Embed DEI with Equitable Process Design

Two wman working at a white board

Many organizations want to get to a place where diversity, equity, and inclusion is no longer a separate initiative because it is so embedded into who they are and how they operate that you can’t parcel it out. The only way to have a chance at getting there is to design processes and systems throughout the organization to be equitable.  

I think the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion is pretty clear at this point. Diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and thought supports innovation and new ideas, and an inclusive culture is equally if not more important because it means these different ideas are also raised, heard, respected, and more likely to be acted on. Diverse representation is relevant for your talent pool, your suppliers, your partners, your investors, your influencers, and, last but not least, your customers.

But just thinking, wanting, and talking about more diversity and inclusion is not going to make it happen. We have to actually change the current structures and systems and do things differently in our organizations in order to see progress. In my experience, this is where organizations falter. They know what they need to do, but they don’t know how to do it.

Within organizations, successful systems change includes both a change in mindset (i.e., opening of hearts and minds) and adjustments to “how things are done” in the form of structure, policies, and processes. There is usually a small group of people that leads the change with more people getting on board as organization adjustments are made and group mindsets shift. It often starts with some mindset shift, then some change to the structure and processes, and then the two continue to reinforce each other over and over again. Eventually, the stragglers get on board with the change or leave the organization all together either by their own self-selection – or by someone’s else’s decision.

We are seeing this type of change at a macro level within the business sector right now. Many peoples’ heart and minds are being opened, and companies are starting to make changes to processes and policies. Soon, the stragglers – those companies who are slow to get on board with being intentional about diversity, equity, and inclusion – are either going to be late to the game, or they are going to be disposed of – this time, by their customers and investors. ( i.e., You don’t want to be a straggler).

So, how do you actually make change to your structure, policies, and processes? Change is hard. It doesn’t happen over night, especially when our organization systems are interconnected with our social, education, and economic systems. It is also really, really hard to play catch up.  Inclusion is not a switch you can just decide to flip on one day. It takes work and it takes time..

Many companies have conducted listening tours to understand employees’ true experiences, created ERGs, task forces, and committees, and set goals and metrics. All of this is valuable and will help to move the organization in a better direction. However, where the rubber really meets the road is all the talent and business processes that move the organization forward on a daily basis. If these processes aren’t equitable, then the organization is never going to make as much progress as they could and will not really embed equity into the organization.

When we design business or talent processes to be more equitable, we apply six principles that we call The Paradox Equitable Process FrameworkTM. The framework isn’t perfect, but it can be really helpful in prompting ourselves to think differently about structures, systems, and processes – especially ones that have been done a certain way for a long time. We want to move away from how it’s always been done and change the game.

Principle 1: Equal Access – Broaden opportunity for more people to opt in by proactively removing barriers to entry.

Historical and systemic racism has created many barriers to entry. To make it more possible for more people to choose to engage with your organization, we have to acknowledge barriers exist and be intentional about removing them.

Principle 2: Diverse Input – Be proactive about gathering and applying different perspectives.

One of the many reasons organizations want more diverse talent is to incorporate different experiences and perspectives because it leads to more awareness, better ideas, and better decisions. This means making sure there is diverse representation at the table when options are being discussed and decisions are being made. If you do not have a diverse organization, this is going to be tough, and you may need to get creative about bringing in different perspectives (and also do it quickly because you are already behind).

Principle 3: Remove Bias – Identify information that may incorrectly influence opinions or decisions.

We all have bias. The human brain is wired to categorize and make quick decisions based on past experiences and information we’ve heard and seen from media, family, friends, and society for years. Unconscious bias training helps because it enables us to be more aware of our own bias, recognize how it unknowingly impacts our thoughts and decisions, and opens our eyes to how we are showing up in the world. But it is very difficult to remove bias completely unless we build new experiences and feed our brain new information.

Prof. Aaron Kay who researches bias at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business recently discussed how difficult it is to tell our mind to think differently than the stereotypes we constantly see in society, media, etc. This is the reason it’s so important to focus on policy and systems change because that will actually change the world we do see and may be the only way to truly change our bias. We should also be really thoughtful about the information and images we are feeding our brain and our kids’ brains. Even if we “don’t buy into” a stereotype we’re watching, our unconscious is still categorizing and storing it away.

Principle 4: Transparent Assessment – Clearly and openly define, enable, and measure performance and success

We all spend much of our time at work doing activities of varying levels of usefulness and in direct impact to organization results. It is so easy to think that the colleague who always seems busy with an important meeting to go to is a high performer, but that is not always the case.

I worked with a sales organization once whose top performer had low metrics on all the leading indicators the company had identified for the team. She wasn’t finding many leads, wasn’t attending networking events, wasn’t meeting with potential customers. Instead, she invested solid time in authentic relationships and building trust so that the few meetings she had with customers led to a close rate of about 100%. Her sales number was by far the highest in the company by the end of the year, but it was easy to think that she wasn’t performing or even working very hard because she wasn’t scrambling with low yield leads and meetings like the rest of her colleagues.  On top of this, she would probably be the one to really excel in a manager role if promoted instead of her 60-hour work week colleague who didn’t know how to build trust and manage their time.

If we haven’t really defined what success looks like and aren’t transparent about how it’s being measured, then there’s a good chance we’re making decisions about someone’s performance based on what we think we see, rather than on the facts. Transparency keeps us honest and promotes real fairness.

Principle 5: Consistent Application – Define and actively communicate shared expectations

The first step in consistent application is having a defined process that everyone is expected to follow. If you don’t have a defined process, how can you expect it to be applied consistently in the organization, no matter who the employee, the manager, the leader, the supplier, or the board member is?

Principle 6: Flexibility – Be creative and open about how work is completed

While we want consistent application, we also have to recognize the need for flexibility. This is the whole idea around equity and justice – that giving everyone the same thing in every situation is not actually fair when they are in a different circumstance to begin with. Flexible work arrangements is a perfect recent example of being open to how and when work is done.

About a year ago, I heard an older man who has worked in Diversity & Inclusion roles for decades comment that he is cautiously optimistic about seeing change this time around. He has seen emotions and cries for change ring loud many times before, but he said this time does feel different.

Businesses are a big part of the current voice for change. Let’s change our processes and systems, too, because that is how we are going to have real change this time around. Let’s turn that cautious optimism into success.