The eye-opening power of cultural difference

What is inclusivity and why is it central to open organizations?
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Open source diversity efforts gain momentum in 2016

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Inclusivity is the quality of an open organization that allows and encourages people to join the organization and feel a connection to it. Practices aimed at enhancing inclusivity are typically those that welcome new participants to the organization and create an environment that makes them want to stay.

When we talk about inclusivity, we should clarify something: Being "inclusive" is not the same as being "diverse." Diversity is a product of inclusivity; you need to create an inclusive community in order to become a diverse one, not the other way around. The degree to which your open organization is inclusive determines how it adapts to, responds to, and embraces diversity in order to improve itself. Interestingly enough, the best way to know which organizational changes will make your group more inclusive is to interact with the people you want to join your community.

Ideally, inclusivity and diversity should have no limits in your open organization. The more inclusive you are, the more variance you will be able to introduce in your organization. The more variance you introduce to an organization, the more that organization will be able to tolerate changes—and the more you will be able to leverage your organization's diversity to make it better.

Dimensions of inclusivity

We should remember another important point, too: Being inclusive means attending to more than categories like gender and race. Gender and racial diversity are absolutely critical to an open organization, of course, but they are not the only two factors that influence your organization's relative level of diversity.

Your organization should strive to have people from different cultures, people living in different parts of the world, people from different backgrounds, with different skillsets or ability levels, and living in different social realities, for it to really be diverse.

Being "inclusive" is not the same as being "diverse."

Cultural differences are some one of the most eye-opening qualities you'll see at work in any organization (even if we don't often hear about these difference on the news and social media.). Being deliberate about learning from the various cultural groups in your organization can realize just how biased or partial some aspects of your organization really are—and how much you can do to improve them.

Cultural diversity pertains to the different ways people solve problems, the way people talk, the hours people prefer to work, and the way leaders interact with members of their teams. People with different cultural backgrounds differ, for example, in how collaborative or individualist they are, or in the ways they interpret spoken or written language. Cultures can be similar to each other or completely different.

Building for inclusivity

Building an inclusive organization often means acknowledging that your way of doing things is not the only way of doing things. It often involves changing the structure of the organization to create an environment where everyone can feel safe and valued. You have to allow its members to change it (that's why inclusivity is so closely tied to adaptability). If members of a organization don't feel like they can adapt the community, then it's not inclusive. If proposing and making changes to an organization is difficult, then it's not an open organization.

Inclusivity isn't about making everyone happy; it's about making everyone feel comfortable.

The processes by which you make your organization more inclusive—and therefore diverse—not only will help it grow but also keep it from derailing. They will help members of your community interact with each other in a common, shared, and familiar environment—find those shared customs and norms that they not only live with but also live by). It is possible to create an environment that different people can feel comfortable with and it, of course, comes with some trade offs. What makes your organization inclusive is not the lack of trade-offs it makes but its ability to acknowledge these trade-offs, adapt to the member's needs, or provide alternatives when the specific changes they request aren't possible.

Inclusivity isn't about making everyone happy; it's about making everyone feel comfortable. Some people may not always be happy about some of the aspects of the organization, but they should never feel uncomfortable in the organization (or uncomfortable expressing their concerns about the organization).

Creating a more inclusive organization will likely involve making many changes, and (at the outset, at least) most of these changes ought to be small. There's no need to invert your organization overnight. By taking little steps towards a more inclusive and diverse organization, you'll be automatically inviting new members to join and help you out. Big changes can actually cause instability, which is something you may want to avoid, as there are other members in your community that need to adapt to these changes.

Ultimately, you can never be completely inclusive, because that would imply that the world has stopped changing and cultures have stopped evolving. You can, however, create an environment capable of adapting itself to the changes (or existing differences) the world may be going through. That's the essence an inclusive organization: its ability to adapt to our diverse world.

This article is part of the Open Organization Workbook project.

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Flavio Percoco is a passionate developer, with interests in cultures, programming languages, cloud computing and distributed systems. He's currently working for Red Hat where he spends most of his time hacking on OpenStack. Flavio promotes open source, communities, inclusivity, diversity, humility and loves the philosophy behind software and life.

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