Requisite Variety and Quantum Thinking: The “Plant Based Diet” of Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and Inclusion are currently critical topics due to ubiquitous statistics stating the wage gap and low percentages of women and other underrepresented demographics in top or technical positions. But through the years, these words have become so loaded and colored with agendas ranging from legal quotas, to CSR initiatives, to UIX design and innovation, to getting more women into STEM subjects at school, that there is almost always a backlash when the word is mentioned because there is such a high possibility that someone will be offended by one of the associated shades of meaning. One company’s altruistic quota turns into a reverse discrimination charge; efforts to support more women at the top can make qualified women feel patronized; and raising consciousness to the “likeability trap” can very quickly solicit a resounding “she’s just being a victim” and “I’m not sexist”. Similarly, “Vegan” has a loaded history, and if someone considers not eating meat for health reasons, they may not feel particularly kindred with the person who is aggressively protesting animal murder in the streets. This may be a reason why the term “plant based” has recently become more popular. This phrase reflects mostly the same dietary restrictions, yet evokes fewer aggressive associations giving it a more positive overtone, and its political correctness doesn’t come from an abandonment of its defining characteristics. It is these social dynamics of language, combined with current corporate strategies to transform their businesses and technology, that the following proposal to change the conversation springs.
“Requisite Variety” to Manage Complexity
Modern businesses are faced with a historically familiar challenge but at an exponentially higher proportion than ever before, and that challenge is complexity. Complexity has become the norm in business partially as an effect of one of the key benefits ERP systems have enabled: integration. In previous decades, functionally autonomous and localized processes, organizations and systems were costing companies lots of money, so they aimed to standardize, centralize and streamline the same through ERP implementations. This solved some of the strategic problems of last decade, but with these benefits, new types of complexity emerged. Integration, standardization and centralization can make business operations more efficient and simplify systems architecture. Yet, this reduction of complications in processes and systems, has introduced complexities that organizations are not always been prepared or equipped to handle. For example, system architecture is more dynamic and co-dependent than when it was fragmented; transactional and master data now produce multitudes of effects which are far removed from their causes (for example, a material number in SAP can be used by dozens of people for various purposes but is only created by one); and changes to one functionality in the system which may be “owned” by the finance department, may have effects on HR, supply chain, procurement, etc.
Luckily, there is a breakthrough formula to work successfully with complexity which has recently been published by David Benjamin and David Komlos. In Cracking Complexity, the authors outline a formula that is based on a law from cybernetics called Ashby’s law. This law states that “Variety destroys variety”. The book outlines how in order to tackle the complexities of a situation, you must bring in the “requisite variety” of people to discuss it and create “collisions” for “emergent thought”. This theory is revolutionary because in many cases it is exactly the opposite of what business professionals who are working with complexity think they need…more opinions! But it is important to emphasize that the theory suggests that you bring in the “requisite” variety for these situations. And then outlines a very systematic way to sort through the opinions to find relevancy. It is not simply stating “the more opinions the merrier”.
Despite the science behind how important it is to carefully address complexity, many businesses operate in ways that try to rush to the goal of simplicity by reducing the complex, hard discussions before they have taken their due course. They instead strive for quick simplicity by reducing the variety of insights to a given situation. This means that the loudest, most senior, and most relatable or similar voices at any moment drive key decisions. In many cases, this is exactly where inclusion does not occur. What leaders should do instead is invite a higher variety of input into complex situations and then work collectively with those input sources to reduce complexity by objectively finding the relative importance together though structured collisions. This means woke professionals should purposefully seek out opinions that are different than theirs, aim to understand them, and incorporate their good ideas (if they have any) into the decision flow. Historically, men have had more ethos in technical discussions, so it can feel unfamiliar to actively consider the opinion of a softer, more feminine voice speaking in the room still full of men, even for other women. But making this conscious effort is vital to getting the right diversity of opinions into a decision flow that can lead to critical results. When requisite variety is juxtaposed with the concept of diversity, ensuring a wide enough range of inputs into a problem becomes the target of the diversification, which is more directly relevant to business outcomes than classic diversity goals related to the wellbeing and career development of the person who may unfortunately experience discrimination. This dimensional articulation does not intend to take away from the validity of the latter, but intends to specify an adjacent scope to traditional diversity agendas and proposes to change the conversation about diversity from one related mostly to HR or CSR to one focused on business and transformation outcomes.
“Quantum Thinking” for Transformation
In addition to needing more diverse contributors in the pool of input for complex situations, a human tendency that has proliferated in parallel with exponential technology advancement is binary thinking. Black and white thinking occurs when someone approaches a situation with an “either / or” perspective. With simple things, it is quite easy to avoid binary thinking and see shades of grey; but unfortunately, complex ones often are not as easy to navigate. Computer science was once limited by binary coding, organizing computational decisions into one or the other via 1 or 0 , but just as computers quantum leaped ahead by allowing the possibility of switching the “or” to “and”, so does the human mind transform and enable transformation when it opens itself to allow other perspectives to influence its own.
Quantum thinking influences the “diversity and inclusion” agenda from two angles which demonstrate how, in some cases, the sociolinguistic context wherein it is used has become too complex for the word to solicit a shared understanding of its meaning. First, the reduction of binary thinking is necessary for people to awaken to the fact that advocating for inclusion does not carry with it an implication that one is purposefully “being” un-inclusive until they start “being” inclusive. This common misconception can cause people to feel defensive and reject the promotion of diversity or inclusion because they may see it as a campaign against sexism, for example, which they do not identify with. It is critical to understand that the sexism or racism is not the opposite of inclusion.
The second angle from which “quantum thinking” may reduce the limitations surrounding the initiatives “diversity and inclusion” aim to promote is that it shifts the reason to consider a person who has a different opinion than you from being a potentially charitable one to a potentially genius one. Mathematicians, physicists, quants, and polymaths often point to quantum thinking as one of the most vital tools they use to understand the world. As contrary to the instinct of following one’s gut as it may seem, the mark of transformational thinking is the ability to diversify your thought patterns to see issues from all possible perspectives and to be open to either change or tweak your opinion. This does not mean you should be weak or indecisive; rather, it is courage and confidence that should drive this capability for nuance and enhanced sensemaking.
In conclusion, the diversity and inclusion initiatives that companies are fostering at an increasing rate are vital to our society’s development to reflect corporate representation that is proportionate to realistic demographics. But the objectives for promoting these initiatives should not just be socially responsible or charitable ones. These initiatives should also be taken into the way we work for reasons that are much more business outcome and problem solving based. Including the right variety of people from a gender, personality, race, background, etc. around a complex topic is a proven way to ensure a wide enough selection of input data is the starting point for key decisions. Working through collisions with the required variety of people using quantum thinking will enable a high enough range of input data to be filtered for relative importance, equipping teams and organizations to make better decisions. Better decisions being scoped and made will reduce the paralysis that many companies face with their transformations and increase the quality of the actions that are made as a result of ensuring the right information drives the decisions.
Benjamin, David; Komlos, David. Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast. Nicholas Brealey, May 7, 2019