You Can’t Build a Puzzle (Team) if all the Pieces Are Round

Your Team: You Can’t Build a Puzzle if all the Pieces are Round

Think for a moment about your team.

Is your team cognitively diverse?

Those jigsaw puzzles with pieces that are all the same size and shape were designed by people who love to inflict pain on others. Imagine what kind of person would create a puzzle with pieces that are only round. That person seems to be driving how teams are built in companies today . . .

From Starbucks to Salesforce to Staples, workplace diversity is getting some much-needed attention. The Census Bureau says the U.S. population is over 35 percent multicultural. That fact and some uncomfortable analytics are promoting companies to actively pursue greater diversity in their teams.

Beyond it being the right thing to do, building greater diversity across our enterprises has a direct impact on results. McKinsey&Company found “a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.” Boston Consulting Group’s study of 171 companies found “a clear relationship between the diversity of companies’ management teams and the revenues they get from innovative products and services.”

Cognitive Diversity

But one dimension of diversity we don’t hear much about—where the round puzzle piece is dominant, is cognitive diversity. Harvard Business Review researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis define cognitive diversity as “how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations.”[i]

The impact of cultural diversity is lost if companies continue to hire “in their own image” or if recruiters take the safe route and only present candidates who are highly skilled and highly compliant. To streamline and accelerate decision-making, many senior leaders build teams of executives that think alike and readily agree, when what they need is a better process for making decisions within highly divergent points of view.

From problem solving to decision making to innovation to market expansion, executive teams accomplish more when there is both cultural diversity and cognitive diversity. In other words, the most productive teams don’t readily agree. They engage in what Patrick Lencioni calls “productive, ideological conflict: passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance.”

That kind of diversity will make people uneasy. It will challenge the insecure. Cognitive diversity will force static organizations to change their xenophobic cultures and willingly consider issues from multiple angles, giving equal consideration to unpopular options when making decisions that solve real problems and accelerate profitable growth.

Cognitive diversity is apparent in teams that pursue—

  • Collaboration more than cohesion.
  • Alignment more than agreement.
  • Unity of purpose more than unanimity of thought.

Regina Dugan, head of Facebook’s secretive Building 8 hardware team is right. “You have to get to the place where you aren’t made comfortable by the fact that everyone is the same, but rather feel inspired by how different we are.”

Executive branding helps a leader define that difference and use it productively to advance a career—and bring value to an enterprise.


[i] Harvard Business Review, March 30, 2017. Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re Cognitively Diverse



A Second Look at the Value of Employee Engagement

If your company invested $700 million to $1 billion in a market opportunity with little or no revenue growth, you would quickly reconsider the proposition behind the investment. U.S. companies are spending that amount trying to increase employee engagement while Gallup tells us engagement remains flat at 32% in the U.S. and 13% globally.

The connection between employee engagement and productivity, profitability, client satisfaction, and absenteeism is well-documented. Separate studies from McKinsey and Gallup state that productivity improves 20-25% with connected employees.

To foster engagement, new corporate campuses look like city parks, loaded with places to collaborate, exercise, engage with colleagues, enjoy free gourmet meals, and relax. Deloitte’s list of factors that contribute to a positive work environment includes—

Employee ENgagement
Rethink Employee Engagement
  • Humanistic workspaces
  • Time for slack
  • Inspiration
  • Self-directed, dynamic learning
  • Culture of recognition

Accountability for results is not on the list.

Yet, telling someone their effort makes a difference, is one of the most powerful ways to fuel an employee’s passion and energy. Realistic expectations and accountability for achieving them are more impactful than any other corporate benefit. You can easily identify people not motivated by accountability. They are the people that don’t want to do what they are supposed to do.

Let’s rethink employee engagement. The desire for full engagement across an organization leads to the plethora of initiatives consuming that $700 million. What if companies stopped trying to engage everyone in the enterprise and focused those investments primarily on the emerging leaders, high potential employees, and the people the company can’t afford to lose to another organization—or to their own apathy?

If the Pareto Principle is true, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest engagement dollars in expanding the 20% producing most of the results to 40%? The ROI should increase exponentially for companies that focus more effort toward high-potential leaders most likely to become fully vested in their own and the organization’s success.  And, in the process, the same 20% are highly likely to influence the engagement of other key talent, now and in the future!

Job satisfaction, personal happiness, and engagement with life (including work) are not the result of a perfect environment. They are the result of personal choice. A percentage of every workforce is disengaged with life and will likely never become engaged at work. To invest equally in that group as in the people most likely to grow and contribute is a questionable strategy.

One component of executive branding is helping a leader recognize his or her unique value contribution and how a distinct combination of skills, personality, executive presence, and potential defines current and future success. Build the brand of the people willing to take responsibility for their—and your company’s success.

Treating every employee fairly is isn’t treating every employee the same.