The design of organisations and products
There is actual diversity — assembling teams of actually different people from different backgrounds, of different ages, genders, races, with varying cultural perspectives and who hold a diverse array of experience, expertise and opinion — and then there is diversity and inclusion, a second-order derivative of that, which is currently the subject of an in-vogue land-grab by a particular faction of the human resources military-industrial complex. The latter, despite its name, is curiously homogenous in outlook and output and disarmingly intolerant of contrary opinion, being founded as it is on a political disposition rather than, specifically, an abstract aspiration to make an organisation more effective.
It is also one of the sacred cows of the modern dialectic, so —other than to find mild amusement in its irony, we won’t have a lot to say about it — the JC picks his fair share of battles. That one is a bridge too far.
As for actual, first-order diversity, bring it on. This isn’t just a case of emulating Benetton commercials or marking out soft play areas and safe spaces. It is to recognise that a homogenous, familiar group with shared values and a single perspective — whatever its ethnic, gender or cultural bias — will be ill-equipped to deal with the problems and opportunities that complex systems — especially ones that are tightly-coupled — are certain to throw up.
Seeing all of us comprise, inhabit, and are immersed in complex systems all the time — merely complicated or simple systems are highly unusual over the run of human discourse — this isn’t just airy-fairy yogababble to put out on the corporate Twitter feed on Pride Day.
Yet our institutions — even those with a humble-bragging D&I directorate — are singularly resistant in practice to this idea. Thus, legal departments are populated not just by lawyers, but by lawyers educated at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities and trained at magic circle firms, at which they have had a singular, batshit crazy, view of the world beaten into them over a period of, literally, decades, before they ascend to a position of influence. There are no behavioural psychologists, no marketers, no complexity theorists among them. All of these disciplines have meaningful things to say about the management of legal and contractual relations.
There may be a chief operating officer, but she will be an accountant with an MBA, a postgraduate degree singularly calculated to render an otherwise useful professional calling into an amorphous morass of hackneyed outsourcing strategies.
To be sure there are far too many white, cis-gendered, London-based, middle-aged men in management roles, but the problem isn’t that they are specifically white, or hetero, or male: it is that through the monstrous meat-grinding systems that shape industry — the education, the professional homogenisation, the intellectual acculturation that weeds out anyone who doesn’t fit a tight profile moulded in the image of those whose are already at the top of the industry, the people who made it to the top of the industry are mediocre and they are all the same.
Their homogeneity is a symptom of mediocrity that is driven by something else, not a cause of it. These people may be disproportionately white, straight and male, but that isn’t what makes them sappingly dull. It isn’t clear how switching the pale fellas out for other university-educated, north-London inhabiting, MBA alumni who have been systematically beaten into exactly the same mental space, would make a difference.
If the chief benefit to an organisation of diversity is difference — you know, of opinion; borne of the divergent cultural and sexual perspectives of your staff — then you might be forgiven for expecting diversity to arrive arm-in-arm with a heightened sense of conflict, grit, chippiness — an air of the military school of life, so to say.
That would be great.
But this seems not the brand of diversity our millennial wunderkinds, bunkered in their safe spaces, are seeking.
The irony is that the JC — a fellow who enjoys forming diverse opinions for the sheer devil of it — find himself choosing his words even more carefully than normal, for fear of being cancelled, or whatever it is these youngsters do to old fogies these days, for bringing offence to neurotic tweenies.
- Groupthink: A homogenous group is more likely to go with the flow, and develop a hive mind, since each participant in the group will recognise, and expect, equivalent value and expertise across the cohort, will expect it to reflect her own values and expertise, and will therefore be disinclined to challenge.
- Inability to produce alternative solutions: if everyone around the table came from McKinsey, they’ll tend to apply the same techniques and approach problems the same way
- Thomas Kuhn’s fabulous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
- James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State.