What can five white, American teenagers from Illinois tell us about diversity and inclusion? The obvious answer might seem to be, not much. But you may be surprised, read on…

In 1985, John Hughes wrote and directed The Breakfast Club, a low-budget teen movie, which by all accounts is seemingly shallow on the surface. 

For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a quick overview. 

On a Saturday morning like any other, five high school students in Shermer, Illinois, gather in their school’s library for no less than eight hours of detention. All the usual high school archetypes are accounted for: the popular girl, Claire (Molly Ringwald); the sports jock, Andrew (Emilio Estevez); the reckless rebel, John AKA Bender (Judd Nelson); the outcast weirdo, Allison (Ally Sheedy); and the nerd, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall). 

Our mismatched crew are tasked by the painfully out of touch Principal Vernon (brilliantly played by the late Paul Gleason) to sit in silence for the full duration of their stay and write an essay, no less than a thousand words, detailing “who you think you are”. 

They scoff and roll their eyes, each resenting the very thought of delivering such a task more than the next. But time together eventually erodes the barriers separating them and they become a tight knit team capable of greatness. 

It’s unclear if that will stick, but for now everyone gains new perspectives on the cards both peers and parents have handed to them.

Breakfast club cast sit on the floor talking

And of course, the film eventually ends with an upbeat 80s song which spells out some kind of moral message within its lyrics, which leaves you feeling pumped up AND better for spending 90 minutes of your life indulging in what ends up being a seminal piece of 80s cinema.

Sounds pretty textbook right? 

Well, not quite. 

So, what is it then that makes The Breakfast Club so relevant today? Why is it still so deeply embedded and referenced in popular culture to this day? And why are its core themes so important?

The answers to these questions are both complex and simple at the same time. 

Essentially, the breakfast club is a perfect blueprint for diversity, and no, we’re not talking about diversity of race, gender or age. We’re talking about diversity of a different kind.


We're talking about Cognitive Diversity

You see, despite the fact the main focus of the film is on a bunch of white, mostly middle-class American teenagers, the differences in the ways they think and feel about the world is what is so deeply profound and different. 

They all have varying world views, different mental models and expectations and, invariably, disappointments about how the world works and what they want from it for themselves. 

To get through the challenge they’ve been set, they must work together, collaborate, empathise and understand one another and become ‘one’. A diverse hive mind wrapped in shoulder pads, drenched in angst and sporting single studded leather fingerless gloves. 

And that is what makes The Breakfast Club so enduring to this day. It’s a lasting formula for embracing collective wisdom, creative problem-solving and how a team dynamic can truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s explore how you can harness your own team’s cognitive diversity like the high school kids of Shermer High did on that pivotal day, March 24th 1984.

Principal Vernon pointing finger

It is now 7:06. You have exactly 8 hours and 54 minutes to think about why you are here – to ponder the error of your ways.

Principal Vernon AKA Paul Gleason


The importance of diversity

There’s no question that diversity leads to more wide-ranging innovation, richer collaboration, and ultimately, better results. This is especially true in creative industries that rely on new ideas. 

In 2018, a Harvard Business Review study noted, “Companies with higher-than-average diversity had 19% higher innovation revenues.” 

It’s simply better for business.

Discussions around diversity often inevitably focus on what we can see, i.e. physical differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc. (which is not to suggest that any of those aspects are always visually apparent). But diversity and differences are not always obvious.

An essential difference between members of a team is often completely invisible: how we think and process information, a person’s mode of thought, their approach to problem-solving; that comes down to cognitive diversity e.g. what our teenage protagonists had in abundance.


Rebel with a cause

Cognitive diversity is about a person’s mode of thought, their approach to problem-solving, the way they acquire and analyse information… It’s about perspectives, experience, insights, and thinking styles. 

It can be as simple as what interests them about a situation or as all-encompassing as how they view the world. None of which can be predicted by the usual go-to factors such as gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. 

As we mentioned earlier, it’s the invisible difference.

When it comes to having something to say about cognitive diversity, the person who inspires us at Pack is Matthew Syed and his book, “Rebel Ideas”:

"When you bring people together with different insights, different perspectives, different experiences, you get an uplift in collective intelligence… in problem-solving, in creativity, in the ability to make predictions."

Matthew Syed - Rebel Ideas


This sounds awesome, what’s the catch?

The catch is that we all have built-in, unconscious biases that can prevent us seeking out cognitive diversity.

Syed describes this phenomenon as ‘homophily’, the unconscious desire to be with people like ourselves, people who think, feel and see the world as we do; otherwise known as an ‘affinity bias’. 

Then there’s ‘conformity bias’ which is our drive to fit in, to be accepted by our peers; one way to do that is to agree with their thinking (we’ve all been in a meeting and kept quiet even though we disagreed with the boss, right?) Between them, these two unconscious biases act as powerful barriers to making the most of any cognitive diversity in the room.

But when you’re putting a team together, for example for a Design Sprint focused on developing a new product or service, you need to access and leverage EVERYTHING each individual brings to the table, including (especially!) the less obvious differences.


Back to The Breakfast Club

So, how does one of our favourite cult movies fit with this concept of cognitive diversity? 

Well, consider the following:

  • They’re all facing a shared ‘problem’. Whether that problem is the detention, the Principal’s attitude, the essay they each have to write (topic: ‘who they are’) or even simply that they are being ‘held captive’ against their will, with people they don’t relate to.

 

  • Their reactions (to the shared situation and each other) depend on their different experiences and perspectives on life so far.

 

  • Initially, they are entrenched in those differences. Their homophily and biases prevent them from understanding or appreciating, or even listening to, each other.

 

 As Syed points out in Rebel Ideas, we all have blind spots in our thinking. 

Things that just wouldn’t occur to us to consider or ask because they don’t fit with our personal experiences; that’s just not how we think. 

Luckily, there’s always someone else who does (think like that). 

At the start of The Breakfast Club, the blind spots are painfully obvious – each of our characters are locked in their own world, unable to see a value in the others. 

But by the time the credits roll there’s a new understanding and mindsets are changed for the better. 


Using cognitive diversity to level up your teams

There’s a reason cognitive diversity is so important to teams. Homophily creates a bubble, an echo chamber of sameness that inhibits effective team working, limits group wisdom, reduces the available options, and generally leads to less good results. 

Making the most of a team’s collective cognitive diversity can result in the positive opposites of all that.

  • They have more options to choose from.

 

  • Learning is accelerated.

 

  • As is performance.

 

  • They solve complex problems more quickly.

 

Also, people are much more comfortable when they can be who they are. When they can be true to themselves, they’re more likely to work better and achieve more…

Claire AKA Molly Ringwold thinking

I hate it. I hate having to go along with everything my friends say.

Claire AKA Molly Ringwald


How to identify cognitive diversity and harness it!

BUT… it’s not enough to have cognitive diversity in your team, you have to bring it out, use it. Help individuals to own and show their differences. If anyone on the team doesn’t feel safe, respected or valued, then they won’t contribute their full potential. In other words, diversity alone is not enough, you need inclusion too. 

Again, The Breakfast Club is a good example of this. 

What was the secret formula? 

They communicated.

  • Once they began to communicate, they began to learn about each other…

 

  • …and appreciate their different points of view, opinions, and experiences.

 

  • They also found unsuspected, hidden commonalities between them.

 

  • As a result, they collaborate, they work together. They break out of the library ‘as a team’. They achieve the set task (the essay) but in a way that is unexpected yet appropriate (i.e. creative problem-solving).

 

  • Arguably, the day they were anticipating would be boring and a total loss turned out to be a rich, developmental, and fun experience all round which changed all their lives for the better.

What to look for AKA dig deep

To be fair, sometimes you may have to dig deep to find the cognitive diversity in a team. You may have little control over who is in the team so you can’t select for different modes of thought up front. You need to get under the surface to find it. The key question is, what exactly are you looking for? How will you know it when you see it? 

Look for differences in the following:

  • Life experiences

 

  • Opinions

 

  • Modes of expression – e.g. some people talk a lot spontaneously (it’s how they think, out loud) whereas others are quiet (thinking internally) until they have something concrete to say.

 

  • Knowledge processing – whether they prefer to rely on their existing knowledge, or seek out new knowledge to deal with a new situation.

 

  • Ways of gathering and analysing information – e.g. do they focus on facts and details, or are they attracted to connections and implications?

 

  • Decision-making – e.g. do they use logical criteria or are they more concerned about the impact on people and their feelings?

 

All these are potential ways in which people may think differently. 

What’s helpful is to view it in terms of broad categories of thought and definitely NOT to try to put people into boxes (we’re not looking for a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal!) And if you’re worried your group isn’t particularly diverse, it is, whether it’s obvious or not.

Emilio Estevez being bizzare

We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.

Andrew AKA Emilio Estevez


Making the most of what you’ve got

How do you make the most of a group or team’s cognitive diversity once you’ve got them together?

breakfast club cast sitting

Just like The Breakfast Club, the fundamental key is communication. As to specific strategies to help turn a cognitively diverse group of individuals into a team that can work together:

 

  • Understand the concept of cognitive diversity and be able to recognise differing cognitive traits.

 

  •   Get to know your team’s diverse modes of cognition.

 

  • Create a psychologically safe space in which people feel comfortable being different from those around them – this could range from agreeing a few group ground rules to building a longer-term team culture in which it’s okay to think differently.

 

  • Think about what behaviours are usually rewarded or appreciated in your team. Are you valuing everything that’s useful? Or everyone?

 

  • Avoid echo chambers and put people together who wouldn’t normally collaborate – encourage incidental mingling and happy accidents (though maybe not by giving them a detention on a Saturday!)

 

  • Have a common goal to rally around (this one is easy if you’re faced with a specific project or process to get behind, such as a Design Sprint).

 

  •   Create shared activities and experiences (team challenges, workshops, meetings, projects, shared goals and problems, events, etc.) with a focus on helping them understand where each other’s strengths lie, supporting them to look below the surface and understand each other’s unseen differences.

 

In other words, get people out of their comfort zones into a space where they might need support AND can get it from (and offer it to) others, in the process creating a team that is truly more than the sum of its individual members. AKA The Breakfast Club.

The message is simple, embrace other modes of thought and broaden your collective vision – no more blind spots!


1600 hours; schools out

In The Breakfast Club, Principal Vernon represents the problem or challenge everyone rallies around. Being tough and seemingly impossible to beat, the team becomes resourceful, takes on a new diverse mindset and sees similarities and strengths in their collective differences leading to collaboration and unity as a result. 

They do arguably their best work within the situation forced upon them, their magnum opus, the essay assigned to them which seemed impossible to write as strangers – becomes a work they are proud to collectively put their names to.

And it goes something like this:

Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we  found out, is that each one of us…is a brain…and an athlete
…and a basket case…princess…and a criminal.
Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours,
The Breakfast Club

Brian, AKA Anthony Michael Hall