Benny Higgins: The evidence is clear – diversity is vital

People with a diversity of backgrounds are collectively better at lateral thinking
People with a diversity of backgrounds are collectively better at lateral thinking
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The wise and wonderful Maya Angelou said, “We should all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must know that all the threads are equal in value no matter what the colour.”

Last week, in my role as chair of the National Galleries of Scotland, I attended an evening at the Lighthouse in Glasgow to promote diversity of non-executives and trustees on the boards of public bodies in Scotland.

The subject of diversity and inclusion is one close to my heart. Indeed, until I left Tesco earlier this year I had led the global focus on progressing the business on this axis. I have reflected on the discussion in Glasgow and have been prompted to set out my personal thoughts on this hugely important subject.

Whilst no process always operates perfectly, I am convinced the approach to appointments adopted by Scottish Government is meticulously fair and meritocratic. My concern, however, is that we do not encourage adequately enough a sufficiently broad church of applicants. I am convinced, further, that too many people believe it is a closed shop, impenetrable to an ‘outsider’.

For sure, if we go back a few decades such boards were dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual men. In more recent years there has, mercifully, been significant progress on gender balance, albeit there remains much to do. But whilst that is one very important element of inclusion, it is only one and we must focus on the broader canvas too. Why does inclusion from which diversity flows matter so much?

Well, there is the moral imperative which would be sufficient explanation alone. But there are other equally important arguments. Any enterprise, but especially a public body, has to understand the needs and psyche of the community it serves. And a naturally bigger pool of candidates must be a good development. Getting this right becomes a vital lynchpin for an organisation’s values and the cultural identity.

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An undeniable truth, that is underestimated or simply overlooked, is that when it comes to collective cognitive effectiveness, diversity trumps homogeneity. And, yes, I have managed to use ‘trump’ positively in a sentence about inclusion!

Cognitive diversity has been defined as differences in perspectives or information-processing; how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations. Teams that lack cognitive diversity are less capable of lateral thinking or engagement.

There has been extensive academic exploration of the subject. Last year a seminal article entitled ‘Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse’ by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis appeared in The Harvard Business Review.Scott Page, a Michigan University professor of complex systems, has devoted much of his research to the subject and reached the same broad conclusions.

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The findings are unequivocal; creating a team that can draw on a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and skills is challenging but ultimately more rewarding in every sense. Public bodies in Scotland need the right capabilities to be fit for purpose. But diversity, described by Malcom Forbes as “the art of thinking independently together”, can leverage the human capital available in our country.

I encourage those with a passion for aspects of how we serve our communities in Scotland to put themselves forward and seek to become part of a rich tapestry of our public boards.