“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” is a famous quote by Stephen R. Covey. This issue of the MSL Journal is focusing on the value of these differences and the importance of diversity in the profession. When most people think of diversity, identity diversity comes to mind: differences in age, gender, ethnicity. Identity diversity leverages the differences in culture, backgrounds, and experiences based on these three criteria and can lead to successful teamwork. However, another form of diversity is emerging as a key factor in the performance of a team and it is known as cognitive diversity.
Cognitive diversity is the difference in perspective or information processing styles. In other words, cognitive diversity is the range of ways that people do the following when encountering a challenge or unfamiliar task:
(1) make sense of new information (how the information is absorbed and processed)
(2) solve problems (design a process of exploring evidence, generating options, making choices)
(3) respond to the unfamiliar situation (finding the confidence to move forward in the face of uncertainty).
Current wisdom is that the higher the identity diversity (gender, age, and race) of a team, the more creative and productive the team is likely to be. However, this wisdom is being challenged by recent research in cognitive diversity which has shown that this type of diversity is a critical success factor when it comes to a team’s performance.
In an analysis of six teams who were challenged with managing new, uncertain, and complex situations, each group had to formulate and execute its strategy to meet a specified outcome. Researchers found a significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance as shown in the table below (Reynolds, Allison and David Lewis. “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They Are More Cognitively Diverse.” Harvard Business Review. 30 March 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/03/teams-solve-problems-faster-when-they’re-more-cognitively-diverse).
The three teams that successfully completed the challenge in under 30 minutes (Teams A, B, and C) had both diversity in knowledge process and perspective while the three teams that failed the challenge or failed to complete the challenge in under 30 minutes (Teams D, E, and F) all had less diversity as shown by the lower standard deviation. Teams composed of cognitively diverse members succeed because of the different approaches to resolving problems that each team member offers. This cognitive diversity leads to enhanced learning and higher performance. Members of teams with lower cognitive diversity tend to approach complex situations in the same manner and this leads to a lack of resourcefulness in identifying and implementing solutions to resolve the issue.
When encountering new challenges, being able to adapt and resolve the issue in a timely manner is crucial to any team, but this is especially true for MSL teams who often need to pivot at a moment’s notice. Having individuals who approach problem solving with different knowledge processes and perspectives allows for a number of solutions to be generated in a short amount of time. These solutions can be evaluated for expected success and risk, and the most viable solution implemented with confidence.
Currently, most pharmaceutical companies now require an advanced scientific degree (PharmD, PhD, MD) for the medical science liaisons. Although cognitive diversity is independent of education, having a variety of scientific degrees composing an MSL team enhances the chance that there will be different knowledge processing and perspectives based on the differences in training, experiences, and approaches learned in the different educational programs. A team of diverse scientific degrees is likely to have a greater range of views, experiences, and opinions leading to the generation of a variety of solutions. Cognitive diversity is less visible than identity diversity; hiring managers need to be intentional in identifying and hiring team members with diverse styles of thinking and approaches.
One MSL hiring manager shared that having a mix of degrees on the team leads to a variety of strengths and yields a well-rounded team. Members with the MD degree tend to have a higher focus on the patient and have more compassion to patient-related issues; PharmD members bring in-depth drug knowledge while PhD members have extensive basic science knowledge. In addition to approaching challenges differently based on perspective and training, the unique views that each degree holder possesses offer the team the opportunity to function cohesively as a unit playing to each member’s strengths. When a team functions well together, the chance for success is heightened.
Although some will argue that cognitive diversity is more important than identity diversity when it comes to the performance of a team, the consensus seems to be that it goes together with identity diversity. Both types of diversity are needed to create a high performing, successful team.
Angela Valadez, PharmD, MBA
Angela joined Alimera Sciences in May 2019 as the Medical Science Liaison for the Central States Region. Angela has a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Kansas and a Master of Business Administration from Baker University. With a passion for using evidence-based medicine to guide treatment decisions, Angela has worked with physicians throughout her pharmaceutical career to manage patient care and impact health outcomes. She was named an MSL Rookie of the Year Finalist in 2020 and was named MSL of the Year for Alimera Sciences in 2021.