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  • Writer's pictureIsobel McEwan

How diversity in teams can aid problem solving

Innovation and problem solving go hand in hand. For organisations big and small, tackling problems can mean anything from looking at how your business can work more efficiently, overcoming challenges to progress or figuring out how to boost creative capacity. Whatever the problem, it is often presumed that ‘many hands make light work’, and as such whole teams are tasked with solving these problems and driving innovation forward.

But what if any team isn’t quite enough. Research has shown that specific types of teams, notably teams with high levels of diversity, are in fact better at problem solving than those made up of broadly similar individuals. Unpacking the link between diversity and problem solving is important, as it allows organisations to actively build a culture better suited to innovation and ultimately profitability.


Perhaps the most obviously form of diversity in teams is personality diversity. Every individual brings something different to an organisation, and as such psychometric testing is frequently employed to ensure that different personalities and skill sets complement each other in the workplace. It is generally presumed that by bringing in different personality types to work on a given problem, organisations will be able to foster problem solving and as such increase innovation.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has published a psychometric tests checklist which provides a useful framework for organisations thinking of using the technique to balance their team diversity. It is suggested that one way to assess the validity and worth of psychometric testing is to determine the correlation between the test scores and levels of performance of current job holders, and compare it with the same data for prospective team members. This can show the extent to which performance predictions have been confirmed in practice. By assessing your methods for encouraging diversity, you are able to better understand how this contributes to problem solving capacity and further streamline your team building process.


The argument for social diversity in the workplace is by now accepted and long entrenched. Although it is fair to say there is still significant progress to be made in increasing diversity, as was recently argued by the Center for American Progress in its discussion of Silicon Valley, the link between social, ethnic and gender diversity in teams and their capacity for innovation is much discussed.

A recent article by IDG’s ComputerWorld argued just this, suggesting that ‘different experiences and perspectives foster innovation needed to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse customer base.’ Citing Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School as saying:

‘diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving.

Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.’

Far more than simply ticking the box, the article argues that organisations should be actively seeking a diversity-based mindset that reaches all corners of the company in order to fully reap the rewards it can bring. By making social diversity a cornerstone of your organisational culture, diverse teams will more naturally follow.


In a recent article for Harvard Business Review (HBR) it was argued that while ‘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,’ in fact research has shown that cognitive diversity is in fact more likely to positively impact upon a team’s capacity for problem solving.

Defined as ‘differences in perspective or information processing styles’, with a particular interest in ‘how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations’, HBR’s study of cognitive diversity used the AEM cube, a tool developed by psychiatrist and business consultant Peter Robertson, to assess the differences in the way that people react to change.

The study found ‘a significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance’ in strategic execution exercises, and suggests that ‘tackling new challenges requires a balance between applying what we know and discovering what we don’t know that might be useful’, a skill which is very difficult if all team members hold the same cognitive approach. By building teams composed of cognitively diverse members, the chances of finding an innovative solution to a problem are increased.

Through a combination of personality, social and cognitive diversity, organisations can build teams that can effectively tackle problem solving and contribute to building a strong culture of innovation.

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