Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, uses Cognitive Collaboration™ to make his company “a workplace people love,” solve challenging software problems, and deliver Menlo Innovations’ mission (“to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology”).

Cognitive Collaboration is the deliberate practice of applying thinking and behavioral preferences to create an atmosphere that promotes more frequent, higher quality collaboration. With this strengths-based model, everyone on the team can contribute in greater ways, because each is aware of his or her personal strengths and unique contributions.

Menlo Innovations is one example of how companies can pair cognitive diversity with effective strategy. This specific methodology leverages each employee’s unique preferences and the organization’s shared knowledge to achieve group success. The company distinguishes itself in a world where the stereotype is to be over budget, late on delivery and full of errors.

Cognitive diversity has brought success to other organizations in addition to Menlo Innovations. Recent research in organizational development and human behavior has identified four distinct areas of the brain: analytical, structural, social and conceptual. Every person falls along a spectrum of behavior in three areas: expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility. Teams with a full spectrum of these seven attributes exhibit cognitive diversity.


Let’s walk through the behaviors and then paint a picture of the thinking attributes.

  • Expressiveness is a behavior that ranges on a scale from quiet to gregarious. A quiet person might work better independently and need time to reflect on new information. Someone on the gregarious side of the spectrum is animated and might talk with his hands or wear his emotions on his sleeve.
  • Assertiveness looks at the pace and style at which a person approaches a situation. The scale ranges from peacekeeping to driving. Someone on the peacekeeping end of the spectrum might use statements as questions, while someone on the driving end of the spectrum will put her energy into convincing others of her perspective.
  • Flexibility takes into account what happens when a plan changes mid-course. Are you focused on the task at hand, with difficulty transitioning, or do you welcome change and switch directions easily?

For each of these behaviors, someone on the middle of the spectrum can behave in different ways, depending on the situation.

We cover these behaviors first, because they are what you first notice when you interact with someone. Thinking preferences take a little more skill to pinpoint:

  • Someone with an analytical thinking preference is a logical problem solver who wants to see the data before making a decision.
  • The structural thinking preference is aligned with someone who is focused on the details and likes to follow guidelines.
  • Someone with a social thinking preference is relational and intuitive about people and often learns from others.
  • Conceptual thinking preferences show up in team members who are visionary and imaginative.

Developing Cognitive Diversity

Chances are you’re not going to stumble across a cognitively diverse team. They are built through deliberate choices, such as using psychometric tools to uncover thinking and behavior preferences. You can also develop cognitively diverse teams by asking for volunteers who can naturally bring analytical, structural, social and conceptual perspectives to the table. Make sure each person is responsible for the perspective you’re asking him or her to deliver. Do the same for expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility; you need representation from across each spectrum.

In the Emergenetics International office, there is an open door policy for “borrowing someone’s brain.” That policy doesn’t mean going to the closest cubicle or your friend down the hall. In borrowing someone’s brain, we honor each individual’s thinking attributes, knowing that he or she can help create a more robust team profile.

In action, this process creates more dynamic pairs, diverse team projects and the opportunity to collaborate with people across the organization. Collaboration isn’t focused on role or title but on how individuals think and what perspectives they can bring to the project at hand. This process is called building a WEteam™, where WE stands for Whole Emergenetics: a whole brain approach.

Our clients use the WEteam approach not only for projects but for larger strategy initiatives as well. For example, a large hospitality organization valued collaboration but found that its collaborative teams were cognitively unbalanced, resulting in mixed results or extended project cycles. When they started using the WEteam approach, they built their team by matching tasks with individuals’ strengths.

The results were significant. Global employee engagement scores increased by four percent, manager effectiveness increased by nine percent and leadership increased by 15 percent. Overall, leadership scores had a 91 percent net positive improvement.

Applying Cognitive Diversity

Now what? You’ve built your team; now put it to work. It’s the application of cognitive diversity that enables organizations to collaborate and change. We are surrounded by cognitive diversity; however, unless it is applied, it remains a source of untapped potential. The competitive advantage comes when a team learns to consciously apply its differences and leverage individual strengths. Activating cognitive collaboration is where the magic happens.

Apply a diverse approach to tasks and projects. You can view any initiative through the lens of cognitive diversity. If you’re having a meeting, ensure that you approach it from all seven attributes. As you come up with solutions, put them into this framework, and compare them to the full thinking and behavioral spectrum. Does the solution speak to analytical concerns? Will it resonate with structural thinkers? Ask these questions for each attribute.

As you build your project team, volunteer team or strategy session, who are you bringing to the table? People who replicate your thinking preferences, or team members who create cognitive diversity? Our clients’ successes demonstrate that the incorporation of cognitive diversity empowers teams to use their strengths, impact the end result, and bring individual and diverse voices to the table.