The Difference that Makes a Difference

Alison Reynolds & David Lewis

Looking around the executive teams we work with as consultants and those we teach in the classroom, increased diversity of gender, ethnicity, and age is apparent.  Over recent decades the rightful endeavour to achieve a more representative workforce has had an impact. Of course, there is a way to go but progress has been made.

Throughout this period, we have run a strategic execution exercise with executive groups focused on managing new, uncertain and complex situations.  The exercise requires the group to formulate and execute a strategy to achieve a specified outcome, against the clock.

Received wisdom is that the more diverse the teams (in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender), the more creative and productive they are likely to be. But, in our exercise some groups fared exceptionally well and others incredibly badly, regardless of their apparent diversity. This was corroborated when we looked at the data; we found no correlation between successful outcomes in the execution of the exercise and diversity in the executive teams.

When there is so much focus on the importance of diversity in problem solving we were intrigued by these results. If not diversity, then what accounted for such variability in performance? We wanted to understand what led some groups to succeed and others to crash and burn. This led us to consider differences that go beyond gender, ethnicity or age.  Differences referred to under the heading of cognitive diversity.

Cognitive diversity has been defined as differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity or age. Here we are interested in a specific aspect of cognitive diversity, how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain and complex situations. We call this kind of cognitive diversity ‘thinkversity’.

The AEM Cube®, a tool developed by Peter Roberson, a psychiatrist and business consultant, assesses differences in the way people approach change. It measures:

  • Knowledge processing: The extent to which individuals prefer to consolidate and deploy existing knowledge, or prefer to generate new knowledge, when facing new situations
  • Perspective: The extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations

We used this tool to measure the different levels of thinkversity in teams undertaking the strategic execution exercise.  Our analysis across six teams who undertook the exercise shows a significant correlation between high thinkversity and high performance in the exercise as shown in the table below:

Team Performance

(Minutes to complete challenge)

Knowledge Processing

(standard deviation)


(standard deviation)

A 21 25.98 23.68
B 22 29.94 24.91
C 22.5 30.59 27.13
D 34.5 20.06 21.66
E 45 (retired failed ) 17.92 16.74
F 60  (retired failed) 18.80 14.64


The three teams that completed the challenge in a good time (teams A, B and C) all had high diversity of both knowledge processes and perspective, as indicated by a larger standard deviation. The three that took longer or failed to complete (D, E and F) all had less diversity as indicated be a lower standard deviation. Our analysis suggests these are important differences that influence performance in executing strategy in new, uncertain situations.

Intuitively this makes sense. Tackling new challenges requires a balance between applying what we know and discovering what we don’t know that might be useful.  It also requires individual application of specialized expertise and the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.

A high degree of thinkversity generates accelerated learning and performance in the face of new uncertain and complex situations, as in the case of the execution problem we set for our executives.

These cognitive preferences are established when we are young. They are independent of our education, our culture and other social conditioning. Two things about thinkversity make it particularly easy to overlook:


1. Thinkversity is less visible

First, it is less visible than ethnic and gender diversity, for example.

Being a man or woman, from a different culture or of a different generation, gives no clue as to how that person might process information, engage with or respond to change.  We cannot easily detect thinkversity from the outside. It cannot be predicted or easily orchestrated. The very fact that thinkversity is an internal difference requires us to work hard to surface it and harness the benefits.

We worked with a start-up biotechnology company. When its R&D team faced our strategy execution task they performed terribly. The team, mixed in terms of gender, age and ethnicity was homogeneous in how they preferred to engage with and think about change. These were content expert PhD scientists who had been attracted to biotech to explore their specialism. With little thinkversity, they had no versatility in how to approach the task.  They never finished.

On another occasion we worked with a group of IT consultants on the same exercise.  If we had not called a halt we would have had to cancel dinner.  All activity ceased, as each individual tried to work out a solution in their head.

Conversely, we have seen siblings of the same sex, generation and schooling, typically considered a low diversity group, demonstrate a high degree of thinkversity and solve the task at speed.  Recently two teams of European, middle-aged, men, went head to head on the challenge. One failed to complete it, the other succeeded – the difference? The successful team had much higher thinkversity.


2. Cultural barriers to thinkversity

The second factor which contributes to thinkversity being overlooked is that we create cultural barriers that restrict the degree of thinkversity, even when we don’t mean to.

Functional bias

We are familiar with the saying ‘we recruit in our own image’, but this bias doesn’t end with our formal recruitment processes. We continue to gravitate towards the people who think and express themselves in a similar way to ourselves. As a result, we often end up in like-minded teams. When this happens, as in the case of our biotech R&D team, we have functional bias and low thinkversity.

Functional bias is a problem for teams facing new uncertain and complex situations because with little thinkversity the ability to see things differently, engage in different ways (e.g., experiment, versus analysing) and create new options, are limited. Similarly, when organizations initiate change programmes they often seek out and identify ‘advocates’ or ‘change agents’ to support activities. Those selected often have a similar approach to change. This lack of thinkversity has two impacts. First, it reduces the opportunity to strengthen the proposition with input from people who think differently. Second, it fails to represent the thinkversity of the employee population reducing the impact of engagement initiatives often spearheaded by change agents.

Conformity bias

If you look for it, thinkversity is all around but people like to fit in and are cautious about sticking their necks out.  When we have a strong homogenous culture (e.g., an engineering culture, an operational culture, or a relationship culture), we stifle the natural thinkversity in groups through the pressure to conform. The chart on the left below shows the self-assessed thinkversity of a group of 50 managers from an organization executing a new strategy. The chart on the right shows how the same managers were seen by their direct reports.  A lot less diverse!

Conformity Bias

There is much talk of authentic leadership, i.e., being yourself.  Perhaps it is even more important that leaders focus on enabling others to be themselves as opposed to homogenised holograms generated from the generic competency frameworks leaders put in place.


Physiological safety

If thinkversity is what we need to succeed in dealing with new, uncertain and complex situations, we need to overcome cultural barriers and encourage people to reveal and deploy their thinkversity.  We need to recognize the expression of authentic drives and responses, instincts and preferences; to make it safe to be yourself, to try, to fail and try again. For more than to have all the answers, creating psychological safety is the prime responsibility of today’s leaders.


Three principles to enhance your thinkversity

  • Makes sure your recruitment processes identify difference and recruit for thinkversity
  • When facing a new, uncertain complex situation, and everyone agrees on what to do, find someone who disagrees and cherish them
  • Focus on creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone, including the leader, can openly contribute their perspectives, experiences and vulnerabilities wholeheartedly.

Learn more about Lewis and Reynolds

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