Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks

November 15, 2004
  • umichnews@umich.edu

Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks

ANN ARBOR, Mich—A diverse group of problem solvers is more likely to outperform a team of the best and brightest problem solvers, a new University of Michigan study shows.

Individuals chosen from a diverse, randomly selected pool will offer different perspectives that could result in better solutions. Conversely, a group comprised of the best problem solvers is likely to take similar approaches, said Scott Page, a U-M political science, economics and complex systems professor.

“If the best problem solvers tend to think about a problem similarly, then it stands to reason that as a group, they may not be very effective,” he said.

Page conducted the research with Lu Hong, a visiting professor in U-M’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and a faculty member at Loyola University in Chicago. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the paper this month.

In the study, diversity wasn’t necessarily meant to indicate identity diversity—differences in race, gender, age, or life experiences—but differences in how problem solvers encode problems and attempt to solve them. A person’s value to solving problems depends on his or her ability to improve the collective decision, the researchers said.

“A person’s expected contribution is contextual, depending on the perspectives and heuristics of others who work on the problem,” said Page, who is also a senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at Michigan. Heuristics are the variations in how people encode and search for solutions to problems.

Page and Hong tested their theory using computational and mathematical models, with each determining the best performance occurred when the problem-solving group was diverse.

Page noted that the collection of problem solvers could sit in a room together making a joint decision. These individuals might operate in a hierarchy, where each person works on a problem and passes his/her solution on to the next person, he said.

The researchers said the study’s results have implications for organizational forms and management styles, especially for problem-solving firms and organizations.

“In an environment where competition depends on continuous innovation and introduction of new products, firms…that take advantage of the power of functional diversity should perform well,” Hong said.

Page teaches an undergraduate course, “Theories of Diversity,” that focuses on the many implications of diversity. His course touches on topics ranging from the stability of political systems and ecosystems to the collective wisdom of crowds.

Web links:More information on Page and the project:http://www.cscs.umich.edu/diversity

More information on PNAS:http://intl.pnas.org/