Design thinking and the power of empathy in leading diverse teams

A common question I find myself discussing with many of my clients is how can they successfully create a culture of innovation in their organizations’?

In a complex business environment where a focus on short-term priorities and high-performance is seen as central to success, many organizations are failing to see that the perfect solution for innovation is right under their nose – the diversity of their own employees.

Even in those organisations that actively promote Diversity and Inclusion the feedback I often receive indicates that their employees aren’t always convinced that they are operating in a ‘safe to fail’ environment where taking risks on new ideas, bringing their whole selves to work and challenging the status quo are either welcomed or accepted. And those ingredients are essential in a modern organization that needs to solve problems, change and be innovative.

The three success factors for high performing teams

There is a mounting body of evidence, reinforced in recent years by Google’s research on the secret ingredient to high-performing teams, (New York Times 2016) which indicates that creating a culture of innovation requires three key factors:

  1. That employees feel safe to take interpersonal risks (psychological safety);
  2. That they feel included; and
  3. That they feel that their individual uniqueness is both valued and respected.

So if the solution itself is apparently so self-evident, why it is so hard to achieve?

Wicked problems require wicked solutions

In my experience, it’s because creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces itself requires innovative solutions – it’s a bit like the old-chicken and egg scenario.

That’s because diversity is a wicked problem, which in the words of author Keith Grint is:

“complex, rather than just complicated … there is no stopping point, it is novel … any apparent ‘solution’ often generates other ‘problems’ and there is no right or wrong answer but there are better or worse alternatives.”

Wicked problems require wicked solutions, not tame solutions that only address the symptoms of the problem not the roots of its cause.

If I think of gender diversity in leadership, which remains one of the biggest diversity challenges facing most Australian organisations, all too commonly I see tame solutions being promoted as a quick fix. So, I’m always encouraging my clients to try innovative approaches to tackling the barriers to progress on gender diversity in their organisations.

A design thinking solution in banking

Take the case of a large financial services client. This client was struggling to achieve progress on gender diversity in its business banking division – in fact they were going backwards on meeting their gender targets and wanted a solution that would break the nexus.

I developed a program that ran over several months and involved engaging their most senior leaders (mostly men) in using the principles of design thinking to come up with solutions that could be introduced to help develop, promote and enable more females into leadership positions.

Design thinking is a tool commonly used in many organisations these days to innovate on customer offerings, but not often enough do I see it being used to help drive cultural change in the workplace.

At the heart of design thinking is the principle of empathy mapping, which enables participants to leverage deep empathy and understanding of people’s needs and motivations, as well as their fears, hopes and aspirations to design products that are much more suited to their specific situations and requirements.

Empathy, accountability and self-awareness

By using the principles of design thinking, the leaders participating in the program invested a lot of time talking to women in their business about what their needs, desires and frustrations were, truly unpacking what barriers to progress the latter were experiencing. As a result, and perhaps not surprisingly, they developed more empathy and a much better appreciation of the complexity of the issue.

Having the added accountability of having to deliver proposed solutions back to the Group Executive of the business unit for implementation provided an additional motivation for investing the time in understanding all of the different dynamics of the problem.

In addition to this, I also worked with the leaders to build their own self-awareness on how they could be more inclusive. This involved helping them understand how we all bring our own identities to the workplace and how that influences the way that we see the world around us and in turn what we believe to be true.

Address the perception gaps

Our personal perspectives feed into the perception gaps that often exist between men and women in organisations about whether in fact disadvantage and discrimination even exist.

If you personally are not experiencing discrimination or barriers to progress in your own career you naturally assume that it doesn’t exist. But just because it is not happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

And what if you are part of the problem and you don’t even realise it?

So immersing leaders in the complexity of the problem of gender diversity and getting them to challenge their beliefs and perceptions is one of the greatest opportunities that design thinking provides.

In the case of my client, the program participants did focus on relatively straight-forward solutions, but the real learning came from the experience of stepping back from their own pre-conceived beliefs and perspectives and allowing their realities to be challenged and changed.

What came next surprised even the most optimistic amongst us.

Tangible outcomes

Not only did the group of senior leaders devise some tangible initiatives that they continue to implement in their business to promote gender diversity, but their progress on meeting their gender diversity targets improved by around 3% over the course of the program.

A move of that quantum was unheard of in that business, particularly as progress had stalled in recent years.

For me this experience demonstrated the importance of the power of empathy and the importance as a leader of investing the time in being able to truly understand the needs of the diverse people you lead.

If you want to create a culture for innovation in your organization – this is the starting point.

Please feel free to contact me about any of the info in this blog.

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Diversity and Inclusion

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