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05 Oct. 2017 | Comments (0)

Challenging us to build a better house for diversity, Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas told an instructive fable about a giraffe inviting an elephant into his home. Despite a warm welcome and shared interests, the elephant struggled to make himself at home in the space perfectly designed for the giraffe. The narrow doorways cracked against his width and stairs broke beneath his weight. Eager to find a way for his friend to fit in, the giraffe suggested the elephant lose weight and lighten his step. Considering these suggestions, the elephant responded: “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that a house designed for a giraffe will ever really work for an elephant, not unless there are some major changes.”

Thomas’ point remains salient. Many of our organizations are structured to work better for some and less well for others. Although rarely intentional, the exclusionary outcomes are potent. The answer is not to change the elephants, but to thoughtfully re-design a house that works well for both giraffes and elephants. In other words, we need organizations where all people, with their diverse identities and experiences, can flourish and contribute to business success. We know diversity makes us smarter, and as a business executive observed during a D&I Innovation Lab with me, once we know that D&I improves business results, we are irresponsible if we do not act.

The Blueprint for Change

Just as a blueprint guides the construction of an optimally functional house, we need a blueprint to create inclusive organizations that work for a diversity of people. A D&I ecosystem strategy provides this guide. Starting with mission-critical business outcomes followed by a discovery of how D&I can enable business results, the ecosystem approach systematically considers opportunities for change through the lens of 7 key elements of the organization (detailed below). Contrasting with piecemeal D&I initiatives focused on isolated incidents and symptoms, this approach accepts the organization as a complex system as it attends to interrelationships and weaves change throughout the organization to achieve comprehensive, sustainable outcomes.

A simple example: Many organizations have struggled to engage employees in flexible work options, despite related policy and communication efforts. Rather than assuming a lack of interest, the ecosystem method approaches this challenge in the context of what is happening throughout the broader organization, considering how unaltered remnants or legacies might reinforce traditional work arrangements (e.g., rewarding those who spend more time in the office) and sabotage efforts. Given human reluctance to change, any workplace element that appears to encourage the status quo can be a potent signal not to change. An ecosystem approach to creating a flexible workplace examines system-wide changes needed to truly foster flexibility. Leaders who recognize the business and D&I value of flexibility could use this approach to consider potential shifts across their organization:


Ecosystem Element

Sample ideas for enhancing flexibility

Business strategy

Recognize that flexibility enhances agility in a dynamic marketplace

Leadership strategy

Emphasize attributes including agility, trust, and results-orientation

Talent Capacity

Develop employees’ virtual work and team competence

Organization structure

Encourage flexible teams that can form and dissipate as needed


Ensure clarity on goal deployment and expected results

Metrics and Rewards

Assess how well managers support flexible workers

Individual assumptions & behaviors

Promote understanding that working flexibly will benefit careers


The ecosystem approach can address an array of business-relevant D&I strategies and initiatives. Breaking a seemingly intractable challenge, such as D&I transformation, into a set of manageable questions whose answers can be combined into a whole system solution, this approach “bakes in” changes that are reinforced around a shared vision everywhere employees look. As well, this method allows organizations to consider what is already working and can be maintained or reinforced. In combination, this technique makes change feel less threatening and more automatic, effective, and sustainable.

Critically, the ecosystem approach requires a commitment to simultaneous change. If a leader unwinds the synchronized set of solutions or attempts to address each ecosystem element in succession (e.g., first business strategy, then leadership strategy, etc.) they will have yet another unsuccessful piece-by-piece approach. (The elephant will still be stuck if we widen the giraffe house doors this year, but wait to widen the hallways until next year.) Amid real concerns about the limited resources we often have to achieve substantial D&I results, leaders must manage scope by selecting priority D&I objectives where they can enact concurrent system-wide change. For example, start by embedding a flexibility ecosystem, then move to an ecosystem fostering an inclusive speak-up culture, and then implement an ecosystem for the next opportunity to expand D&I impact.

Although well-intentioned, efforts to fix the elephants must cease. They do not work. Instead, an ecosystem approach to transformation helps us change the house; providing a blueprint to help us avoid the common failures of piecemeal D&I initiatives and enabling us to achieve the meaningful, sustainable changes important for all employees to thrive and contribute.


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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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