For the next few weeks, I will be exploring some big ideas from the worlds of science, economics, mathematics and social psychology. Much to my incomprehension, many of my favourite concepts don’t seem to stoke other people’s engines quite as much as they do mine. So what I want to do is to explain why some of the most abstract, clunky-sounding word-vomits can actually turn out to be life-changing eureka events that turn the sky green and the grass blue.
Today’s big idea is something called requisite variety (link to Wikipedia available for anyone who can’t stand a good hatchet-job paraphrase). It can be applied to all sorts of fields from business to biology, but in a useful and digestible nutshell, requisite variety is the notion that in order to properly deal with a range of different problems, you need to have an arsenal of responses that are at least as diverse as the problems that you face.
YOU AND ME
In life, all sorts of things can happen. Try as we might no one can predict the future so we try to prepare ourselves for whatever might occur. Requisite variety is the equivalent of never putting all your eggs in one basket. It’s why when you’re developing a career, what matters are your transferable skills. If you trained to be a chicken salesman (bear with me) and tomorrow the chicken went extinct then knowing how to sell things would still be useful to you getting a new job. Knowing about chickens wouldn’t.
The principle is so far-reaching that it applies to every single aspect of your life: it pays to have lots of strings to your bow and plenty of options open. When it comes to competition, the person with the most options is the person who is most likely to come out on top. Power is being able to do what the other person can’t do. Its not about overloading yourself with choices, its about having flexibility to deal with whatever life throws at you. And if you have more choices, skills and knowledge than the other guy then eventually a situation will come up that you can handle and the other guy can’t.
Sometimes in life you need brute force to smash through stubborn obstacles.
Other times you need guile, charm and diplomacy to smoothly navigate life’s waters.
When those things don’t work you sometimes need to get a little crazy; to do the unexpected and to take a few risks even when the odds seem stacked against you.
And sometimes you need a leader with a plan who knows how to make use of those strategies at the right time and in the right situation.
What I’ve just described is the A-team. But it also goes for every other team too. A team full of identical members will not be as successful as one where everyone has different things they bring to the table. A football team full of just big, strong, ugly players or just small, quick, skillful players will struggle against a team with both who knows how to exploit the other team’s weaknesses; the things that their team can do and the other team cannot do.
Diversity is a word that gets thrown around like confetti. It seems to have a habit of making people feel righteous, pious and so completely guilt-free (this straight white male included) that they can use it to paint themselves as part of a the rich cosmopolitan tapestry that has everyone holding hands, swaying in a circle to “we are the world”. It’s the interracial buddy comedy, the big city melting pot, the picture on the front page of the brochure where all the faces are a different gender, background or colour of the rainbow.
But the cold, hard truth is that diversity is not just tokenism or New Labour political correctness gone mad, it is an attempt to use our differences to make us collectively stronger.
Women often think differently to men. A woman born in Bermuda will think differently in some ways to one born in Belgium. A gay man might well be more able to market products to other gay men and someone with a disability might have a different insight into how our buildings and cities should be designed if we want them to be better places to live. Different backgrounds, cultures and experiences bring different things to the table and in different circumstances what seems best or strongest can change in an instant.
One of my favourite phrases sums up the power of requisite variety perfectly:
Your strength is your weakness and your weakness is your strength.
In different sets of circumstances what makes you feel weak and vulnerable will make you feel strong and powerful. The trick is finding a way of using or developing the skills, knowledge and talents that you have in order to make yourself strong in as many of life’s situations as possible.