Mission Beyond Q&A with Matthew Syed on cognitive diversity

Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas, looks at how businesses can embrace cognitive diversity.

Following the Mission Beyond launch event in June, we had some brilliant questions posed by the audience that we didn't get a chance to discuss. Luckily, Matthew Syed, the author of 'Rebel Ideas' was so kind to take the time out to respond to several of them. 

Matthew Syed | Mission Beyond | Red Badger

What is the best way of measuring cognitive diversity?

Matthew Syed: Unlike demographic diversity, it’s more difficult to measure cognitive diversity because it depends on so many variables. But through informal observation, you can recognise whether or not there is cognitive diversity in a team. For example, if meetings are forums for debate and for challenging ideas, and if there is ‘creative conflict’ within teams, then these are good indicators. Conversely, if everyone is agreeing with the view of the most senior person in the room, then you can be pretty sure that cognitive diversity is either not present, or it is being stifled. 

How should we help people feel more comfortable and open in a cognitively diverse setting, especially less ‘senior’ participants?

Matthew Syed: Psychological safety is the key – put simply it’s an environment where people can express their views and challenge ideas without fear of criticism or recrimination, and that’s how you get the dynamic and ‘friction’ that leads to creativity. Leaders can foster this by consistently requesting ideas and feedback, and by being the last to speak in a meeting so that others speak openly. Brainwriting is another great way of gathering frank views and fresh ideas. And for established teams, you can introduce diversity through, for example, shadow boards or project teams who can bring fresh thinking to a situation.

How do you recommend mitigating the tendency to conform to group norms, and ensuring people are willing to contribute with confidence even if they’re not aligned with the CEO? 

Matthew Syed: See the answer to the previous question which is similar, but to expand on this let’s look at humility. Humble leaders recognise and are open about not having all the answers because in a complex world nobody has all the answers. They actively encourage challenge and seek input and feedback and that style of leadership enables people to contribute with confidence and reduces the risk of groupthink and conforming to norms. There’s an article on my company website which provides more detail on humility.

Many large companies that are struggling to innovate and implement change turn to management consultancies. One of my colleagues once commented that engaging a management consultant was like handing them his watch and asking them to tell him the time. What is your view about management consultants?

Matthew Syed: The key thing here is less about management consultants and more about how people view innovation, which tends to be that it’s the preserve of creative genius or the responsibility of certain teams or departments. The reality is that good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, given the opportunity. And innovation doesn’t have to be a massive step change; it can also be incremental improvements. This article provides further detail on different types of innovation and approaches to help increase creativity across an organisation.

Is the 'growth / fixed' mindset assessment a public tool?

Matthew Syed: Yes, it’s a psychometric assessment called Mindset Advantage that is available on my company website and it’s designed specifically to measure and help develop a growth mindset at an individual, team and organisational level. It’s registered with the BPS and is being used by many leading organisations to build growth mindset cultures. You can find out more here

How does one help, inspire, train, and educate a fixed mindset to evolve into a growth mindset?

Matthew Syed: The first place to start is with some compelling arguments, which was the intent behind my book Black Box Thinking. The next step is self-awareness and this is where our psychometrics can help again. It identifies strengths because most of us will have a growth mindset in some areas of our life. But it also reveals aspects where a fixed mindset is more prevalent and provides practical guidance to help challenge and change a fixed way of thinking. You can find out more here.

Is it possible for individuals to train themselves to think differently too - to take a position to then challenge their own thinking?

Matthew Syed: It is possible and also something that our psychometric test can help with as it identifies individual strengths and areas for development and provides practical actions to help change thinking and behaviours. Like all things, it requires intent and purposeful practice and can be further fostered and encouraged within teams and organisations that actively seek to build a growth mindset culture.

How can we encourage positive and effective collaboration across an industry to solve societal issues when too often individual organisations see themselves in competition?

Matthew Syed: We’ve already seen examples of this in recent months with many companies working together to provide ventilators, PPE and other vital products. So when the need or motivation is there, it’s clearly possible and I think we are going to see more of this around issues such as climate change, Black Lives Matter and the like where it’s no longer acceptable to let things continue as they have been and a concerted and collaborative approach is now vital. Collaborating on societal issues offers competing companies the opportunity to find a common purpose that will benefit everyone involved. Applying growth mindset principles to this type of collaborative approach enables open and honest conversations to navigate how the companies can work together to leverage the learnings and best practices from everyone. I would suggest that these types of collaborations can be taken to the next level by including additional diverse learnings from seemingly unrelated industries to create an environment that can achieve breakthroughs that could never be achieved alone. 

On diversity, is there a risk of businesses or organisations falling into the trap of moral panic and going after topics that become the hottest problem in a given time? How can organisations plan and execute the path towards diversity whilst not losing sight of inclusivity with a consistent focus?

Matthew Syed: I agree that this focus can get lost when setting demographic diversity goals at a corporate level. This is one of the subtle but key differences between demographic and cognitive diversity. The approach to achieve cognitive diversity requires inclusion for it to be effective. This is why I believe that cognitive diversity is one of the biggest differentiators for organisations over the next 20 years. Those that are successful in creating cognitive diversity within their culture should expect to gain a competitive advantage in their space as the pace of change accelerates. 

Will today's acute economic pressure squash the 'space' needed to nurture cognitive diversity?

Matthew Syed: The current situation means that creativity is needed more than ever. Creative problem-solving, adapting to an ever-changing situation, identifying new opportunities, and increasing efficiency – cognitive diversity will help in all these areas and while it may not be easy to manage a team with divergent views, you can expect the outcomes to be better and more effective.

Are there variables that are more likely to lead to fixed mindsets at the individual level? Can you give 3 examples of policies that good companies adopted to create environments where growth mindsets have flourished?

Matthew Syed: Research focuses more on the variables that favour a growth mindset, such as agility, humility, or attitude to failure. Our psychometric measures the nine aspects that we have identified as being vital in terms of the growth mindset model and you can find out more here.

In terms of examples of best practices, there are many, but to cite a few:

  1. Microsoft – changing the culture from one of ‘know it alls’ to ‘learn is alls’. Some people see culture as something soft and ephemeral, but I suggest it is the cutting-edge factor when it comes to high performance and leaders need to see themselves as cultural architects and free up bandwidth to create a culture of high performance.
  2. Other examples are companies like Mercedes F1 or British Cycling that have relentlessly pursued continuous improvement through marginal gains, or other practices. You can see a short video about marginal gains and other growth mindset techniques here.
  3. Pinsent Masons is another company that’s doing fantastic things around a growth mindset – there’s a summary case study here. We can provide more detail on what specific things they have implemented to build a growth mindset culture if you email team@matthewsyed.co.uk. 

Wholeheartedly agree with the power and efficacy of cognitive diversity. I’ve seen it in action, many times during my career and life. However, on reflection, it feels that it almost always happened by accident. Is there a danger if we try to codify it, that it loses much of that power and efficacy?

Matthew Syed: I think the real danger is that if organisations only pay lip service to cognitive diversity, then it will of course not have the impact that it otherwise could and that will lead to disillusionment. But if organisations genuinely want to foster it, they may need to ‘codify’ or put in place some formal methods or practices to introduce or embed cognitive diversity and to fully leverage it and that shouldn’t detract from the power it can have, particularly in complex situations.


We hope you enjoyed this extended Q&A with Matthew Syed. If you feel inspired and want to take action and become part of Mission Beyond’s community, please get in touch.

We’d also love to chat if you have any follow-up questions on the responses above. 

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