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How Cognitive Diversity Can Power Government’s Need for Speed

In federal IT, we talk a lot about the speed of innovation and how to keep up. In a strange twist, the pace of technology change is moving so fast that innovation is actually starting to slow down. Technology itself is not literally slowing down — it continues to accelerate, of course. Rather, our perceptions are.

The pace of technology-related change now exceeds our ability to keep up. It has a life of its own; it defies simple narratives. Consider recent ransomware attacks. This insidious problem shows no sign of slowing, and conventional narratives can’t keep up. Because executives tend to operate within these narratives, it’s imperative for leaders to redefine their thinking to become more strategic in how they respond to technological innovation — even when these advancements are made with malicious intent.

The answer lies in cognitive diversity.

In 1998, Sam Nitzberg described the trajectory of cyberattacks. In the last 23 years, this path remains unchanged. The open design of the internet, coupled with global dependence on computing, sets us on an inevitable path toward today’s pace of technological disruptions; it was only a matter of time before we arrived.

While disruptability is not a word, it should be. It can be used to succinctly describe an organization’s current state and how susceptible it is to catastrophic change. Disruptability is the same kind of vulnerability that Blockbuster faced with Netflix, cassettes with CDs, and analog with digital. It is the same holistic risk posed by conventional responses to ransomware, supply chain attacks, domestic violent extremism, unrestricted warfare and nationalized deception.

Disruptability — once added to the dictionary — requires a strategic, adaptive response. So, where do we start?

The answer lies in cognitive diversity. It combines advanced analytics, diversified perception and focused teamwork. Cognitive diversity is what the federal government needs to balance speed and risk in today’s disruptable, tech-dependent world.

Here are five ways today’s leaders can counter disruptability with cognitive diversity:

  1. Cultivate cognitive diversity by intentionally seeking out a variety of perspectives. When your organization is faced with a challenge, seek out diverse stakeholders and influencers to be part of the solution. Bring them into your enterprise risk assessments. Ask them to speak candidly, and listen closely.
  2. Exemplify and protect organizational forgiveness. Reward those who identify early risks and process inefficiencies. Keep everyone focused on the overall goal to become more responsive — and receptive — to change. Convert candid feedback into a flood of constructive insights.
  3. Create a culture that practices harder than it plays. I learned this from some truly exceptional teammates along the way. Honor those who respect the organization and its mission enough to call out lax performance or errors in judgment, including your own. Bad habits are magnified in times of intense change. Cognitive diversity detects them more quickly than groupthink and conventional thinking.
  4. Respect the complex role of bias. Bias is inevitable, and to an extent, it’s also essential. Being biased for diversity, forgiveness and tenacity is constructive. Conversely, biases against diversity, legitimate authority and smart risk-taking set us up for failure. Misreading biases creates bland, disruptable cultures.
  5. Align cognitive diversity to organizational strategy. Doing this over time achieves what Columbia University’s William Duggan calls strategic intuition. It’s the clear and direct insight that flows from people and teams working steadily to grasp new situations. The best leaders, from Steve Jobs to Napoleon, had strategic intuition. Tag, you’re it.

Brain science explains strategic intuition well. Like computer networks, our brains are full of links and pathways that cut across hierarchies. Sure, there are rules, but the brain is adaptive, not rigid. Just as the brain is built to generate insights from diverse inputs, organizations can generate innovative, game-changing insights through cognitive diversity.

Cognitive diversity is the right response to the current pace of technology and the change it enables. The quickening risks of our digital world demand that we reject groupthink to remain disruptable. And the best news? We don’t need to be brain scientists to accomplish this.

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.

This post was originally published on July 21, 2021

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