Taking a systems-focused approach to diversity and inclusion

Let's be real: Diversity and inclusion is a business issue

If the problem is a struggle to innovate, then the solution is greater diversity and inclusion.

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Having spent most of my career in the technology industry, I've observed one fairly common approach to addressing issues: Identify a problem, isolate that problem's causes, develop a solution, implement that solution, then gather data to determine whether the solution has in fact solved the problem. If it hasn't, then rinse and repeat the process with updated data. If it has, then check that problem off the list and consider the problem "solved."

This approach works well when applied to technical processes—those with stable and identifiable variables, with fairly linear progressions, and with clear "beginning" and "ending" conditions. But I would argue that other types of problems require a different approach, because they aren't "solvable" in the traditional sense.

Organizational diversity and inclusion (or "D+I" for short) presents challenges of that type. An organization is a complex system of interwoven forces, all constantly influencing one another. Small changes can have huge, and sometimes unanticipated, impacts. Identifying discrete "inputs" and "outputs" is never easy, and no one can ever be sure about which factors will cause a system as complex as an organization to shift in a new direction.

As chief people officer, I spend a lot of my time focused on D+I efforts, both at Red Hat and throughout the industry. Often I hear people ask questions like "How can we solve the diversity and inclusion issue?" or say "Here's how we're fixing the diversity and inclusion problem." And more often than not, the solutions they propose follow that traditional, linear, mechanical approach: Set staffing targets, measure current employment numbers against those targets, identify gaps and disparities, then "solve" for them with new tools and strategies aimed at an abstract goal like "increasing diversity" or "becoming more inclusive."

I understand, of course, why people are so focused on finding a fix. Diverse teams are more resilient and higher performing, and diverse organizations are more capable of retaining world-class talent. If your organization isn't a heterogeneous mix of people with different abilities, different backgrounds, and different life experiences, you won't be as successful as you could be.

Unfortunately, the linear approach we take to technical problems isn't ideal for solving an organizational issue as complex as D+I. This approach tends to focus our attention on matters of policy—rather than on creating systemic changes to organizational culture that really influence hearts and minds. That's how lasting, system-wide change occurs. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer note in their book Start-Up Nation, "a reform happens when you change the policy of the government; a revolution happens when you change the mindset of a country."

One step we could take to creating this kind of systemic shift would be to stop framing diversity and inclusion as discrete and independent problems to be "solved" in the first place. They are, in fact, solutions to problems of innovation and disruption and keys to revitalization and renewal.

A diverse, inclusive organization is an organization that's more innovative: It can see more angles on potential problems, speak more readily to the complexity of those problems, imagine more intelligent and multi-faceted solutions, and spot the biases in what they're creating. It's also an organization that's harder to disrupt: Enlisting diverse perspectives means focusing additional sets of uniquely-trained eyes on the horizon, scanning for what may lie ahead. While it's impossible to predict all the changes that will impact your organization in a month, a year, or five years, tapping a broader spectrum of insights means you'll be more nimble and resilient when encountering change. And a general spirit of inclusivity throughout the organization ensures that everyone feels both capable of and comfortable with speaking up when they spot potential threats.

Simply put, the diversity and inclusiveness of the organization isn't the ultimate problem we're solving. It's the solution we're developing to solve the problems of organizational success and survival.

Simply put, the diversity and inclusiveness of the organization isn't the ultimate problem we're solving. It's the solution we're developing to solve the problems of organizational success and survival. Reframing our conversation this way means we'll have fewer excuses to say things like "My team is working just fine as it is. Can't we just leave this issue alone and focus on business?" Building more diverse and inclusive teams is focusing on business.

Thinking this way also forces organizations to constantly reconsider their methods for creating more inclusive and diverse places to work. When D+I is the "problem we're solving," we may settle too quickly or permanently on some final "goal state," some combination of tools and policies that helps us hit an abstract number and put the matter to rest. But what happens when a variable changes—say, when the organization grows from 1,000 associates to 10,000 associates? An organization is always evolving, so its specific mix of participants is always shifting. Chasing a permanent, final "state of perfect diversity" is like chasing your tail. You'll exhaust yourself, and you'll be focused on the wrong thing.

When we adopt a mindset that focuses on how we create more welcoming environments, people with diverse backgrounds are more likely to feel valued and comfortable fully engaging. Changing the organization's outlook on D+I is the best way to encourage more inclusive behaviors you'd like to see inside that organization, because you'll be encouraging new reasons for people to buy into D+I initiatives, rather than imposing policies from "above."

When diversity and inclusion are solutions to problems that affect us every day, we remain sharply focused on all the ways our efforts at cultivating more diverse teams are helping us do better work and generate value for customers. Something we might call the "D+I problem" (something we definitively "solve") becomes something more like "the D+I conversation" (something we never stop having in all our complex systems).

And when this conversation centers on a mindset that welcomes a wealth of backgrounds and experiences to the table, organizations can influence all of the components of their ecosystems to unlock their potential to be as innovative, responsive, and disruption-proof as they possibly can be.

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About the author

DeLisa Alexander - DeLisa Alexander | DeLisa is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat. Under her leadership, this team focuses on acquiring, developing, and retaining talent and enhancing the Red Hat culture and brand. In her nearly 15 years with the company, DeLisa has also worked in the Office of General Counsel, where she wrote Red Hat's first subscription agreement and closed the first deals with its OEMs. Today in leading the company's global human resources and employment branding...