals in one of its main divisions. By 1967 there were fewer than 20 African Americans among 12,000 non-clerical employees. The lack of diversity continued unabated despite losing court cases for discrimination and criticism from politicians concerned that the CIA was not representative of the people it was trying to protect.

This lack of demographic diversity can also lead to a lack of cognitive diversity. These people all thought the same way. They could not put themselves in the minds of Muslim terrorists. Syed quotes several experiments which demonstrate that even seeing the same pictures, people of different nationalities will remember different things. Even more, analysis shows that increasing racial diversity in organisations substantially increases productivity.

So when Bin Laden declared war on the USA and Israel, Muslim fundamentalists around the world were inspired, but CIA operatives saw a scruffy Saudi with a beard squatting by a camp fire and could not believe he was a threat to the USA. A Muslim saw him as if he was like the prophet. A CIA intelligence agent saw him as primitive. Muslim believers know that Mohammed sought refuge in a cave after escaping his persecutors in Mecca. His vision of the Koran occurred in a mountain cave. Bin Laden’s genius for PR sent the strongest of messages to his growing group off followers. The CIA could not and did not see this and so ignored the threat. If they had only had some Muslims of Arab descent among their ranks it might have been different.

They could have used more resources against Al Qaeda, even including attempted infiltration. But they could not understand why Bin Laden would start a war he couldn’t win. But to a fundamentalist Muslim he did win it.  Victory for the jihadists was to be secured not on earth but in paradise.

Since 1921, when a British expedition attempted to climb  Mount Everest for the first time, by 1996 130 climbers had died in the attempt, an attrition rate of one fatality for every four climbers to reach the top. In that year a number of elements came together to  cause the death of eight climbers. One of these, Rob Hall was one of the finest mountaineers in the world. He had summited Everest on four previous occasions. As a leader, he had a deep appreciation of team coherence. He had made sure the various members of the team had got to know each other, and that they shared personal stories of what summiting meant to them and their loved ones. It was clear early on that the team, from the climbers to the support staff, were pulling for each other.

Things went badly wrong and in the aftermath the blame game emerged. Several books have been written by survivors and in 2015 the disaster was made into a Hollywood blockbuster Everest starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and Keira Knightley. Everest grossed more than $200 million at the box office. One of the survivors, Jon Krakauer, who wrote the best seller Into Thin Air, said that his depiction in the movie was ‘total bull’.

Such finger pointing is perhaps inevitable after such a tragedy involving so many people. After all, with these events played out across the vastness of the tallest and biggest mountain in the world no one individual would have had a complete view of all that happened.  But Syed believes he knows the real reason for the tragedy: a dominant hierarchy and the lack of constructive dissent.

Rob Hall may have been an outstanding mountaineer and an experienced leader but he insisted on absolute obedience to his orders. ‘He gave us a lecture about the importance of obeying his orders on summit day,’ Krakauer wrote. ‘”I will tolerate no dissension up there “, he admonished, staring pointedly at me. “My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal. If you don’t like a particular decision I make, I’d be happy to discuss it afterward, but not while we’re on the hill.” ‘

No doubt Hall had good reasons for this. He had more experience, but for him to make the best decisions he needed not just his own perspective but that of his team. As it turned out one of the first time climbers was an air pilot who recognised a change in cloud formation meant an oncoming storm. As a pilot in such a situation he later said you get out of there, but Hall marched on and the pilot kept his counsel .There were several other examples of recognition of problems by members of the team but they all held back and so Hall led some of the team to their deaths including his own.

Syed quotes other examples: the engineer in a plane who saw that fuel was dangerously low but his superior officer, the captain, flew on resulting in the death of 20 people including the engineer. According to the National Transportation Board in America, more than thirty crashes have occurred when co-pilots have failed to speak up. In fact, you are statistically safer if the co-pilot is flying the plane because his captain would always speak up while that is not always the case if the captain is flying himself. Similarly in health care there have been numerous cases where junior surgeons have failed to speak up even when they see a senior surgeon committing a fatal error. These are just two examples of situations where cognitive diversity is needed: collective blindness and dominant hierarchy. In a future blog I will cover others explained by Matthew Syed and also include two stories in my own experience that I shared with Matthew in conversation after his presentation.

[i] Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking Matthew Syed. John Murray. London 2019
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