By favouring talent from the same sector, who think and process information in the same way, some companies might be missing out on cognitive diversity, suggests Debra Channon, internal communications consultant.

18th March 2020

Collective intelligence comes from a diversity of perspectives, not from having lots of people coming at a problem from the same standpoint.


Imagine you’re looking through the job ads when a really exciting IC role grabs you.

You read the role requirements and see “sector experience essential”. What do you do? Fire off your CV, confident that your time in that sector will secure you an interview? Write a covering letter setting out how your transferrable skills more than compensate for your lack of sector experience?

Or are you put off from applying, believing that without sector experience you’ll be rejected at first pass? 

Over my career, I’ve done all three, with varying degrees of success. What I’ve found is that most companies perceive direct or similar sector experience as a positive attribute in a job candidate… but should this be the case?

Look at problems through fresh eyes
Thankfully, we’ve witnessed an increased focus on inclusion and diversity, and consequently are seeing desperately needed movement in gender, ethnicity and sexuality representation and balance.

Innovation, creativity, fresh ideas and accelerated problem-solving stem from looking at things differently.

Even if they appear diverse from the outside, teams that think the same on the inside – and respond to challenges in the same way – tend to come up with the same answers. While cognitively diverse teams tackle problems from different perspectives, they are more likely to question the status quo and challenge each other’s thinking.

Collective intelligence comes from a diversity of perspectives, not from having lots of people coming at a problem from the same standpoint.

So what could mean for IC? Here are a few things to consider:


1. Build cognitive diversity in your team

  • If you’re hiring, define the skills and capabilities that you need in your team based on the challenges you have. Question why you may or may not need someone with sector experience or IC experience for that matter? Don’t look for clones of yourself or your team, look for people who bring something fresh and new, who will challenge your thinking.


  • Consider how you can encourage your team (including yourself) to think differently. Training, coaching and mentoring are all development opportunities that could help with this.


  • You’ve heard of the “wisdom of crowds”; look for opportunities to collaborate with a greater diversity of people. Imagine what that colleague from marketing, that IT project manager or that frontline colleague could bring to your team brainstorm or planning session. And what could you contribute to other teams?


2. Get over the discomfort of diversity

  • Life is easiest when people agree. Many of us are conflict averse and at pains to avoid disagreement, but that’s exactly what we don’t want when it comes to innovation and creativity. Disagreement and conflict come when people don’t think the same. Instead of seeking harmony, embrace discord constructively and collaboratively.
  • Groupthink isn’t productive. Don’t hold back when you disagree or have a different viewpoint or alternative idea. Just because everyone else shares one way of thinking, it doesn’t mean you can’t say that you think differently.
  • Senior people don’t always have the best or right solutions, but who wants to disagree with the boss? Great leaders don’t exist in an echo chamber and aren’t impressed by colleagues who simple parrot the same ideas and opinion. Instead, they welcome alternative ideas and perspectives from people prepared to question and challenge.


3. Navigate the diversity v culture dichotomy

  • Building corporate culture is key, but the idea of “how things are done round here” clashes with diversity in all its forms – particularly cognitive diversity. What’s the point of hiring people with different beliefs, ideas and ways of thinking, only to remould them to fit with the culture of the company to the point that their uniqueness is lost forever?
  • With IC central to creating and maintaining corporate culture, we’re in a great place to drive flexible and dynamic cultures where everyone feels that they belong. The traditional notion of “cultural fit” should be rejected and instead those who don’t fit the usual cultural mould should be welcomed and celebrated.


4. Don’t limit yourself

  • Push yourself to think differently, to speak up and to share your ideas.
  • Be open-minded. Step back, put aside your own pre-conceptions and listen to other viewpoints – in and outside of work – especially those you disagree with. You just might just learn something.
  • Finally, take yourself out of your comfort zone. Take on a challenge that you’ve never faced before. Learn a completely new skill. Work in a different team, a different department, a different company… or even a different sector.


Cognitive diversity: some recommended reading

Debra Channon has over 25 years’ experience in internal communications and employee engagement. Having led internal communications at the Post Office and international law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, Debra moved into consultancy and then into senior level interim management; leading internal communications for some of the world’s leading brands including De Beers, Burberry, Centrica, Tarmac, Carphone Warehouse and Neptune Energy.











Collective intelligence comes from a diversity of perspectives, not from having lots of people coming at a problem from the same standpoint.


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