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The invisible powerhouse – cognitive diversity
Thought Leadership

Written by Anna-Liisa Tampuu

Anna-Liisa has over 9 years of experience across the security sector; she is currently working in the public sector in Europe. Previously, Anna-Liisa spent almost 7 years working for a global emergency assistance company, gaining valuable experience as the head of intelligence and analysis. Driven by her entrepreneurial spirit, in 2019, Anna-Liisa also founded SheTravel, a platform powered by NGS, focused on safe travel for women.

Anna-Liisa is passionate about empowering women and providing support for those keen to enter the security sector. She is an Associate Member of The Security Institute and a Co-chair of the Inclusive Security Special Interest Group. The group works on projects to improve industry practices and ultimately build a stronger, more inclusive workforce. In 2021, the IS SIG was awarded the David Clark Award for Exceptional Contribution to the UK Security Industry by The UK Security Commonwealth. In 2021, Anna-Liisa was selected to join the UN Women UK delegation to the 65th Commission on the Status of Women in 2021, hosted at UN Headquarters, joining online. Anna-Liisa also runs the Minerva initiative, supporting women in the security sector, and documenting the career journeys of women working in the industry.

The invisible powerhouse – cognitive diversity

I have often been inspired by different ways of thinking. By listening to colleagues, managers, team members and collaborators during my professional career, I have learnt as much through different perspectives as through research and academic experience.


They have both brought value with their varied dynamic nuances.


I have often also wondered what makes an innovative environment, how different decision-making processes, supportive and resilient spaces link in this process and how to create inclusive workplaces that can attract and nurture diverse talent who bring along different ways of thinking.

Where does it all begin?


‘The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World’[1] by composer and professor Anthony Brandt and neuroscientist David Eagleman illustrates the journey to human innovation:


“Human innovation grows from a continual process of branching and selection. We try a lot of ideas; a few of them survive. Those that live become the basis of the next round of invention and experimentation. By continually diversifying and filtering our imaginative gifts have put roofs over our heads, tripled our lifespans, spawned our ubiquitous machines, given us an unending parade of ways to woo each other, and engulfed us with a fountainhead of songs and stories.”


I believe that innovation often walks hand-in-hand with creativity, flourishing at the crossroads of known and unknown spaces.


For innovation to take place, an environment for its initiation needs to have a multitude of varied experiences, and ways of seeing the world, deriving from different lives lived.


This means, in a simple form, that for new ideas, technologies processes and services to be built, the role of cognitive diversity plays an important part.  


But how?


And what is even cognitive diversity and how can it bring value to the security sector?


If we take a step back and look at the benefits of diverse thinking in an everyday concept, from problem-solving to risk management, is there also a case for cognitive diversity?



What is cognitive diversity?


Cognitive diversity itself is a broad concept and can be understood as the diversity of thinking.


The Deloitte Review “The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths”[2] explains that by cognitive diversity, we are referring to educational and functional diversity, as well as diversity in mental frameworks that people use to solve problems.


‘Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse’ [3] by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis explains that: “Cognitive diversity has been defined as differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age.”


Thus, when talking about cognitive diversity, we are considering how each person brings their individual experiences, background, culture, and education – and how this mixed together has shaped their ways of thinking, skills developed and their approach to life.

How can we see the invisible?


Cognitive diversity itself, however, is not something that is immediately visible.


Alison Reynolds and David Lewis [3] explain that:“First, it is less visible than, for example, ethnic and gender diversity. Someone being from a different culture or of a different generation gives no clue as to how that person might process information, engage with, or respond to change.”


The article emphasises that it is difficult to detect cognitive diversity from the outside and due to its internal nature, it requires more effort to be recognised and its benefits are thus harder to be harnessed.


The article also highlights another important challenge when it comes to cognitive diversity.


The authors argue that the second factor that contributes to cognitive diversity being overlooked: “is that we create cultural barriers that restrict the degree of cognitive diversity, even when we don’t mean to.” It is explained that we can unconsciously recruit our own image because it is something familiar to us: “ This bias doesn’t end with demographic distinctions like race or gender, or with the recruiting process, for that matter. Colleagues gravitate toward the people who think and express themselves in a similar way.”


Cognitive diversity and its benefits are therefore much more difficult to be recognised and understood as these are not often visible to us. It is consequently for us to make the effort to look harder and educate ourselves about its benefits.


Let’s take a look at what those benefits could be for the security sector.



Cognitive diversity and its relation to risk


What role can cognitive diversity have in the security sector in particular?


Can it help with complex problem-solving and building more robust risk mitigation strategies?


The Deloitte Review  [2]  emphasises that diversity of thinking enables groups to spot risks, reducing these by up to 30 percent, as well as being a source for creativity, enhancing innovation by about 20 percent. It adds that diversity of thinking also smooths the implementation of decisions by creating trust and buy-in. The article emphasises that high-performing teams are both cognitively and demographically diverse.


The Deloitte Review [2]  explains that “A complex problem typically requires input from six different mental frameworks or “approaches”: evidence, options, outcomes, people, process, and risk.” The authors also reason that no one is equally good at all six and that is why complementary team members are required.


By default, the security industry deals with risks and threats on a daily basis. It serves societies that are in a constant flux of change, a society that is diverse, complex, and constantly adapting to change. The threats of modern societies are also constantly developing and changing.


Thus, the response in protection also requires a cognitively diverse team to equip them to address complex problems and build inclusive risk mitigation strategies.


The security sector needs diverse and inclusive teams, with various mental frameworks that can spot the risks that the future threat actors present. If the sector wants to stay ahead of developing threats, it needs to be mindful of groupthink and homogeneity of thought.


A vital ingredient for cognitive diversity – inclusion


The research shows that cognitive diversity brings benefits to problem-solving, decision-making and implementation, and boosts innovation. However, these benefits can only be truly harnessed if first, we become aware of the benefits of diverse thinking and have an inclusive environment where people feel valued, respected and can fully participate. An inclusive environment is where people feel encouraged and where diversity doesn’t become divisive itself.

I often think back at times when I have consulted with my colleagues, junior, peers and senior, and have been able to solve complex challenges by listening to different ways of thinking. There has also been times when I realise my own bias that I was not aware of, and how confronting my own belief-system has made me realise how our past experiences, education and careers are a foundation we build on, but it doesn't need to be continuously cast in the same mould. It brings value to examine, to be curious, to see other perspectives.


Building inclusive environments where cognitive diversity can be spotted and expressed can often be challenging. However, the first step can start with building awareness of what value our differences bring and how cognitive diversity can really be an invisible powerhouse to be seen and harnessed.   



[1] Brandt, A., Eagleman, D. (2017). The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Great Briton: Canongate Books Ltd

[2] Burke, J., Dillion, B. (2018) ‘The diversity and inclusion revolution. Eight powerful truths’, Deloitte Review. Issue 22. Available at:

[3] Reynolds, A., Lewis, D. (2017). “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse”. Available at:

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