How Leading Brands Use Cognitive Diversity to Drive Innovation

By Collin Robisheaux |  October 8, 2021

What is cognitive diversity? Why is it important, and how can it deliver different outcomes to your innovation strategy?

In our recent Master Class, Jeremy Brown and Alex Rückheim of Sense Worldwide discuss the advantages of cognitive diversity and how it can fuel an innovation team, including examples such as…

  • How a museum director, restauranteur, and games designer helped Nike shape the future of Niketown.

  • How leading-edge millennials helped PepsiCo create LifeWTR and generate $150m within 12 months.

  • How an OCD homeowner helped SC Johnson to disrupt the cleaning category and create a toilet brush with better reviews than an iPhone X.

Brown is the founder and CEO of Sense Worldwide. Rückheim is the Head of Innovation at Sense Worldwide. Highlights from the conversation follow.  

Cognitive Diversity: Bringing Together the ‘Outliers, Misfits, Rebels, and Crazy Ones’

Cognitive diversity involves working with diverse individuals with all kinds of ideas, methodologies, and approaches to innovation. According to Brown and Rückheim, thinking outside the box when it comes to the people you work with can create new opportunities and new ideas.

“As Apple told us 25 years ago, we need to think differently,” Brown said. “And for years, hedge funds, banks — they’ve been hiring people who some people might say are sort of on the spectrum, but they see things that other people can’t see. And we’re saying, isn’t it time that innovators did the same?”

In order to achieve breakthrough innovation, Brown and Rückheim encourage innovators to speak to people who see things differently and think differently, who will help to “widen the aperture on your category” or challenge your innovation strategy in new ways. Brown and Rückheim encourage innovators to self-identify their innovation style in order to better understand the style of others.

“What perspective do you bring to your innovation team?” Brown asked. “Are you an outlier, a misfit, a rebel, or a crazy one?”

Five Breakthrough Principles for Cognitive Diversity 

In this Master Class, Brown and Rückheim offer five breakthrough principles for innovators looking to implement and reap the benefits of cognitive diversity. 

Each principle is supported by academic research and real-world examples of big businesses implementing the respective principle, including success stories from PepsiCo and Nike. 

The five principles are as follows… 

  • Principle #1 – Look outside of the mainstream. “It’s all about looking outside of the mainstream,” Brown said. “…We’re obviously talking about people who aren’t in the mainstream. And so what it’s telling us is that genius is everywhere, you’ve just got to be able to see it.”

  • Principle #2 – Beware the curse of knowledge. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Brown said. “…be curious, use beginner’s eyes, we use this a lot, try and remove all of that stuff that sort of makes you realize you’re an expert in your field – but also those are the things that are holding you back. So think about what might be happening behind the scenes, and start asking some questions, start to get curious.”

  • Principle #3 – Be bold, and embrace ambiguity. “It’s important because sometimes we’re so wrapped up in the scale of our businesses that we forget that there’s a world outside,” Brown said. “Embracing ambiguity often also means stepping into the unknown, and the unknown is always uncomfortable. So get comfortable with ambiguity.”

  • Principle #4 – Develop an experimental mindset. According to Brown, managers and focus group members are often more prone to complacency, and false negatives that prevent breakthrough innovation. “When you take a managerial role, and we talked about some of these biases earlier, it’s hard to avoid letting that evaluative mindset creeping in pulls false negatives.”

  • Principle #5 – Mix it up. Brown and Rückheim point to their prior work with Nike, and how innovation projects were reframed with new perspectives to create a new direct-to-consumer experience – including consulting from a museum director.

To hear more about the five principles, and the stories that support them, watch the full Master Class above.