Diversity of thought: surviving and thriving in a changing world

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Diversity of Thought

In a rapidly evolving world, organisations must adapt to survive and thrive. However, the key lies not only in technological innovation, but in the diversity of thought within an organisation. EUROCONTROL’s Steven Shorrock sheds light on the crucial role diversity of thought plays in navigating the complexities of our changing world.

There are three truths by which many organisations either survive or fail. The first is that everything is changing: technology, industries, regulations, economies, markets, societies, and the climate. Some changes are generated by organisations, while others happen to organisations. Some changes happen slowly or are otherwise foreseeable, while others are fast and surprise us. The second truth is that organisations must adapt to their environment if they are to survive and thrive. To be more specific, people must adapt, and create the capacity for resilient operations. Even in the most technologically advanced sectors, only people can do this. The third truth is that everything has limits, including technology and people. Some limits are fixed, but our adaptive capacity is malleable.

Aviation is changing in so many ways that it is hard to envision how things might look in a few decades’ time. But in an increasingly complex world, everything is becoming more interconnected and interdependent. Changes in one part of the aviation system, society or the world affect parts that were not thought to be connected. Perturbations ripple through the industry under the surface, with changes emerging in ways that surprise us. Even small changes in one part can result in big changes in another.

Solutions are also interconnected and can also be hard to see. One feature of complexity that is often unappreciated is diversity. Complex systems require diversity to cope with changing conditions. This is why just as a bee colony has different kinds of bees for different roles, organisations have different kinds of people for different jobs. But we don’t just need diverse jobs. We need diverse ways of thinking. Diversity of thinking is needed to cope with the diversity of challenges and opportunities ahead concerning sustainability, safety, security, business continuity, capacity, and efficiency. So, how can we expand and enrich the diversity of thinking in organisations necessary to meet the demands of a complex and rapidly changing world, and how can we create the conditions for this to be expressed?

Research in a variety of disciplines, from psychology to complexity science, suggests several ways to encourage diversity of thought in yourself, your team and your organisation

Embrace uncertainty

Recently, with the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and climate change, we have experienced ever more uncertainty about the state of the world and the future. In a rapidly changing world, it is necessary to accept and be comfortable with uncertainty. Whether we are trying to understand a situation or intentionally bringing about change, it is important to accept that we probably do not and cannot fully understand a complex situation or system. Surprises that result from interventions are an example of this. Once we accept uncertainty, the need for diverse perspectives and diversity of thought becomes clearer. But we need to allow this diversity to be expressed.

Practise taking multiple perspectives

The ability to see situations from multiple perspectives is part of what makes us human. Shifting between different perspectives may involve seeing things from different roles or backgrounds, or with different goals or information, for instance. This illuminates perceptions and understandings, and helps us to see and understand problems and opportunities. Perspective-shifting is critical to managing in the face of complexity as different aspects of systems and situations come to light. Skill is required to harvest these different views. Perspective shifting is taught on programmes from systems thinking and complexity science to art and psychotherapy, and it can require deliberate practice to become agile enough to see things differently.

"Diversity of thinking is needed to cope with the diversity of challenges and opportunities ahead concerning sustainability, safety, security, business continuity, capacity, and efficiency"

Embrace openness to experience

In psychology, ‘openness to experience’ is one of the ‘big five’ personality traits. It is associated with curiosity, creativity, and imagination. People who score highly on this trait are better able to see things differently and from different perspectives, and they are better able to tolerate uncertainty. We can all increase our openness to experience to adapt and thrive in the face of change. Research shows that openness to experience can be enhanced by cultural activities, reading different books, learning an instrument, taking up a new hobby, and even developing a more active lifestyle and paying more attention to the natural and built environment. But we must be willing to change, believe that we can change, and persist with behavioural changes until they become habitual.

Learn how to listen

We all know how to listen, but we don’t all know how to do it well. How often do you find yourself ‘listening’ while also using your mobile phone, thinking of something else, or otherwise not really giving full attention? To benefit from diverse ways of thinking, we need to really attend and listen to those expressing them. We probably all know someone who listens well. It pays to observe how they do this. Again, formal courses are available to help (for example, counselling skills), and may be the most useful training you can do, both professionally and personally.

"The diversity of thought needed in an organisation reflects the diversity of problems and opportunities that we face"

Reflect on difference

When I think back to the conferences I have attended, a small number of sessions stick out. Why? They were different. One involved an interactive theatre play that we organised at a EUROCONTROL just culture conference for pilots, controllers, safety specialists, prosecutors and judges. Another involved jazz musicians at a conference on resilience. Other sessions have involved discussions where different perspectives could emerge. Most other ‘presentations’ become part of a homogenous soup. If you think back to something that really stood out in a positive way, and perhaps helped change the way you think about something, it tends to be a discontinuity and a break from the norm. It tends to involve diversity of thought and action. This should be elevated and celebrated.

Recruit outside of the usual disciplines

In aviation, we tend to value certain disciplines for certain organisational activities. For engineering projects, we mostly recruit those with a background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This can result in groups of people who think and act in the same sort of way and see the same sort of problems and opportunities. They may be unwilling to share unconventional views or ideas. In a changing world, the ability of monocultural teams to respond appropriately is rapidly saturated. What is often missing is an understanding of humanities. Problems may involve relationships, communication, culture, complexity, ethics, and jurisprudence. A humanitiesbased perspective can help even (or especially) the most technologically-advanced engineering work, which is still trying to address social issues in a social context. Some major software organisations are now recruiting not only software engineers but resilience engineers to help organisations improve their capability to respond, monitor, learn, and anticipate. We are going to need to cross and combine disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach.

Create bumping spaces

We can benefit from diversity by physically designing the environment to create the opportunity for people to come into contact with others in serendipitous encounters. These ‘bumping spaces’ allow people to meet one another and exchange ideas and perspectives. They include informal areas where people bump into others, including those they don’t routinely work with. They provide the physical space to generate and explore new ideas and ways of thinking and strengthen relationships so that these can be exchanged. Many breakthrough ideas are formed and developed away from the desk.

"In a changing world, the ability of monocultural teams to respond appropriately is rapidly saturated. What is often missing is understanding of humanities"

Create time to get together (with people unlike yourself)

We often think we lack time to get together, especially for unstructured and informal activities. But it is such activities that allow divergent thinking to fertilise. This happens partly because new ideas are generated through interactions and the expertise that emerges when we get together. But it is partly because of something else: when we get together socially with people of different backgrounds, professions, networks, and ways of thinking, a special sort of ‘social capital’ is developed. This is called bridging social capital. Like new synaptic connections in the brain, new relationships are forged. Trust is developed that gives permission for new ideas to be expressed.

Level the playing field

Some degree of power distance or hierarchy is necessary in organisations. For instance, power distance can be useful for the implementation of ideas and is expected and valued in some cultures. But more inequality in power makes it more difficult for new ideas and new ways of thinking to be generated and expressed. In organisations with a steep hierarchy, innovation is flattened.

Given there are several ways to benefit from diversity of thought at work, the next question is where to start. I don’t think it matters too much. Each of these suggestions can be a good starting point. But do make a start. Every organisation needs people with different perspectives and ways of thinking. In a changing world where we need to adapt to survive and thrive, one of the biggest limits to our adaptability is homogeneity. The diversity of thought needed in an organisation reflects the diversity of problems and opportunities that we face. If we are to be ready to adapt to the changes that are to come, the path to survival and success lies in embracing the diversity of thought that reflects the diversity of the world we inhabit.

Steven Shorrock

Dr Steven Shorrock

Senior Team Leader Human Factors in the EUROCONTROL Network Manager Safety Unit. Steven is a Chartered Psychologist and Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist and is Editor-in-Chief of EUROCONTROL’s HindSight magazine.

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