Wanted: more diversity of thought
The Kansas City Star
Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, cast the dissenting ballot in her first meeting as a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee.
George did not surprise anyone with her vote. In a speech on Jan. 10, she warned that current policy could have dire consequences in the future.
In The Wall Street Journal report on George’s speech, Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke was said to welcome opposing views in the Fed’s discussions. Evidently the Fed invites input from those persons who disagree with the majority position and believes that dissenters provide important insights to the current economic challenges.
Researchers agree. A study at Rutgers University looked at the effect of thought diversity on innovation. Twenty-eight teams at 14 companies participated in the study.
While other research projects have demonstrated the benefit of diversity in demographics such as gender, race, ethnicity and age, this study probed the effect of thought diversity. How would differing perspectives influence the outcome of the team’s assignment to innovate?
The researchers concluded that the most innovative teams engaged in connective thinking, that is, a process in which previously unrelated ideas interact to generate new insights. This diversity of thought contributed to increased innovation.
Psychological safety was essential, the researchers discovered. People with differing perspectives shut down in a hostile environment. This silence contributed to the group’s failure to excel in its mandate to find new solutions.
Unfortunately, voters in more than two-thirds of the states have homogenized state government. In 24 states the Republican Party currently holds the governor’s office and controls the legislature. In 13 states the Democrats lead both the executive and legislative branches of government.
In Kansas, the situation is even more pronounced as the voters sent moderate Republicans home and conservative Republicans to Topeka. Some rejoice that the agenda of a conservative governor will work its way through the conservative Legislature with little challenge. Governmental gridlock for which the public has expressed its frustration will diminish in Kansas, so they claim.
Not only did the voters reduce diversity in state government, elected officials use their power to reduce possible dissent in the public conversation. Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick directed the state chief justice to put the annual state of the judiciary report in writing instead of addressing a joint session of the Legislature.
Merrick said the decision was in consideration of the multiple tasks the legislators have to complete in a limited time. Many people, however, suspect it is an attempt to muffle certain voices. Likewise, many observers see the debate about reducing state support of public radio as an attempt to thwart certain views from reaching western Kansas.
The cost is too great. If the researchers are correct in saying diversity of thought contributes to innovative thinking, then Kansans should lower expectations that the current state government will find solutions to current issues. Researchers reported that groups with a single, shared mindset have less ability to think in ways that foster innovation.
These days in politics, compromise is a bad word. But we don’t need compromise as much as we need creative solutions to the rapid, continuous change we experience.
State leaders should open the process to more voices and listen when someone speaks. Political parties must find and equip articulate candidates. Voters should abandon the notion that a monolithic government best serves our collective good.
Keith Schwanz is a freelance writer living in Overland Park and the founder of Storian Press, a book production company. To reach him, send email to email@example.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108.