Exercising and your period

A rather taboo subject still for reasons I will never understand — talking about women’s health and our periods is still shot down by many. In this day and age I feel it’s important to openly talk…


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Individually perceptive but collectively blind

Almost everybody agrees that diversity is desirable within a team. The idea has always felt intuitively right to me. But while I’ve felt this, I have never understood or considered the mechanics of why.

Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas examines how diversity contributes to effective groups. He examines how multiple unique perspectives culminate into collective intelligence providing more value than the sum of its parts.

Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed

The books central thesis centres around the idea that a diverse group can lead to emergence:

The book is great and you should read it. I have summarised and paraphrased some of my favourite bits from the book.

The CIA, established soon after the end of World War II, is renowned for the quality of its employees. In one year the agency’s applicant-per-hire ratio was 20,000:1.

The CIA has had their choice of the “best and the brightest”. But anyone familiar with hiring biases will not be surprised to learn that [my quote, paraphrasing Rebel Ideas]:

Bin Laden employed multiple Islamic cultural references in his communications which were largely invisible to anglo-saxon protestant CIA agents

Until 1975, the agency openly barred the employment of homosexuals. At one intelligence conference in 1999, of the thirty-five speakers, thirty-four were white males. Of the 300 attendees fewer than five were non-white. As late as 1998 the CIA did not have a single case officer who spoke Pashto (one of the principle languages of Afghanistan).

This homogeneity across its analysts created the massive blindspot. This blindspot contributed to the CIA failing to grasp the threat eventually left the United States of America vulnerable to the 9/11 terror attacks.

The CIA missed signals and symbolism in Al Qaeda’s videos which would have been obvious to others with another lens. One insider stated “misled by the raggedy appearance of Bin Laden and his subordinates — squatting in the dirt, clothed in robes […]—and automatically assumed that they [were] an anti-modern, uneducated rabble”. Someone more familiar with Islam would have recognised the signals Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were using: the simple clothing was not primitive but a reference to the prophet — broadcasting from a cave was not evidence of backwardness but a referenced Mohammed seeking salvation in a cave during his Hejira. They were building an army of religious fanatics.

The business professor Katherine Phillips and her peers ran an experiment to test the value of racial diversity. Their experiment had two categories of groups: groups with three white members, and groups with two white members and one African-American team member. The task was a murder mystery where each group received common information, but each team member was given unique but crucial clues.

This result by itself is less surprising than the reported experience of the participants.

Being surrounded by people who think the same way as us stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain.

In 2016 English Football was not doing well. As a response David Sheepshanks, the chairman of the National Football Centre, worked with Matthew Syed to bring together an expert advisory group. This expert advisory group contained no experts in football, but experts in adjacent and complementary fields.

Football purists reviled the idea— what could non-football people possible know about football that the football association didn’t already know?

And the critics were correct: football experts do know more about football. However:

The external experts know a lot about other things that the coach did not know about.

Our past experiences and mental models colour everything we see and experience. It is very rare we are even aware of our reference points, biases and inherent assumptions.

David Foster Wallace most elegantly articulated this point in his speech This is Water:

There are some tasks (simple ones) where diversity adds no value. If you wanted the best relay race team you would ideally select the fasters runners at your disposal. Diversity in a team of runners (either cognitive or demographic) will not effect success. In simple tasks, diversity is a distraction. In complex tasks, the opposite is true.

In the modern knowledge economy most tasks are complex tasks.

Syed does make the point that evaluating choices is a much more complex task rather than executing instructions. That reminded me of this diagram:

Diversity is not a panacea and is not sufficient in and of itself. The environment and culture of a team can drastically enable or nullify the benefits of diversity.

Syed spends a chapter on Constructive Dissent (analogous to Patrick Lencioni’s “conflict” disfunction). He looks at examples of both mountaineering teams and aviation crews. When there is a culture of hierarchical dominance within a team very bad things can happen.

After struggling, finding very few patterns, they found:

Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and how they view their contributions to the whole.

The top factor determining team success:

Syed has a visual device for illustrating his central thesis on team diversity:

David works with others who know a lot of similar stuff. David is in an unintelligent team (a team of clones). Conversations in this team feel good but don’t lead to innovation
David only hires people who know a sub-set of what he knows. David is a dominant leader with a team of parrots. Conversations in this team defer to the leader
David is in a diverse, but collectively unintelligent, team — rebels without a cause. Conversations in this team are hard and don’t lead to good outcomes

Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans do but we outlasted them. Why?

From the final chapter:

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