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IDC’s Monthly Best Practice: Apr 2012

Releasing the power of cognitive diversity for big performance gains

Some years ago I was HR Director for a large chemicals factory with 4500 employees. It had the most appalling industrial relations with frequent strikes and consequent bad publicity in the local, and sometimes the national, press. Its future was in jeopardy; because it had acquired a bad reputation with the Company’s Board and they were not investing in new manufactures on it.

I tried different employee relations interventions to try to improve matters, e.g. changes to the disputes’ procedures; negotiating skills training for the managers. None of these impacted significantly. However, as I was driving home one evening, I remembered that my parents, who had had non-managerial front-line jobs, would spend a lot of time discussing how much better their firm could be if only their managers did things differently. Of course, their managers never asked them. That evening I resolved that I would persuade the factory director to engage everyone at every level in a dialogue about how we made this the very best factory in the Group. He agreed to this when I put it to him the next morning and the factory embarked on a major engagement intervention.

The Factory Director and his team, which included me, developed a vision of what the factory needed to become like if it was to be the best in the Group in 5 years’ time. We communicated this vision to everyone and sought views on what we needed to do to achieve it. Joint manager and employee task groups were set up to formulate and assist with the implementation of plans to address the priority issues that were identified. We also trained the managers in effective dialogue. They learned how to listen and to hear and explore and build on what they had heard by: checking their understanding; summarising what they had heard; developing suggestions. They also learned how to listen and respond with empathy to concerns and to acknowledge contributions and feelings.

Five years after this intervention had been launched the Chairman of the Group came to congratulate it on becoming one of the best factories in the Group. Productivity had become high and absenteeism low and, most importantly, it had stopped having strikes. Investments in new manufactures were coming its way and, indeed, the factory continues to flourish to this day.

This is an example of leveraging ‘cognitive’ diversity by bringing together diverse teams, in terms of education and background in this case, to find innovative solutions to long-standing strategic and operational problems. The members of the teams had different: backgrounds of education and experience, ways of solving problems; styles of communication; approaches to thinking, etc. It was necessary to release the cognitive diversity that existed in the joint task groups and the team level dialogues taking place across the factory to generate innovative solutions on how to succeed with the vision of becoming the best. A key to releasing the power of cognitive diversity is that people have to listen to all of the voices contributing to the dialogue and be prepared to develop and explore ideas that might be very different from those they might have come up with. This is why it was necessary to provide training in effective dialogue.

So how do you prepare yourself, and others in your workforce, to listen deeply to viewpoints from those who have different beliefs, values and worldviews which shape their thought processes? IDC has considerable experience of releasing the power of cognitive diversity from many initiatives in all kinds of organisations. If you want any information on this powerful approach please do get in touch.

Dr Ian Dodds, 29 Mar 2012, iandodds@iandoddsconsulting.com





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