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Maximizing the Effects Of Knowledge Diversity

The social psychologist and former NASA researcher, Susannah Paletz, discusses some of the cognitive and team processes that are imperative to innovation

Published: Feb 1, 2011 06:32:49 AM IST
Updated: Feb 9, 2011 05:49:40 PM IST

Research indicates that innovation requires two types of thinking: divergent and convergent.  Please explain the difference between the two.
The most commonly-studied aspect of creativity is divergent thinking: the generation of many ideas that are novel relative to prior solutions, and the depth and richness with which each idea is explored.  The goal of divergent thinking is to generate a wide variety of ideas or a list of possibilities, whereas the goal of convergent thinking is to come up with a single high-quality output or a ‘right’ answer.  In the brainstorming literature they advocate a very structured process whereby first you think divergently and then you move on to convergence. But as far as my colleagues and I can tell, in the real world people do both at the same time: someone will throw out a couple ideas and a member of the team will think to herself, ‘There’s an element to this idea that I don’t like, but I do like that other element’; and she will proceed to build off of that. Unless you’re specifically going through a very structured brainstorming process, divergence and convergence tend to happen quickly and concurrently.

You have studied the cognitive and team processes that are important for both divergent and convergent thinking. Please describe a couple.

In developing my theoretical model I found that two things are extremely important for both of these processes: communication norms and information sharing. If you are in a workplace where people don’t listen to each other or don’t give everyone a chance to provide input, it will be difficult not only to come up with lots of new ideas, but also to get to the heart of what your problems actually are.

Knowledge diversity has been shown to result in mixed effects on teamwork: while it is often positively associated with divergent thinking, it can also hinder convergent thinking.  Why is this?
First let me say that for the purposes of my research, ‘knowledge diversity’ means diversity in domains of knowledge expertise, such as in multidisciplinary science and engineering teams, rather than expert vs. novice or raw ability differences. Such diversity is unquestionably very important for creativity because it gives you access to many knowledge structures and enables you to come up with more ideas because you have that broader knowledge base to begin with. However, it also seems to have a negative effect on convergent thinking, and this is because convergent processes are all about knowing how to evaluate ideas in light of achieving a shared vision. Of course, a shared vision is more difficult to achieve if you have knowledge diversity, because there will be differing unspoken assumptions about what is considered ‘good’ – what success looks like and how to go about the work at hand.  

You and your colleagues have proposed that the formalization of roles can positively affect knowledge diversity. Please explain.

This is a theory that we are proposing—we haven’t actually done the research yet, though the findings of other psychologists point in this direction. What we’re proposing is this: if you identify certain people on a team as experts in a particular area --  for example, ‘Jim is the Psychologist on the team and Mary is the Physicist’ -- you essentially privilege them and make their input in that area much more salient to the team. By clearly stating such roles from the outset, you are reminding people that if the psychologist is saying something related to Psychology, they should probably be listening closely; it also reminds Jim as the team’s psychologist that part of his job is to make sure that he effectively represents that viewpoint and knowledge base.  While we haven’t tested this yet, we propose that knowledge diversity under formal roles leads to task rather than relationship conflict and thus to increased breadth of participation.  Conversely, if you just have a group of people sitting around a table and you don’t really know who is the expert on what, what often happens is, the people who end up talking the most are the most socially-dominant personalities, whether or not they have much to contribute.  

Describe the analogy of the ‘pilot flying’ (PF) and the ‘pilot not flying’ (PNF).
This comes from a seminal article by UC San Diego’s Edwin Hutchins, where he looked at shared cognition. In the field of aviation, commercial airplanes are often flown by two pilots; but when it’s in the air, only one person is actually flying at any one time, so there is a vital distinction between the pilot who’s flying and the pilot who’s not flying. The person who is flying has to actually control the aircraft, but the other person has many other important tasks: he has to communicate with air traffic control, operate various systems, go through checklists and so on. The idea is that each is responsible for different tasks, and at the same time they are very clearly aware of what the other person is responsible for.  I believe that this sort of arrangement is essential to team functioning, whether in the air or on the ground.

Describe the key role of shared mental models in effective team functioning.

Essentially, a mental model describes someone’s understanding of how a particular thing works.  It involves a mental picture of the interrelations between the elements within the model -- it could be ‘how the world works’, or ‘how this department works’. A mental model of a particular workplace might be, ‘My department works like this: that person is in charge, but the Admin actually runs everything; if I want to get anything done I need to go to the Admin. But she doesn’t like that other person because he’s rude; so I need to bear this in mind when dealing with her.’ Shared mental models occur when, to some degree, we all have the same understanding of what is going on. It’s important that individuals on a team have a shared vision that leads to overlap in their mental models – at least with regard to the really vital issues such as, ‘How should we go about our work?’ and ‘What will success look like?’

Which ‘communication norms’ can hinder innovation?
If your organization has a communication norm whereby ‘nobody on this team is supposed to disagree with anyone else’, that can definitely hinder innovation. Just as worrisome is an accepted norm that ‘it’s okay for people to disagree, but it’s also okay to be quite rude and nasty about it’.  Either of these norms will shut down a number of people on a team: they simply will not say what they really think. What is required is a communication norm whereby it’s okay for people to disagree, but to always do so respectfully.

What can managers do to encourage information sharing?
The fact is, regardless of industry, everyone who works together will know lots of things that other people on the team don’t know. Leaders should make people feel comfortable about speaking up and saying things that they think are being missed or that might be unpopular. If I’m in a multi-disciplinary group and I notice that somebody is not raising something that I find to be obvious, it might actually be that nobody else knows that point except for me.  As a result, speaking up and saying something like, ‘I don’t know if you guys have thought of this, but…’ is critical to team functioning.

Susannah Paletz is a post-doctoral research associate in the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent four and a half years as a research psychologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center studying cultural and organizational factors that lead to creativity and teamwork.  She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in Social Psychology.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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  • Bonifer

    Susannah, there is a process that addresses all the complexity issues you cite-- synthesizing divergent and convergent thinking in real time, contextualizing knowledge to align with the objective, and assigning roles that support convergence. It's called improvisation (not improv!). The body of work generated by its 'modern godmother.' Viola Spolin, ranks with the philosophies of Martin Buber and the Taoists in terms of its relevance to the networked world. I define improvisation as 'a process for consistently generating positive outcomes from unforeseen circumstances.' Spolin's work has its roots in education for multi-cultural children. And what are we all today, if not children in a multi-cultural world? Thank you for your insightful post. (For more on Spolin, and improvisation for business, search www.gamechangers.com)

    on Feb 8, 2011