THE DIVERSITY EQUATION
On 22 January 2018 I read a letter in the Daily Telegraph in which a group of Britain’s biggest employers of engineers, including the bosses of BP, Shell, BAE and Rolls-Royce, has pledged to tackle the profession’s lack of diversity.
This coalition of major technical employers said:
“we must address a lack of diversity in a workforce that is currently 92pc male and 94pc white”.
There is mounting concern that Britain is not training enough engineers to renew infrastructure. “It is crucial to the country’s success that more people – and a more diverse group of people – join the profession,” their letter said.
It is estimated that 186,000 new engineers will be needed each year to meet demand. The sector is this year collaborating with Government on a Year of Engineering recruitment campaign, designed to encourage more young people into the profession. Bosses claimed the perception of the sector is skewed in part because only one in three parents know what an engineering job entails. The Royal Academy of Engineering has previously warned of an “old boys’ network” approach in the industry.
So what? Why do we need the diversity? What difference will it make?
The argument has always been that with greater diversity comes greater innovation and thereby greater productivity.
I am currently reading Lèo Grasset’s book ‘How the Zebra got its stripes’ containing tales from the weird and wonderful world of evolution. I was surprised to find the following equation on its pages.
Collective Error = Average Error - Diversity
This is a theorem presented by Scott E. Page redefining the way we understand ourselves in relation to one another. His book entitled ‘The Difference’ is about how we think in groups and how our collective wisdom exceeds the sum of its parts.
Why can teams of people find better solutions than brilliant individuals working alone?
Why are the best group decisions and predictions those that draw upon the very qualities that make each of us unique?
The answers lie in diversity, not what we look like outside, but what we look like within, our distinct tools and abilities. He reveals that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalising on their individuality. Page shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and Page proves it using his own cutting-edge research. Moving beyond the politics that cloud standard debates about diversity, he explains why difference beats homogeneity. Scott Page is professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan and an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute.
Ever heard of Francis Galton, the half-cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin?
A talented polymath, an explorer and statistician, he studied the ability of groups to get the right answer even when they are made up of a random mix of individuals. He tested his theory in 1906 in a ‘guess the weight of an ox’ game set up at an agricultural show in Plymouth, He observed that none of the 800 people who took part got anywhere near the ox’s actual weight of 543.4kg. However when he took an average of their guesses he got a result of 542.95kg. This was a mere 450 grams short of the bull’s true weight.
Why is this anecdote in a book about evolution?
Take a look at how Buffalo survive in a herd. Herbert Prins noted that when the herd goes to feed, the herd arises as one and immediately moves uniformly towards its chosen feeding ground for the evening. Apparently, by this time, a decision has already been reached about where to feed.
But how is this decision made?
African buffalo rest during the hottest afternoon hours. From around 1700 to 1800, the hour before feeding begins, individual buffalo will stand for a minute or so, gaze in one direction, then lay back down. Only a handful of buffalo will be doing this at any one time. Not all buffalo participate, mainly the permanent (i.e. female) adult members of the herd, almost all of which participate. This suggests that there is some sort of voting process going on. Prins recorded the direction in which each buffalo looked, and calculated a mean direction. As it turns out, when the herd arises to feed, it invariably moves in the mean direction of all these "votes." What's more, the votes seem to reflect a measure of consensus.
Prins calls this behaviour "voting." It is suggested that "voting" is the wrong analogy, however. If this behaviour were analogous to what we call voting, we might expect to see conflicting factions, or at least a lot less consensus in the initial votes. Instead, this behaviour is more analogous to what we call "coordination games." The buffalo are indifferent as to which feeding ground they go to, as long as it is a good one and everybody else goes there too. The buffalo are merely coordinating on a direction to travel. Perhaps this is more similar to political voting (where party members must coordinate on a procedural bill) than to popular voting (where two or more factions compete). Prins seems to recognize this distinction. He sees the herd acting as an "information center"; by averaging across individual cows' preferences, the herd comes to an optimal decision. As Prins points out, this may be why younger buffalo and non-permament members of the herd (bulls) do not participate; they defer to the more experienced adult cows. In human politics, this is analogous to a voter using a public opinion poll, or the advice of an expert panel, in forming their opinion about an issue. So the buffalo are not necessarily "voting" per se, but they certainly seem to be pooling their information into a collective decision.
So are the buffalo being more inclusive and open to a greater diversity of options to increase their chances of survival and thereby build a more resilient herd. One that is resilient to the changes and vagaries of the external environment. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment in fact that all businesses face.
If you want to discover how to increase the diversity within your organisation then perhaps consider being coached.
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