High Performance in a Complex and Fast-Changing World

If you’re looking to solve today’s complex problems by adopting the right mindset ­– or how to make the best cup of tea –  you’ve come to the right place. We discussed this and more when I interviewed highly acclaimed speaker, multi-award-winning journalist and author Matthew Syed in a recent webinar.


Matthew has written six bestselling books, including Rebel Ideas, so after getting to know him a bit better (he’s a fan of Inspector Morse and likes his tea from a teapot), he kicked off by talking about talent, something we all want to possess and that we all seek in the people we work with.


Whilst talent must be celebrated, says Matthew, it’s not the lynchpin of high performance. Talent is not enough in today’s fast-changing world, he says, because our existing assumptions can often be superseded which can lead to blind spots. It’s the early testing of assumptions and anticipating the big disruptions that are crucial to succeeding, not talent, says Matthew. We do this by changing our mindset.


Bill Gates, Steve Bulmer and…?

Matthew then tells us about Satya Nadella, who despite being less well known than Microsoft’s previous two CEOs, has grown Microsoft’s capitalisation to more than $1.2 trillion since 2014. His secret? Shifting Microsoft from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, turning a culture of complacency into a culture of innovation. “When you see yourself as the smartest person in the room you don’t want to hear about deficiencies in your product line, because instead of seeing that as an opportunity, you see it as a threat to your self-image,” says Matthew.



Bend it like Beckham

Matthew ghost-wrote David Beckham’s autobiography and says it was the hours of practising in his back yard, adjusting his technique that produced that “magical gift we see at Wembley or Old Trafford”. It wasn’t “built into his DNA”, as one journalist suggested. Matthew likens Beckham’s backyard “keepy-uppies” to the early adopter, prototype phases of products, that fine tune and lead to the ultimate end product. It’s only by getting feedback on what doesn’t work that we understand how to make it work brilliantly.


We stay with Beckham being sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. An event that led to such adversity for Beckham that when Manchester United went on to win the treble and he was named FIFA World Player of the Year, Matthew asked how he’d made such a comeback. “I made a mistake. I learned the lessons and I made sure I never made that mistake again. I used it as an opportunity to grow,” Beckham told him. This is a growth mindset in practice.


When you cultivate that mindset within an organisation, Matthew says, it begins to change the internal dynamics that are so important for fulfilling your mission, whatever that might be.



Cognitive Diversity in a Complex World

Moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset unlocks the concept of cognitive diversity. Unlike diversity of identity, such as race, gender, social class or religious background, cognitive diversity is differences in insight, perspective and information.


For example, the CIA recruits brilliant, but demographically similar individuals who Matthew describes as “mostly white male Protestant Anglo Saxon west coast, liberal arts graduates.” Each one radiates talent, but their limited world view makes it almost impossible to make sense of emerging threats such as radicalisation, the breakdown of society down tribal or clan lines, or certain types of sectarianism and religious extremism. “It’s a mistake to reduce diversity to a box ticking exercise. It’s more subtle and profound than that,” says Matthew.


Not many organisations, in Matthew’s experience, are particularly good at optimising cognitive diversity, making it a source of massive competitive advantage.



How Do Organisations Make Cognitive Diversity Work for Them?

I ask Matthew how finance teams can embrace cognitive diversity without completely reshaping. One way is to move from verbal brainstorming to written brainstorming. “When a leader shares ideas verbally, everyone starts to congregate around that idea. When you write things down, no one knows who suggested an idea. You’re effectively separating the quality of the idea from the status of the person who suggested it, creating a meritocracy of ideas,” says Matthew.


During the closing Q&A section we get a question from a member of Transport for London who asks what one initiative could effectively help teams harness the power of cognitive diversity. Matthew’s answer is to educate people on why and how it’s important. “If people believe that this is something that can help them pursue the mission more effectively, they'll start to take it on board,” he says.  


According to Matthew, moving from fixed to growth mindset – and the power of cognitive diversity – will be the asset that is going to serve those organisations who want to do well, particularly as we transition out of this pandemic.


I’d like to personally thank Matthew for such an inspirational discussion (and for suggesting that my voice makes me suitable for a potential future career at CNN!).


To find out more about Matthew Syed and his knowledge set, explore his website which can be found here.

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