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23 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

Many prevailing Diversity and Inclusion initiatives are heavily focused on changing individual awareness and individual behaviours.  For example, Diversity training often centers on helping individuals understand and manage their own biases.  Along with these efforts, it is common to have special programs aimed at advancing marginalized populations by helping them understand how to successfully perform in line with the dominant culture.  The resulting work and responsibility rest on the individual. These types of programs have been at the core of what has driven D&I progress to date, and we continue to see incremental enhancements to these initiatives.  However, this reliance on individual awareness, competence and motivation precariously ignores the role of the larger system in which individuals operate, and I believe that this is among the key reasons that D&I results are not as meaningful, significant, sustainable or timely as they need to be.

Current approaches are over-reliant upon individuals vigilantly staying aware of elusive unconscious biases and consistently choosing to overcome ingrained habits.  Even more, when individuals are expected to overcome habits within systems that don’t enable and reinforce their efforts, we can scarcely expect even the most willing and most capable to succeed.  Moreover, we lose the power of complementary diversity and intersecting insights when we implore marginalized persons to silence what makes them unique, hide what makes them authentic, and divert constructive energy toward emulating those with prevailing power.  As Peter Senge describes in The Fifth Discipline, “we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.” 

Applying Systems Thinking to D&I means integrating Diversity and Inclusion in the organization as a whole and in the relationships between the organization’s parts to sustainably blend D&I into the company’s underlying structures, processes and ways of working. We have seen organizations do this well in other domains including Total Quality at Honda, Safety at DuPont, Six Sigma at GE, Design Thinking at IDEO, and Flexible Work at Best Buy. 

How can you begin to shift to systems thinking?  A good starting point is to map the key components of a system to enable thinking, designing, and acting in ways that address the interrelated parts of the system.  (Consider starting with the McKinsey 7-S Model first published in Waterman Jr., Robert H., Peters, Thomas J., and Julien R. Phillips. 1980. "STRUCTURE IS NOT ORGANIZATION." Business Horizons 23, no. 3: 14)

Looking at gender diversity through a systems lens illustrates how an isolated focus on one part of a system fails to produce desired change. Early gender diversity efforts often focused only on a change in one part of the system, the Staff, to hire more female employees.  Part of the reason that these early efforts did not result in the changes envisioned is that the rest of the interconnected parts of the system remained unchanged, and therefore continued to reinforce the status quo, invisibly working against female representation.  For example, we didn’t change our Talent Sourcing processes to cast a wider net to find female applicants, we didn’t change our Employment Branding processes to attract female applicants or our Recruitment processes to objectively interview and select female talent.  We didn’t change Management competencies to effectively manage women to flourish or to optimally manage the mix of men and women working together.  We also didn’t change Leadership styles to recognize different but effective styles more common among women.  The other pieces of the system also didn’t change to support balanced representation of women in the workplace.  In consequence, the interconnected pieces and the system altogether did not support and enable the desired gender balance. 

All elements of the system must be aligned in a mutually reinforcing pattern to effect and sustain meaningful change.  A systems lens can be used to shift our framework for understanding how organizational elements are interrelated and what parts of the system need to be changed to effectively transform the system and its performance as a whole.  We can achieve even stronger solutions when we engage the collaborative efforts of people with diverse perspectives who see different parts of the system, elements an individual might overlook if they work alone. 

As part of the system, individuals have responsibility for Diversity and Inclusion.  But the role of the individual must be placed in a larger enabling system, a system optimally designed and maintained by the organization and its leaders.  Strategies that systemically integrate D&I into organizations and their interdependent parts will enable better and more sustainable results.

  • 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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