The key to innovation? Try cognitive diversity

njideka_harryNjideka Harry ’12, president & CEO of Youth for Technology Foundation, has realized her childhood dreams.  Growing up in Nigeria, she hoped that one day she could move to the US to go to school, and eventually, have a successful career.

Now, her not-for-profit Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) helps women and children in developing countries like Nigeria, so they, like Harry, can improve their community as adults. YTF introduces the benefit of information and communication technologies while expanding their access to economic opportunities through education, employment and entrepreneurship. YTF’s unique approach gives students the technology and problem-solving skills they need to innovate locally. The foundation now operates in Cameroon, Colombia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and the United States.

So how did YTF become so successful? The key, according to Harry, is cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity is a difference in perception, judgment system or mental process in a team.

Cognitive diversity in education

For Harry, one of the biggest obstacles to her ultimate success was her early education. “The education system in Nigeria is not only obsolete, it is broken,” she explained. “I didn’t have access to the materials, books or technology that American students take for granted.” When she went to an American college, she needed to catch up digitally with her peers. This experience later inspired her to found YTF.

But Harry had a distinctive edge over her classmates in one respect. Limited or constrained resources, including power, healthcare and education made her more innovative when faced with obstacles. Where many of her YTF peers see a roadblock, she sees a new opportunity.

Harry believes you can elevate the quality of education while making it relevant to each community. YTF students learn how to recognize issues in their environment and solve them. Whether they stay local to develop their communities or migrate to more urban communities for employment elsewhere, the students will be prepared to excel in any environment.

Applying cognitive diversity to the corporate setting

In organizations, managers need to be cognizant of the nuanced differences between their team members. “It’s important to understand that even within Africa, people are different,” Harry said. “Each country has its own values and norms, and individuals bring a different culture and perspective.”

Harry approaches her organization with cognitive diversity in mind, adapting her management style to fit each team. YTF’s Kenyan team, for instance, responds better to detailed and segmented information, with outlined expectations for every team member. In Nigeria, on the other hand, she is careful to explain to her community-oriented team how their work contributes to the YTF mission.

“The more diverse your team, the greater the potential for innovation,” said Harry.  “What one person sees as one thing, another sees as something else entirely. Neither perspective is wrong. Both are helpful for a leader.”

Ultimately, an efficient team depends on its leadership. Harry offered two pieces of advice for managers looking to lead more effectively.

“Lead by transformation,” Harry said. “Inspire your team to lead not by transactional leadership, or financial reward, but by transcending self-interest and getting their buy-in on your mission. And, most importantly, remember that your way of doing things may not be the best way. Be open to the perspectives of your team.”

Learn more about Youth for Technology here.

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