Believe it or not, resolving the issue of the “chippiness” of your chocolate chip ice cream is an exercise in complexity. There’s a variety of ways to approach it: some good, some bad. The optimum outcome is ensured if the testing panel is represented by different, but relevant, points of view.

Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan, explained in an address to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) in London today how Ben & Jerry’s determined the volume and size of chips in their chocolate chip brand. Laying out a range of options in a large room, the testers placed tubs of rising chip size along one axis, and tubs with an increasing number of chips along the other axis. The grid produced all the various options in between. From a complexity theorist’s point of view, the resultant scores should look like a rugged landscape, with peaks of preference forming across the matrix pointing to the best combination.

But, as Page said, chippiness was only one way of looking at the problem. A dietician, measuring calories, might lay the tubs out according to calorific content. Overlay the two and a different optimum of chippiness and calorific content might emerge.

However, an irrelevant metric like “masticity” (or chew-time), would not be helpful to consider. Although when Page described this example in one lecture, a cereal specialist piped up that in the breakfast business masticity did matter, with a scale ranging from mush through twigs to bark! – that’s the benefit of a diverse audience.

The problem, Page argues in his book The Difference, is that diversity is generally assumed to be a negative of political correctness; something to manage, often for fear of being sued. But in fact, mathematical complexity theory demonstrates it can be a source of problem-solving and creativity, and that diversity should mean a lot more than those categories held up in the normal process of political scrutiny. Relevant diversity makes for better outcomes.

On a very practical level within his own institution, the University of Michigan has now incorporated such thinking into its selection criteria, but not in the traditional sense. The idea that high IQ, or traditional evaluations of talent, should be the key criteria are moderated by considerations of “distance travelled” and “direction headed”.

Empirical studies have shown, according to Page, that diversity trumps ability, because able groups tend to be too homogenous, leading to suboptimal outcomes. This is not to diminish the importance of ability, but to identify that a diverse group will actually perform better than an able group, time and time again.

Applying different approaches through the application of “heuristics” (rules of thumb) can work wonders. In the fictional world, George Costanza, the loser depicted in Seinfeld, famously adopts a strategy that Page recommends: “do the opposite.” George realises that every decision he has ever made is wrong, so he decides to do the opposite. The strategy works. His luck changes. He gets a girlfriend and lands a job with the New York Yankees!

But the same was done commercially by Starbucks. Page described how the coffee shop chain stood traditional coffee retailing wisdom on its head in deciding not how cheaply they could sell coffee, but how expensive they could make it.

Another source of diversity is what Page describes as “spillover”. He uses this to explain what happens to productivity in large cities. Economic analysis shows that when a city doubles in size, individual worker productivity increases by 13%. Why is that so? The answer seems to be that exposure to a wider array of activities and influences acts as a collective engine of growth that is reflected at the individual level. People bump into more and better ideas.

The problem of creating diversity, however, remains political. People just don’t like diversity. They don’t like being challenged by others with different values.

With uncharacteristic boldness, the knackered hack, (who normally is a picture of quiet introspection at these kinds of events, and a challenge to no-one), asked whether organizations actually become less creative and diverse as they become more successful, as politics and “rent-seeking” take over, perhaps sowing, in the process, the seeds of their own demise.

Page answered that indeed this could be so, but there were many ways organizations have found to counter it and sustain productive diversity. For instance, they can move offices around, or extract groups and create new “green field” organizations.

That reminded me. One of the things that knackered the hack in his Fleet Street days was occupying a news bureau that was just too small to accommodate new staff without a massive technical upheaval. Every time someone joined, we had to rip up the room and rebuild it, with all the complexity of a Rubic’s cube to consider. Going into each change there was a different kind of chippiness to deal with from the anticipation of new group tensions – we are talking about journalists here, who are notorious for welcoming all forms of change so long as it doesn’t affect them. But odd combinations of newsdesks created an ongoing hubbub that one ex-trader working with us likened to a dealing room for its productive noise.

As the “architect” of this change, I was subsequently brought to task for all these seemingly random moves by a former staffer as he delivered a best man’s speech at a company wedding. It was the random moves, though, that led to the marriage. And not one, but two; one of those between a Presbyterian Scot and an Irish Catholic. Now that’s diversity.

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