Anyone who’s ever sat through a committee meeting will know that groups of people don’t always make good decisions. But there’s a way to do better. And that’s to make our groups as diverse as possible.
Decision-making groups, especially within organisations, tend to be somewhat homogeneous. Similar people from similar backgrounds with similar experiences. It’s a comfortable and reassuring environment. We trust the judgement of those around us because they look and sound like us.
This makes for a smooth and effortless decision-making process. And we feel confident in our decisions. But we shouldn’t.
Because there’s a significant chance that we’re all wrong.
As Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcsik explain in their book Meltdown: Why our systems fail and what we can do about it, homogeneous groups tend to normalise and perpetuate errors. We go along with the consensus among our peers. Even, bizarrely, when we think it might be wrong.
Things get even worse when everyone in the room has a high level of experience in the things being discussed. Because we bring with us a lot of baggage that we don’t want to question. We take our assumptions for granted. We get over-confident. We assume that we’re right.
This kind of thing rarely ends well.
Banks are more likely to fail, say Clearfield and Tilcsik, if they have a high proportion of bankers on their boards. And the board of healthcare technology start-up Theranos, despite the combined experience of a high-powered cadre of white blokes in their sixties, failed to notice that the company’s revolutionary diagnostic technology just didn’t work.
Interestingly, though, we can avoid these problems by making our groups more diverse. By including people from a broader range of backgrounds. People of different ages, genders, ethnicities, sexes, sexual orientations, religions and beliefs, abilities and disabilities. People who think in different ways. Even, perhaps counter-intuitively, people who know less about the topics under discussion.
Because the evidence from numerous studies shows that diverse groups make better decisions.
People who are different from each other know different things. They think in different ways. They have different perspectives. They are also less likely to take something for granted or to bow to the expertise of someone who doesn’t look, sound and behave like them. In short, diverse groups create productive conflict.
This can, of course, make the decision-making process less smooth. It can take longer. It can create argument and friction. It can be uncomfortable for those involved.
But it leads to better decisions. And that, ultimately, is what it’s all about.