June 29, 2021

The concept of diversity was shunned at the CIA for most of its post-war period. They didn’t want “diverse” analysts; they wanted “smart” analysts. As Fred Feltz, who worked for the National Security Council, put it: “The CIA’s mission is too important to be distracted by social-engineering efforts.”

This statement, I think, reflects the way many think about diversity initiatives. They fear that for all the warm words about diversity, it is really a box ticking exercise that undermines excellence. This was even the view of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He positioned diversity and excellence as a trade-off. “You can either be diverse or you can be super duper,” he said.

But let’s return to the CIA, which hired brilliant individuals, who also happened to be remarkably similar: white, male, middle class, Anglo Saxon. As the academics Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn put it in their superb analysis of the agency: “The first consistent attribute of the CIA’s identity from 1947 to 2001 is homogeneity of its personnel in terms of race, sex, ethnicity and class background.”

Why did this matter? Well, consider the basic function of the CIA is to identify threats emerging from around the world. This requires the ability to piece together ambiguous and often confusing information –  distinguishing signal from noise. But this is rendered almost impossible when teams are monolithic.

Consider that during the Cold War, the CIA serially overestimated the size of the Soviet Economy. Why? The problem is that the analysts were busy focussing on their male counterparts in the KGB, with their limousines and dachas, a phenomenon known as “mirroring”. Whereas the brunt of the Soviet economic deprivations were disproportionately endured by women.

One insider who did notice was Gertrude Schoeder, one of the few female analysts at the CIA, who dressed in her shabbiest clothes and lived as an average citizen while on assignment to Moscow, finding life “hard and very, very frustrating”. “I think our economic measurements [are seriously wrong]”, she said. “Cabbages are not cabbages in both countries. The cotton dress worn by the average Soviet woman is not equivalent to the cheapest one in a Sears catalogue.” Sadly, her warnings were ignored by male colleagues.

Others who recognised that the core assessments of the CIA was wildly inaccurate were Russians emigres. They could see, with their tacit knowledge, that society was crumbling beneath the glossy footage pumped out by the Kremlin propaganda machine, but their warnings were also ignored by the CIA. As Harry Rowen, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, put it “[Thousands of immigrants] said the Soviet Union was falling apart. What effect did this have on the American specialists in the subject? None.”

We might call this problem “perspective blindness”. A good metaphor has been offered by the novelist David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech. The speech starts in a fish tank. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them looks at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ ”  Wallace’s point is that our modes of thought are so habitual that we scarcely notice how they filter our perception of reality. But if a team shares the same blind spot, they are not merely individually blind; they are collectively blind, too.

The scholar Mark S Weiner has offered another example of perspective blindness – this time, the agency that set up an interrogation unit at Guantanamo Bay in the aftermath of 9/11. When new detainees arrived, they were coded according to first, middle and last names – like when you book a restaurant. The problem is that while this might work for Mark D Smith, it doesn’t work for Abu Maryam Khalid Muhammad bin Sayf al-Utaybi. This glaring flaw was only noticed when the agency hired an expert in Islam. She also noticed that Arabic names can be transliterated in different ways. Gaddafi, for instance, can become “Gathafi”, “Kadafi” or “Gadafy”.

She instantly took the step of standardising transliteration and, almost at once, a previously invisible pattern emerged. A startlingly high proportion of detainees were from two clans: the Qahtani and the Utaybi. This gave American agencies a chance to infiltrate these networks and prevent future atrocities. Western-educated, culturally homogeneous analysts had no chance of making this leap of insight — the problem was not that they were insufficiently bright; the problem is that conceptual flair detached from cultural understanding is impotent.

Perhaps the fundamental point is that almost all the most important work today is performed in teams. Problems are too complex for any one person alone. This is why diversity is such a critical ingredient of cutting-edge decision making. When the minds within a team bring different perspectives, it permits them to identify blind spots, cross-pollinate ideas, and establish insights impossible to more monolithic groups, however talented.

In intelligence agencies, cultural diversity is paramount. In designing an aircraft engine, on the other hand, cultural differences are less significant. Here, you need people with diverse expertise in materials science, aerodynamics and more. The key is that organisations harness diverse perspectives that are both relevant and synergistic. Organisations that do this well understand the fundamental link between diverse thinking and performance, and they engineer diverse thinking through their hiring practices, how they run meetings, and by connecting people with diverse ideas and perspectives. They think about the diverse perspectives, skills and experiences that will help them achieve their purpose and objectives. With the right approach, and using the right tools, this can transform the collective intelligence of organisations – and turbocharge innovation.

Find out more about Matthew Syed Consulting and how we can help boost diverse-thinking and innovation here.