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Facilitating Cognitive Diversity

By Mark Fedeli

In my previous post, I covered how the discipline of cognitive diversity can overcome groupthink in strategic decisions. Next, we must answer why and how this should happen.

Decision discipline is rare. As you move up the leadership ranks, the higher the cost of undisciplined decisions hampered by biases like groupthink. Cognitive diversity is a powerful leadership tool to discipline our decision processes. It brings all available data and workforce talents together to find new paths forward. It helps limit groupthink, makes us more innovative and our organizations less disruptable. The best way I know to benefit from cognitive diversity is to engage an outside facilitator to make it concrete.

Facilitation and Harnessing Cognitive Diversity

Facilitation is defined by the Association for Talent Development as “a technique used by trainers to help learners acquire, retain, and apply knowledge and skills.” Larry Phillips is one of the pioneers in the field of facilitation, which he sees as a “tool for thinking.”

Skilled facilitators who understand how to lead diverse groups through decision processes are worth their weight in gold. They work through the messiness of complex decisions, seeking consensus but not too quickly. Their disciplines include collecting broad inputs, raising probing questions, questioning common preconceptions and articulating overlooked courses of action.

Having attended facilitation training sessions led by Phillips, I believe we can apply some of his most important findings to IT leaders and organizations.

The Chicken and the Egg: An Innovation Case Study

Many of the most critical decisions I’ve helped facilitate took place during a leadership offsite or workforce reorganization.

Several years ago, I facilitated one large decision over several months for a federal agency leader, developing an enterprise’s digital innovation plan. The goal was the same as many other facilitations before it – to gather diverse stakeholder input to support a decision about innovation – but it included a detailed market assessment that made it a unique case study for today’s federal IT leaders.

After reviewing market analyses and speaking with many subject matter experts (SMEs), including five corporate chief information officers (CIOs), we realized that people in large organizations rarely know what innovations they want until they see them. This is a real chicken and egg problem for innovators like my agency client.

Multiple CIOs validated this problem. The CIO of a multi-billion-dollar wholesaler spoke candidly of being frustrated while trying to innovate decision-making too rapidly. This person found success by making simple enhancements to a dozen frequently used business intelligence reports by adding in an additional layer of geospatial data; another CIO for a logistics firm found success engaging business and technology teams simultaneously to validate new requirements with each group before buying fresh technology or upgrading legacy systems. This go-slow-to-go-fast approach paid off for the leader and their company, producing simple but sustained innovations in analytics for resource planners.

This taught me something vital about facilitating decisions and innovation: successful facilitation allows leaders to trust the process rather than their intuitions. Decision discipline means following a leader through the decision other than the one responsible for that decision. This allows cognitive diversity to surface a wide spectrum of ideas without stakeholders getting jumpy that too many perspectives are being considered.

Combatting the Naysayers

Someone might object, “Won’t cognitive diversity lead back to groupthink by bringing all perspectives together?” That can happen, and it is exactly why facilitation is so important.

When a senior leader commits to allowing a facilitator to bring diverse interests and viewpoints together, that leader gives up some control and gains a chance to observe good and bad biases hiding in stakeholder interests. Good facilitators get all available data on the table and call on each constituency to interpret it for the organization’s benefit.

People have different cognitive styles. Learning how to tap into these diverse styles directly counters groupthink. Subsequently, facilitation does not often lead the group back to the common ground they shared before, but to new “aha!” moments and insights. It expands the common ground.

Inevitably, some will need to adjust more than others, but in the end, the group creates something new. This new shared understanding can become a source of groupthink in the future, but when it is fresh, it carries transformative and innovative power.

By ensuring all stakeholder groups have a seat at the table and skillfully engaging each perspective, facilitation tends to produce leadership recommendations that are tested and honed by the cognitive diversity of a full spectrum of participants.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected] . And to read more from our summer/fall 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort and a link to their stories.

Mark Fedeli is a serial innovator and native of the Washington area with two decades of experience in software, national security and digital modernization. Currently, Mark serves as Federal Alliance Director for Qlik. He leads partner efforts to support Qlik’s 90+ federal customers. Mark is also completing a book about digital, generational and cognitive change called Horizon Zero, published by Blooming Twig Books. You can connect with him on Twitter.

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