The mind works best in the presence of reality.
Reality is Diverse.
— Nancy Kline, More Time to Think.
They say that you see yourself — and others — more clearly when you travel. When I came back as a corporate expat from France after 20 years out of the country, I was struck by a number traits that seemed to have generalised in Australia.
A cluster of traits seemed to have a rather direct impact on our ability to embrace divergent thinking and this has an immediate effect on my work in the innovation space. The cluster in question included a tendency to shy away from debate, confrontation avoidance and a fixation with the notion of ‘likemindedness.’
Over there, debate is seen as one of the most delicious parts of the meal; collisions in points of view are wonderful moments to be savoured not spat out — or spat on.*
Back home, most meetings, board rooms, conferences, panels and events seem to be focused on agreement (or “agreeance”, as some say) and out-of-meeting lobbying.
I remember my CEO who would pull his hair out after a leadership meeting when issues had been signed off only to be revisited outside the meeting as senior managers sought out people who thought like them and then re-tabled the topic at the next meeting.
I had spent years telling anyone interested that Australians were frank and didn’t beat around the bush. I was so wrong!!
And all these meetings are peppered with praise for (the dreaded) ‘likemindedness’.
“It is so good to be amongst likeminded people” I heard in a recent local business meeting that I attend to learn from and be challenged by peers.
“An event for the like-minded”, is supposed to attract us to an innovation event.
“Feeling like meeting like-minded women over lunch?” a women’s club offers...
As Nancy Kline wrote so well in a book I am devouring, ‘More Time to Think: The Power of Independent Thinking’, “We worship at the altar of homogeneity. Actually we sacrifice there…Homogeneity sounds so nice. Same, comfortable, familiar, predictable. But it is ruthless. An it infects even our conception of how to slay it.”
“We welcome people but the sub-text is that they need to ‘be like us’. “There is nothing wrong with you as long as you look like, think like, act like, lead like, advance like, decide like, keep time like, create like, socialise like and consume like us.”
Sadly, even the algorithms of our social media — and this is, of course, a global not an Australian phenomenon — nourish this reinforcement of like-thinking and feed back to us only the ideas and world views that we have ‘liked’.
What’s going on?
I believe that three of the factors behind this obsession with likemindedness are:
- A fear of conflict and divergent thinking — possibly born out of a false notion of ‘mateship’ whereby we need to agree to be mates. Interestingly, having also spent years in a corporate overseas, my brother shares the view that Australians overseas retain that frank side that we expected to find back here…
- Secondly, an untrue limiting assumption that another’s divergent thinking ‘does not count’. This amounts to a sense that our thinking is superior to those who don’t hold the same view. This factor— and the next — are certainly not limited to Australia!
“Assumptions of superiority , like cockroaches, are the last things to die. And along the way, thinking; real and diverse and innovative thinking, is stillborn.” writes Nancy Kline.
3. Similarity Bias.
This third factor is a powerful unconscious bias that impacts not only our readiness to debate or tolerate divergent views but also our ability to embrace the sort of diversity that is needed for any quality thinking and certainly for truly inventive thinking.
Dr Jennifer Whelan from Psynapse explained this so well at a recent International Women’s Day breakfast I attended in Melbourne.
Passionate — as I am — about diversity and its positive impact on quality thinking, thinking differently, creativity and performance, Whelan explained that similarity bias is a “an extra buzz of care for ‘people like me’”. It is a bias at large in society in general and in the workplace, in particular, and one that has a considerable impact on our ability to be create diverse groups as it plays into recruitment and the notion of ‘fit’ (a euphemism for self-replication. argues Whelan).
I liked the way she tackled the importance of diversity and how you can impact the quality of thinking by changing the visible triggers of difference [gender, culture and age] alone.
She did so by describing the effect of visibly changing the profile of two different rooms of people:
In room 1 you walk in and see ‘your people’; people (visibly) like you. You immediately know you can resort to slang, take short cuts and relax. You don’t need to bring your A-game. You don’t need to prepare. The room is infused with similarity bias and group think.
In room 2, you open the door on a blend of people of different gender, culture and age (and possibly ability). You immediately anticipate being challenged and you know you’ll need to watch your language, that there will be left-field ideas and you’ll need to be sharper. “It may not feel as good but the outcomes will be superior,” said Whelan.
Anyone dabbling in creative problem solving and innovation knows the importance of involving people from across the organisation and, if possible, outside it to challenge the dozens of unconscious biases at play whenever we try to think.
In that spirit, I am delighted to see a new event, SPACE, invite me to mingle with:
“A diverse group of people like you - but unlike you — coming together to share their perspective on life, business, and the future though unexpected conversations.”
“Diversity demands disarming degrees of disinvestment in sameness,” writes Nancy Kine. I embrace the idea that un-likemindeness makes me smarter and more creative and am actively “disinvesting” in sameness …and I hope that more will do the same.
Rachel runs Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) Australia and is passionate about overcoming the biases that limit creative thinking. She is currently writing ‘Unblinkered: Audacious Alternatives for Thinking Differently’ aimed at Innovation Leads and Intrapreneurs.
*The extreme of this is that you can’t effect social change without a quasi-revolution!