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02 Nov. 2015 | Comments (0)

What if you had to reach your goals without engaging any of your current practices?

In the face of increasingly complex problems and progressively compelling opportunities, your Diversity and Inclusion goals and objectives are not going away. But when problems are not being fully resolved and opportunities are not being entirely fulfilled, we have a responsibility to challenge our prevailing assumptions, accepted wisdom, conventional competencies, and traditional practices. Even more, we have a responsibility to design innovative ways of working that can deliver better results. Whether as a thought experiment or an actual revolution in your D&I strategy, banning your current approaches can spark innovations.

In Why Innovators Love Constraints (Harvard Business Review), Whitney Johnson described how restrictions (whether real, perceived, or introduced as a creativity prompt), can spark innovations with potential to deliver higher-level results.

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

One of my most valuable career experiences was catalyzed by a unique set of constraints that required me to abandon traditional approaches to D&I, to hire unconventional talent, and to design a pioneering strategy that created fresh, integrated, sustainable, and business-relevant value. Designing an avant-garde strategy was risky, but there was even more risk in sticking with the status quo. This was difficult and uncomfortable work, but we never would have achieved the remarkable results we did without these constraints. Ever since then, I have been an advocate of letting go of the past and starting fresh for the future.

Let Go

Letting go of familiar ways of work (while holding on to vital goals, objectives, and aspirations) opens up the path to new approaches and drives the creation of promising new practices with potential to outperform the best of what exists today. You also have the possibility of freeing up resources that are currently tied up in initiatives that might be generating a disappointingly low return on investment.

Even more, you would have the opportunity to let go of the practices in our field that are common but might not achieve your critical goals, and in some cases, could unintentionally be doing as much damage as good. Alison Maitland, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, and Binna Kandola are among key thought leaders who have challenged us to reconsider the investment in some of our most common D&I methods -- approaches often including D&I awareness and unconscious bias training, mentoring programs for marginalized employees, outreach events, compliance-based metrics, Employee (Business) Resources Groups, and more. Looking at Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as a specific example, these leaders and others have challenged us to thoughtfully consider questions such as:

  • Whether ERGs place undue responsibility on those marginalized to the majority to bear the onus of solving the problems they face
  • If siloing individuals into identity groups risks unintentional exclusion, ignores intersectionality, reinforces old paradigms, or fails to lever collective wisdom for creative problem solving at the intersection of different perspectives
  • What we risk with ERGs structured for networking primarily within the group but not with those in power
  • Why ERGs, and even those that have evolved to BRGs, continue to struggle to align with the business
  • Whether ERGs take up resources, including money and employee time, that could be redeployed for even more effective approaches

Can we reimagine D&I without ERGs? Where would we redirect resources currently tied up in ERGs? What innovative approaches would we design to create new value?

Start Fresh

Benefitting from the thought experiment of banning current approaches does not require you to actually discontinue best practices when critical examination determines that they truly are:

  • Delivering exceptional results and sustainable value to your stakeholders,
  • Including and benefitting everyone while avoiding unintentional harm to anyone,
  • Delivering a high return on invested resources, and
  • Directly enabling the achievement of mission-critical business goals.

 However, when current approaches are not leading to necessary outcomes and you aspire to do more, consider banning or letting go of your current approaches. By inventing a blank slate, you have the opportunity to creatively design new approaches with potential to deliver more meaningful results with a higher return. Paradoxically, limits can unleash unlimited potential.


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  • 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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