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The Avengers had a unified mission, like startup founders.
The Avengers had a unified mission, like startup founders.

Opinion: What The Avengers says about diversity

Cognitive diversity and complementary skills powered the Avengers to victory

Amidst back-to-back meetings in Seattle last week, I managed to find time for a late night show of Avengers: Endgame. It was phenomenal not only because of the gripping plot but also because it took me back to business school when we watched 12 Angry Men to learn the nuances of negotiations. Avengers: Endgame should be taught in graduate programmes. In addition to being wickedly interesting, it is sprinkled with insights on leadership, strategy and organizational behaviour.

What fascinated me was the way the Avengers came together to pursue an almost impossible challenge, a moonshot in techspeak. Each team member had a clear sense of purpose, shared understanding of the goal, acute awareness of potential challenges and most importantly, skin in the game. Many qualified teams in startups and corporates fail because networking dinners and off-sites cannot be substitutes for a unifying mission.

Bestselling author Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why explains that unless we agree on the why, the what and the how are meaningless. This is especially important when we are putting together a team for a moonshot project. We mustn’t settle for hiring smart people who can do the job. It is far better to hire motivated people who believe what we believe and are willing to learn, sacrifice and add new dimensions to the mission.

Sharing a belief system doesn’t mean hiring people like you. If the Avengers did that, Thanos would have had a blissful retirement on Planet 0259-S. It is well known that diversity of gender, thought, conviction and action enables better problem solving. One often ignored category is cognitive diversity which is the difference in perspective or information processing styles.

Tackling challenges requires striking a balance between what we know and learning what we don’t know at an accelerated pace. According to British professors, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, a high degree of cognitive diversity generates accelerated learning and performance in the face of uncertain, complex situations. Cognitive diversity and complementarity of skills were the factors that powered the Avengers to victory.

If cognitive diversity is so crucial, why don’t modern workplaces encourage it? The truth is that many startups and corporates try but often stumble into two bottlenecks. First, cognitive diversity is hard to detect from the outside. Reynolds and Lewis state that it cannot be predicted or easily orchestrated. Being from a different nation or generation gives insufficient clues as to how the person processes information and responds to change. The second reason is that there are cultural barriers to cognitive diversity. People prefer to fit into the organizational culture than to question the way things get done.

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is to hire people who fit in to their existing culture. They should instead hire for cultural contribution. In practical terms this means empowering employees to evolve and shape cultural norms. This also helps analyse existing challenges with a fresh perspective.

The movie concludes by stating that everyone just wants to be happy. That’s where I disagree. More than happy endings, we crave for adventurous stories and meaningful endings. Captain America dancing with his beloved is a bland scene by itself but couple it with the overall story, it makes tough business executives shed tears. At least that’s what happened with the person sitting next to me in the Seattle movie theatre.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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