On 11th September 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack of human history occurred as two passenger planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in New York. Two other passenger planes were hijacked – one ended up crashing into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and the other crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers courageously banded together to thwart the hijackers.
After the devastating events – which resulted in 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injured – an inquest blamed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for not seeing the warning signs that now seemed so obvious in hindsight.
Firstly, Osama Bin Laden had declared war on the United States as early as 1996, and reiterated this in 1998. Murmurings of airplanes being used as weapons had been circulating for around a decade. Al Qaeda was becoming more violent and gaining power in other areas of the world. An FBI analyst had even sent an email to colleagues warning that Bin Laden had been funding students to go to civil aviation colleges in the US. The students had been asking about flight patterns around New York, and how cockpit doors worked.
Historically, the CIA were notorious for hiring very similar types of people – white, male, middle or upper class, Protestant. Through the decades leading up to 9/11, homosexuals had been banned from working for the CIA and African-Americans were very rarely hired. The CIA even had lawsuits filed against them for discriminating against women. A Muslim CIA employee was just a pipe dream.
The CIA explained that they were hiring the best people – the best people just happened to be white males of a certain type. They argued that the best relay sprint teams simply choose the fastest runners, no matter their skin color, race or religion. It turns out that the way the tests and interviews were designed actually made it harder for more eccentric types of people to score well in the hiring process. The phenomenon is known as homophily, where people are more attracted to others that are similar to themselves.
So what’s wrong with hiring an extremely skilled team that are very similar in background? It’s because demographic diversity such as social class, religion, level of education etc. often leads to cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity is how wide-ranging the level of ideas and thoughts are in a group. The more wide-ranging the ideas are in a group, the fewer the blind spots and the likelier complex problems will be solved through a larger ‘collective brain’.
The lack of understanding from the CIA about Islam in the lead up to 9/11 is there for all to see. When Bin Laden released videos from a cave in Afghanistan wearing a simple robe and a beard down to his chest, he was not taken seriously whatsoever. To the Western world, he was the essence of backwardness.
In reality, Bin Laden was modelling the Prophet Mohammad, who had visions of the Koran in a mountain cave. Bin Laden fasted on the same days that Mohammad fasted, copied the same postures and struck up imagery that resonated with the Islamic world. He recited poetry, considered to be holy by Muslims. Bin Laden was conjuring up supporters at an alarming rate.
The homogeneity of the CIA gave them gigantic blind spots that would have been brought to light had they focused on more diverse recruitment, in particular of Muslims. The CIA have since began diversifying their workforce.
Until I read this story, I didn’t see the importance of diversity in the workplace. It was in fact a blind spot of my own. Reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed gave me a new compelling insight that shows how important cognitive diversity is in many different applications.