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Updated 1:30 PM November 24, 2004




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Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks

A diverse group of problem solvers is more likely to outperform a team of the best and brightest problem solvers, a U-M study shows.

Individuals chosen from a diverse, randomly selected pool will offer different perspectives that could result in better solutions. Conversely, a group comprising the best problem solvers is likely to take similar approaches, says Scott Page, a 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 says.

Page conducted the research with Lu Hong, a visiting professor in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and a faculty member at Loyola University in Chicago. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 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 say.

"A person's expected contribution is contextual, depending on the perspectives and heuristics of others who work on the problem," says Page, who also is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research. 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 notes that the collection of problem solvers could sit in a room together making a joint decision. These individuals might operate in a hierarchy, in which each person works on a problem and passes his or her solution on to the next person, he says.

The researchers say 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 says.

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.

For more information on Page and the project, visit

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