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Yes, And...

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

If you have ever engaged in improv theater, then you have experienced the process of "yes, and..." What happens is a person says something that may or may not make sense, and you continue forward by following their statement with a "yes, and," which links to what you say next.

Businesses have used this improv process to increase creativity and foster collaboration. The "yes" is less of an agreement and more about letting the person before you know they have been heard, the "and" allows the next person to build and move forward. Many times, the "yes, and" proves to be nothing more than a pivot toward an entirely new direction. This can lead to intersections and integrations that can lead to a collaborative answer that is better in the end.

Yes, and... Diversity is a hot topic today. Some people argue for diversity to achieve social justice. Some argue that it is a democratic imperative, something we will have to achieve due to the population change over time. Both arguments "trade off diversity with excellence," according to Scott Page, Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan -- Ann Arbor.

Some people believe that diversity is sought because "we have to be diverse," but that, "somehow that's going to cost us," according to Page.

His argument, based on mathematics and data, is the opposite: If you want to be "super duper," you have to be diverse.

What if we thought of diversity in the world of "yes, and?" It helps social justice, it is going to happen over time, and, based on data, its presence also helps teams perform well.

Per Page, diverse groups achieve "better than the best" because they are getting a "recombination of ideas," rather than the best idea.

However, there are structures, boundaries and processes that also contribute to making diverse teams work best. It's not about diversity for diversity's sake (to check a box or send out a press release); it is about diversity that ends up with a better outcome.

What do I mean?

This week I watched a webcast of presentation to the CFA Institute delivered last September by Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. The subject: cognitive intelligence and cognitive diversity in teams. Woolley focused on data and studies of team performance based on different attributes. When comparing gender diversity to mean collective intelligence, she looked at performance by various combinations of groups: all-male, solo-female, half-and-half, majority-female, solo-male and all-female.

When compared to the mean collective intelligence for all groups, the all-male, and half-and-half groups performed lower than the mean collective intelligence mark. The solo-female, majority-male and all-female groups performed at close to par. The majority-female groups performed above par and the solo-male groups outperformed everyone. "They peak at the point that there is just one guy," said Woolley. "It trails off down to average again when it is all women."

When she dug further into the numbers, she found that the explanation had more to do with style than gender. Women score higher than men on social perceptiveness: "picking up on subtle non-verbal cues and making up inferences about what others are thinking and feeling."

Woolley talked about the difference between "surface-level diversity - Observable characteristics that lead to the creation of social categories (gender, race, etc)," and "Deep-level diversity - Underlying differences in perspectives, opinions, information, and values, (religion, political affiliation, professional training, etc.)."

One also has to take into account cognitive diversity. "Spatial visualizers who rotate objects in three-dimensional space, (quantitative, engineering), object visualizers, who see global properties of shapes, (normally arts and design), and verbalizers who break ideas down into words versus objects, (lawyers, humanities)." It's these various styles of thinking and combining that make the collaborative groups.

So, what does Woolley think leads to high-performing "smart groups?" It's a combination: the right people (social perceptiveness, cognitive diversity); the right goals (balancing process and outcome focus); and good collaboration (high level and equality of communication and integration).

So "yes," it is diversity, "and" it needs to be carried out thoughtfully (who is in the room, why are they here and how should people interact to recombine their thoughts)?

The goal is not simply outward, surface-level diversity; it's combining smart people who think differently through a process that allows for integration and recombination of ideas. Yes, and.

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