How Diverse Should Your Team Be?
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Leadership Feb 2, 2015

How Diverse Should Your Team Be?

NBA data point to a sweet spot in bal­anc­ing diver­si­ty and sim­i­lar­i­ty of skills.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Edward (Ned) Smith

Yuan Hou

From busi­ness to acad­e­mia to sports, how to build effec­tive teams is a cru­cial ques­tion. What orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples best enhance indi­vid­u­als’ per­for­mance and are most con­ducive to creativity?

One pop­u­lar the­o­ry holds that diver­si­ty is key. Assem­ble a het­ero­ge­neous group of peo­ple, and, as Ned Smith puts it, some mag­ic hap­pens because those peo­ple will begin to recom­bine their knowl­edge and skillsets in unique ways.” It’s a nice sto­ry, says Smith, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School.

The prob­lem, though, is that it is not entire­ly true. Research from a vari­ety of dis­ci­plines shows that teams and orga­ni­za­tions com­posed of diverse peo­ple often per­form poorly.

We had an intu­ition that you want­ed in some way to bal­ance diver­si­ty and similarity.”

There are at least three main rea­sons for this. First, het­ero­gene­ity often erodes over time. The more team mem­bers inter­act, the more alike they become. Then there is the prob­lem of fragili­ty. Teams that tru­ly ben­e­fit from their diver­si­ty are also high­ly depen­dent on each ele­ment of that diver­si­ty. Should one per­son leave, the mag­ic” may leave, too. Final­ly, a lack of com­mon ground can cause frag­men­ta­tion into homoge­nous sub­sets, where sim­i­lar peo­ple in the group seek each oth­er out, and con­flicts between team mem­bers can arise. Ulti­mate­ly, the whole group can break down.

So how can orga­ni­za­tions ben­e­fit from diver­si­ty with­out being dragged down by its inher­ent hand­i­caps? We had an intu­ition that you want­ed in some way to bal­ance diver­si­ty and sim­i­lar­i­ty,” Smith says. Too much diver­si­ty can under­mine itself, but too lit­tle diver­si­ty and you’re not like­ly to get any unique view­points. There’s no novelty.”

In his research, which uses data from the Nation­al Bas­ket­ball Asso­ci­a­tion, he demon­strates a solu­tion that gets at this sweet spot between diver­si­ty and similarity.

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Get­ting the Right Balance

Smith and Yuan Hou of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­pose an idea called redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity (RH).

Imag­ine an orga­ni­za­tion made up of two tiers of work­ers — e.g., law-firm part­ners and asso­ciates, attend­ing physi­cians and res­i­dents, top- and mid­dle-lev­el man­age­ment — with three peo­ple each. If the top tier includes peo­ple with skill sets A, B, and C, then redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity would mean the sec­ond tier would include peo­ple with those same three skill sets. That way, the orga­ni­za­tion presents both diver­si­ty with­in a tier and sim­i­lar­i­ty between tiers, thus the term redun­dant heterogeneity

Rebekka Takamizu and Melissa Roadman

Smith and Hou arrived at the idea of RH after study­ing data from the NBA, which pro­vides a com­pelling con­text for under­stand­ing how peo­ple with unique skill sets can work togeth­er effectively.

In many tra­di­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, the num­ber of dimen­sions on which peo­ple can be dif­fer­ent becomes a bit unwieldy,” Smith says. But in the NBA, every­one is the same gen­der and rough­ly the same age, and many play­ers come from sim­i­lar back­grounds. This meant the researchers could focus their atten­tion on one spe­cif­ic aspect of diver­si­ty: the col­lege con­fer­ence that NBA play­ers were part of before enter­ing the league.

The researchers ana­lyzed NBA data from 1986 through 2008 (exclud­ing the 1998 sea­son cut short by labor nego­ti­a­tions), using play­ers’ col­lege con­fer­ences to con­struct mea­sures of diver­si­ty. The think­ing, cor­rob­o­rat­ed by col­lege coach­es with whom the researchers con­sult­ed, is that dif­fer­ent con­fer­ences — say, the Big Ten ver­sus Pac Ten — have dif­fer­ent styles of play. For exam­ple, the ACC is known for its pres­sure defense and the Big East is known for its physicality.

The authors argue that even if an indi­vid­ual play­er does not adopt the play­ing style asso­ci­at­ed with his con­fer­ence, his expe­ri­ence play­ing in the con­fer­ence allows him to devel­op a knowl­edge base con­sis­tent with that style. The authors con­firmed this effect by ana­lyz­ing the dif­fer­ence between play­ers who spent short­er and longer amounts of time (typ­i­cal­ly one to four years) play­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball before join­ing the NBA.

Smith and Hou found that hav­ing core play­ers with a large amount of diver­si­ty in terms of col­lege con­fer­ences yield­ed pos­i­tive results — but hav­ing too much diver­si­ty among the team as a whole was detrimental.

So where is the sweet spot? Ulti­mate­ly, they arrived at the idea of redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity. Teams are at an advan­tage when both the line­up of core play­ers and of sec­ondary play­ers has the same pro­file of het­ero­gene­ity” — mean­ing each tier has play­ers from dif­fer­ent con­fer­ences, but the same com­bi­na­tion of con­fer­ences are rep­re­sent­ed at both levels.

(To see how redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity might help your favorite teams, check out our inter­ac­tive info­graph­ic here.)

The Impor­tance of Redundancy

In ana­lyz­ing the con­cept fur­ther, Smith and Hou dis­cov­ered that redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity solved all three of the main prob­lems that too much diver­si­ty can cre­ate. First, they found that while diverse teams can fall apart if an impor­tant play­er leaves, those with redun­dan­cy fared much bet­ter. This holds true even if those two play­ers — the depart­ing top-tier play­er and the sec­ond-tier one from the same col­lege con­fer­ence — play dif­fer­ent positions.

Next, they dis­cov­ered that teams with the redun­dant struc­ture avoid the prob­lem of diver­si­ty erod­ing over time. The pos­i­tive effect of diver­si­ty among core play­ers tends to erode after about four and a half sea­sons togeth­er — except in the teams that have RH. With­out redun­dan­cy, peo­ple can for­get or begin to not think about their own unique skills and focus on things they have in com­mon,” Smith explains. With RH, we think when teams have redun­dant per­son­nel, it allows peo­ple to remem­ber and pre­serve their uniqueness.”

Final­ly, they found that teams with redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity played bet­ter togeth­er — that this struc­ture pre­served rather than under­mined team cohe­sion. The researchers were able to iden­ti­fy an opti­mal team com­po­si­tion that com­bined diver­si­ty at the top lev­el with redun­dan­cy between lev­els. This led to a 10.7 per­cent increase in the num­ber of games won dur­ing a sea­son — or 4.4 addi­tion­al wins for the aver­age team. In a sport where one game can lead to a team advanc­ing to the play­offs, with a chance to com­pete for the cham­pi­onship,” they wrote, these team-com­po­si­tion effects are sig­nif­i­cant, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly and practically.”

The research has impli­ca­tions beyond just sports. By build­ing teams and work groups accord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity, all sorts of busi­ness­es and orga­ni­za­tions might be able to reap the ben­e­fits of diver­si­ty with­out suf­fer­ing from its poten­tial neg­a­tive impacts. In the mean­time, though, at least one NBA gen­er­al man­ag­er is inter­est­ed in meet­ing with Smith.

Featured Faculty

Edward (Ned) Smith

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

About the Writer

Hillary Rosner is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

About the Research

Smith, Edward (Ned), and Yuan Hou. “Redundant Heterogeneity and Group Performance.” Organization Science. In press.

Read the original

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