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08 Mar. 2012 | Comments (0)

Some of the most beneficial innovations in contemporary Diversity and Inclusion demonstrate that the path to better results depends in part on questioning and sometimes letting go of former practices and programs with results that are valuable, but not sufficient.  Today’s best practices, often heavily programmatic, may have carried us about as far as they can.  As we look to the future, one thing we have learned is that well-executed systemic, integrated approaches are proving more valuable to shape our work in the 21st century.

Across a series of Human Capital Exchange blogs on this topic, I’d like to explore proven and emerging approaches to integrate D&I into the organizational genes at every level, every function, every location, and into the way work gets done everyday so that we can expand the impact, sustainability and the value of D&I across an entire organization. 

In framing this exploration, it can be helpful to consider a fable by Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. with Marjorie I. Woodruff (American Management Association, New York, 1999). 

In a small suburban community just outside the city of Artiodact, a giraffe had a new home built to his family's specifications. It was a wonderful house for giraffes, with soaring ceilings and tall doorways. High windows ensured maximum light and good views while protecting the family's privacy. Narrow hallways saved valuable space without compromising convenience. So well done was the house that it won the national Giraffe Home of the Year Award. The home's owners were understandably proud.

One day the giraffe, working in his state-of-the-art wood shop in the basement, happened to look out the window. Coming down the street was an elephant. "I know him," he thought. "We worked together on a PTA committee. He's an excellent woodworker too. I think I'll ask him in to see my new shop. Maybe we can even work together on some projects." So the giraffe reached his head out the window and invited the elephant in.

The elephant was delighted; he had liked working with the giraffe and looked forward to knowing him better. Besides, he knew about the wood shop and wanted to see it. So he walked up to the basement door and waited for it to open.

"Come in; come in," the giraffe said. But immediately they encountered a problem. While the elephant could get his head in the door, he could go no farther.

"It's a good thing we made this door expandable to accommodate my wood shop equipment," the giraffe said. "Give me a minute while I take care of our problem." He removed some bolts and panels to allow the elephant in.

The acquaintances were happily exchanging wood-working stories when the giraffe's wife leaned her head down the basement stairs and called out to her husband: "Telephone, dear; it's your boss." "I'd better take that upstairs in the den," the giraffe told the elephant. "Please make yourself at home; this may take a while."

The elephant looked around, saw a half-finished project on the lathe table in the far corner, and decided to explore it further. As he moved through he doorway that led to that area of the shop, however, he heard an ominous scrunch. He backed out, scratching his head. "Maybe I'll join the giraffe upstairs," he thought. But as he started up the stairs, he heard them begin to crack. He jumped off and fell against the wall. It too began to crumble. As he sat there disheveled and dismayed, the giraffe came down the stairs.

"What on earth is happening here?" the giraffe asked in amazement. "I was trying to make myself at home," the elephant said. The giraffe looked around. "OK, I see the problem. The doorway is too narrow. We'll have to make you smaller. There's an aerobics studio near here. If you take some classes there, we could get you down to size.

As this story illustrates, the challenges the elephant faces within the structure of the giraffe’s house are like the challenges that marginalized populations face in our organizations. Historically, workplace structures, systems, processes and cultures were designed by the mainstream and shaped to the prevailing population’s preferred ways of working.  Notably, it is not that the giraffes were intentionally designing the blueprint to keep elephants out.  They were just building the perfect, award-winning house for giraffes.

But the house doesn’t work for the total mix of diversity among current and future employees, customers and communities. 

Looking at critical D&I business opportunities with talent, leadership, markets, and investors, as well as with key D&I societal opportunities, we have several choices:

  1. We can put our heads in the sand and hope for the best. It is unlikely you would still be reading this if you wanted to make this choice.
  2. A second choice of many organizations paying attention to diversity and inclusion today is to take a programmatic approach that works on fixing the elephants to fit into the giraffe houses. Should all the elephants slim down to work with the giraffes? Does it really make sense to try to mold a diverse mix of talent to take on prevailing styles preferred by the mainstream, or does that mean giving up the complementary value diversity brings to our organizations?  Do common practices and programs such as Diversity Councils, Employee Resource Groups, Women’s Leadership Programs, Diversity Awareness Training and Communication deliver on the full promise of Diversity?                
  3. The third choice is for the giraffes and elephants to work together to design contemporary workplaces, marketplaces, and communities that work well for all, a house that welcomes all. 

What does the third choice look like?  Keep engaging with this series to learn more and to share your experiences.  Setting aside incremental improvements to common practices for this thread, let’s share our breakthrough innovative ideas that will make the most of diversity in the future.  Together, we can build the future of diversity and inclusion through collaborative innovation.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author: Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele

    Rebekah Steele is a senior fellow providing diversity & inclusion (D&I) expertise for The Conference Board. She serves as program director for both the Diversity & Inclusion Executives and…

    Full Bio | More from Rebekah Steele


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