Exploring Diversity by Design

Exploring Diversity by Design

Andy Singh, Director Frontier Knowledge

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop to revitalize and renew an organisations’ diversity and inclusion networks. The facilitation role allowed me to experiment with my growing knowledge of human centric educational techniques to deeply explore the nature of the problems and some possible solutions. 

The organisation faces the dual challenges of maintaining operational success, while building new capabilities for a future shaped by artificial intelligence, blockchains and cell augmentation. As part of this future focus, the organisation reinvigorated its diversity networks and inclusion strategies, but after a couple years of strong involvement, the wind seems to have slipped from its sails.

Once the workshop commenced, participants were eager to offer possible solutions, but misdiagnosis is a common problem, so I held them in an exploratory mode as long as I could. The conversation bounced back and forth as we tried to understand why diversity and inclusion is a problem in the first place.

As an aid to the discussion, I drew on the analogy of the plantation and the rainforest. Describing the current state of the organisation as being a ‘plantation operation’ with its inherent attributes and thinking, seemed a reality participants could connect with. Likewise, the description of a future state as a 'rainforest ecology' was accepted as a viable vision for managing current and future complexities.

The usefulness of the analogy came when we discussed the role of the current diversity and inclusion strategies in transforming the organisation for the future. There led to a discussion of bananas. Will planting five different varieties of bananas help us create a fruit salad?

The human centred approaches help uncover some fault lines in the current approach. Participants identify social belonging and a sense of community as their motivation for involvement in diversity networks. Very few saw the networks as a driver for organisational transformation. The relationship with management was mixed. They appreciated the support, but in this space, the role and relationship between the networks and the executive seems uncertain. Maybe a similar workshop involving more executives could identify this gap between management expectations and participant motivations. Maybe this is where the problem lays? Who want to attend a sausage sizzle when you know it is all about meeting an executives’ KPIs?

Many diversity and inclusion strategies are built around identity. Strategies fit within two approaches - survival strategies and thriving strategies. Survival involves protection and inclusion while at the same time challenging the status quo. Survival strategies lend themselves to quotas, targets and KPIs as indicators of progress. In doing so, they run the risk of reinforcing the culture and thinking prevalent to plantation operations.

Identity based diversity fits nicely within survival strategies. There is copious research to demonstrate the diversity and inclusion of identity provides improvement in organisational legitimacy, better decision making and a safer culture. For many older organisations, these survival strategies are the reality of playing catch up.

Thriving strategies involve learning, leadership and engagement. Thriving strategies are inherently more difficult. They are more aspirational than tangible. Progress is messy, complex and contestable. We continue to think of training over learning and education. Thriving strategies support adaptations, mutations and cross pollinations, critical for creating unforeseen emergent capabilities.

In this workshop, while identity remains important, inclusion feels more important; participants want to give more. Through the creation of an empathy map, participants broaden the discussion of diversity beyond identity to the attributes of acquired diversity, including education, experience and aspiration.

This broadening of the conversation generates energy in the room. Each new definition of diversity provides additional opportunities for our participants to contribute. Maybe this is the irony – by limiting our discussion of diversity to the attributes of identity, we perpetuate the exclusions of the established culture. 

In the following ideation activity, innovation was firmly focused on supporting the thriving strategies and the broader discussion of diversity and inclusion.

In experimenting with human centred techniques, I have found there are some important prerequisites. Firstly, the problem is best to have remained undetermined. If we think we know what the problems are, we jump to solutions and dismiss the need to listen. Secondly, the right people need to be in the room; not too many chiefs and lots more Indians, and thirdly, there needs to be a shared sense of how to move forward.

In this workshop, I had the licence to explore the problems and move beyond traditional assumptions. I also had the right people in the room. Their empathy was insightful. They had skin in the game. Lastly, I found a story participants could imagine themselves within and see their own way forward. Participants could see themselves in the rainforest, making contributions in ways they found most valuable.

Utilising human centred education techniques involved participants in an approach, which at its core, are based upon the values of broad diversity and inclusion. In doing so, we uncovered some deeply held aspirations and contradictions within the current approach. A collective understanding of the problem was developed, upon which an inclusive innovative process was initiated.

Ultimately, we ran out of time. But while we were together, it was not the diversity of identity, but the diversity of thought which created magic. Many organizations now see diversity of thought as the key enabler to move forward. Embracing diversity of thought requires organisations to nourish their growth strategies and start planting their rainforests of the future.

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