How do you solve a problem called Inclusion?

“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”

(“Alice in Wonderland”, Lewis Carroll)

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For some reasons, not all of which are always obvious to me, I seem to find myself in conversations that take a turn and become about enhancing diversity and inclusion (D&I) in organisations. A few recent conversations took that turn too.

One was when a friend who works in change management in a public body asked me why there seem to be no ethnic minorities offering change management advice in London, a city that is 55% ethnic minorities. “Would they not be the ones who benefit from real and sustainable change?”, he asked, baffled. The second conversation was about the nth LinkedIn post by an ethnic minority banker, who keeps promoting their “inspirational personal story” as “D&I sessions” causing much despair to those who know the risks of such tick-box approaches. A third conversation was with a CEO and their Board Chairman who wanted to discuss, while they were making progress, how they could build a truly gender-inclusive organisation.

Finding a solution is hugely dependent on defining the problem and its scope correctly. Here are three things that recurrently emerge about D&I in these and other conversations.

Boards and exec teams think of D&I as a static issue. Which leads them to believe – incorrectly – that they can “do” D&I. One can “do” D&I to the extent that one can do “breathing”. It does not matter if we over-inhale oxygen one day, we still need to keep breathing (unless we are somehow emulating Pépé which is a bad idea). Likewise with D&I.

Organisations change frequently so the D&I “goals”, should there be such in place, also change. For instance, one key exec leaving could imbalance a small exec team’s gender balance or ethnicity balance, presenting an opportunity to reiterate the organisation’s commitment to inclusion through intentional action (within limits permissible by law).

Thinking of D&I as a static, one-time, bounded problem risks missing the opportunity to commit to the dynamic process of change and managing that change. And the resources – time, attention, money – that it requires to truly succeed. None of these bodes well for building a truly inclusive organisation.

Boards and exec teams think of D&I as an intramural problem. And that is a limited view of how organisations function. As I have written before, organisations have a strategic intent but also a societal contract. In many a scenario planning, the evolving societal contract can unfortunately become a second fiddle to the conversation around the strategic intent.

To continue the breathing analogy, a truly inclusive organisation thinks extramurally about its entire ecosystem, and considers whose breathing difficulties are noted and how the decisions or changes made may affect their ability to breathe. A truly inclusive organisation thinks of the entire breadth of its stakeholders.

Customers, for instance. Unlike employees, who remain mostly in their functional silos, a customer – especially one having a terrible experience with an organisation – may find herself interfacing with employees in sales, marketing, logistics, finance and who knows who else. (Can you tell I have recently tried to return a defective product to a large IT hardware company where nobody seems to talk to anyone and all numbers seem to direct to the same choice menu on an annoying interactive voice response system? But I digress.). Do your customers feel welcome or do they experience your organisation as if they were an impediment in the day of your employees? Do you consider things such as your e-commerce shop front being inclusive for all kinds of users – especially disabled ones who may need different accessibility features or your older customers who may find your funky grey-ellipses-on-white-background a little too difficult to access?

And employees. Do you, for instance, consider if your internally deployed technology solutions for employee communications are truly inclusive for your employees with visual or auditory challenges?

How about shareholders? Do you think it is sufficient to say “if you would like this in large print (words obviously printed in small print), please get in touch with the Company Secretary via contacts provided on <some other page>” in the annual report, or is there another way for you to make them feel welcome to ask questions and check information about their shares’ performance?

Boards and exec teams think of D&I as a bounded problem defined by protected characteristics. Not only is this approach inadequate and tokenistic, it is also intellectually lazy and ends up prescribing ways of breathing that are deemed valid. I would be rehashing an old post – which you can read in full by clicking on the link – but suffice it to say if you are not probing what, beyond protected characteristics, some of which such as religion and sexuality are reliant on self-disclosure, makes a candidate’s thinking different and would add to perspectives your organisation needs, you are defining the problem all wrong.

And you will solve it all wrong.

***

Defining the D&I challenge in such bounded ways gives the lie to organisations claiming to be committed to inclusion. They betray a lack of understanding of how much cultural and strategic change true inclusion would require.

And yet, with the bounded definitions, organisations quickly go on to “solving” for D&I .

The result? Poor, unsustainable, tokenising pat answers, a growing cottage industry in “unconscious bias training” and such pointless performative exercises, and the thriving of many a “consultant” or “inspirational speaker” who know not to dig much deeper than the surface. It leaves us all poorer as a society to not find our best and brightest and put them to work.

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Each of these challenges applies when one thinks of how boards and leadership teams are grappling with the conversations around ESG, where definitions are evolving, there is no standardisation for comparison, there is seemingly no time for first principles thinking and questioning. But that is perhaps for another post.

***

That Cheshire Cat was right. To go somewhere in particular, we need to be more specific before we set off on our journey. How is your board or leadership doing on that count?

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees.)

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