Diversity and inclusion are more than just buzzwords. They are fundamental to an ever shifting societal landscape, with discourse becoming ever more widespread in day to day life.
How do we measure how diverse or inclusive a workforce is? And how do we make sure that data is transparent and self-evident? Diversity for diversity’s sake can be just an exercise in checking a box to fit a quota or a set of metrics laid out. It’s the inclusion of a wider pool of diverse talent that allows businesses to thrive, create, and innovate.
In this episode of The Big Question, Detria Williamson asks Frances Frei, Harvard Business School Professor of Technologies and Lauren Collins, IDEO Chief of Staff… how might we, as leaders, embark on a journey of diversity, inclusion, and transformation in a radically transparent and collaborative way?
Frances and Lauren talk about how not only inclusivity of a more diverse workforce, but transparency on the methods used for integration and inclusion, can be achieved through design.
Detria Williamson: We live and work in a world of interlocking systems where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. We believe that design thinking can help solve these problems to provide answers, but big answers can only be found by asking big questions. Welcome to The Big Question, an IDEO podcast. I'm your host, Detria Williamson. It's Detria Williamson and I'm your host of IDEO's The Big Question.
I'm super excited today to bring to you in this episode of The Big Question, Lauren Collins, chief of staff of the Office of the CEO, and Frances Frei, professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, doting wife, and mother, and author of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You. We're here today to explore the big question of how might we as leaders embark on a journey of diversity, inclusion, and transformation in a radically transparent and collaborative way, co-designing solutions within our own communities?
It's a big question. I'm so excited to be joined today by Frances and Lauren. I wish I had clapping sounds because that's what I'm feeling right now. Why don't we kick off first with just both of you introducing yourselves, and then I'd love to just hear, how did you two first meet?
Lauren Collins: Thanks, Detria. Again, I'm Lauren Collins, I'm chief of staff at IDEO. Originally from Atlanta and I'm based in Chicago with my partner. I've been at IDEO now for just over three years. I came in as a business designer working in strategy and working with clients in the past couple of years. I've been working with our CEO, Sandy Speicher, helping operationalize her agenda across IDEO and also leading the change management team at IDEO that's focused on inclusion and equity work. I'm joined here by Frances who I met through Sandy, actually, when she came to work with us at IDEO, so I'll let Frances introduce herself some more.
Frances: Thank you, Lauren. I'm Frances Frei. I've been at IDEO since the summer of 2021, but I've been a fan of IDEO for a decade. We coincided, we've worked together in Peru and I got to watch IDEO from the beginning through the maturation through wildly successful projects down there. I saw firsthand how IDEO cannot just help a company but help a country. I grew up in New York in Long Island. The accent probably won't come out except if you hear a couple of different words, but for the most part, the accent just disappeared. I'm a professor, as you mentioned, at HBS, but what I'm really trying to do is democratize access to education.
As soon as I know something, I want to try to open source it so that everyone else knows it so it becomes the new balance, the new normal so that we can go on to ever harder problems. I think we have plenty, plenty of ability to solve all of our world's challenges. We just have to get organized and tap into, to your point, Detria, and tap into all of the magnificently diverse talent.
Detria: I'm a wild fan of both of yours. I get to see and work with Lauren a little bit more than I do with you, Frances, so I'm really excited and grateful for this 45 minutes we're going to have together today, but we're going to talk about some of those challenges and this great work that both of you are charting the course on. What do you see today as let's get right into it? What do you see as the top challenges of DE&I in the workplace?
Frances: I think that organizations are focusing a little bit too much on diversity without focusing enough on inclusion. If you just focus on diversity, you can bring in talent that's different than you are, but if you don't set the conditions for that talent to thrive, it's not good for the people that were there, it's not good for the people that are there. You risk becoming a revolving door of diverse talent, but if you focus on inclusion, well, then the diversity becomes very sticky.
When we see enormous progress in organizations, 200%, 300% performance gain with no extra technology, for sure, those organizations focused on being inclusive of magnificently diverse talent, and then they have more access to excellence, more access to creativity, more access to innovation. I would say number one, no matter what the letters are of the day; DNI, DEI, DEIJ, and I'm super humbled to what they might be tomorrow, let's just focus on the I first.
Detria: I love that.
Lauren: Building on that, Frances, what focusing too much on diversity might actually look like burdening those who sit on the margins of an organization to be the ones that hold the "accountability of fixing it". I think that is one of the also bigger challenges that we've seen a lot of organizations, including ours, have some challenges with and connected so that when we're asking people who sit at the margins who might not actually feel safe in the organization take on the responsibility of fixing it.
You might also end up hyper visualizing individuals and that can present a situation where people are known more for their identities and their actual work and their contributions and that certainly isn't leading us on the path of inclusion. Frances' point about focusing more on the overall culture, that's where organizations can have much better success.
Detria: Lauren, when you just said that, I realized, for the first time, when you said people who are more on the margins do the work, that's bad. We want people who are more included to do the work, that's good.
Detria: Beautiful. I think if there's anything that we've all learned working on this, really, diversity has been an issue for so many years. Even in the past decade, we've been focusing so much on diversity. I think we've figured out that diversity can be engineered, but we know, to your point, Frances, inclusion can't. I'm curious, particularly with the amount of time, Frances, that you've been working with IDEO and the significant role that you play, Lauren, at IDEO, how has the context changed over the past year or two? Have you seen any change?
Lauren: Yes, I think the context has definitely changed over the past couple of years with the pandemic and also with the racial awakening that's taken place across the US and impacted places like Europe and beyond. I think one of the biggest changes is having an open dialogue about race and that being a lot more normalized in organizations, as well as in IDEO. I think we talked about race at a very surface distance level before and now we're truly interrogating it and interrogating how it impacts people's experiences at work. Connected to that, I think also what's changed is the work has been less focused specifically just on being quantitative and more about qualitative.
Before, I think DNI was really about metrics, how are we doing around recruiting and retention and promotion? How many people of color do we have in our boards? It was much more, what can we see? Right now, we're much more focused on what can we feel and what does it feel like for people to work at this organization and that requires a much more introspective, reflective look for organizations, including IDEO that are focused on folks that, again, sit on the margins.
Before, it was special coaching for people of color, and now, it's actual special training for white leaders who are leading people of color. It's less about focusing on this already hyper-visualized group of people and more about focusing on the folks that are leading those individuals. Those are some of the biggest changes that I've seen over the past couple of years.
Frances: I'd say, for my narrow lens in, it goes right to your original question, Detria, which is the extreme collaboration and extreme transparency, or are there limited to it. I'll say on the transparency, one of the things we've learned is that we want to make things self-evident and that's the best form of transparency, but sometimes when you uncover data that has a lot of implications, it's important not to share the data until you also have a rigorous and optimistic way forward. Because if we just put data out there, an organization will just spin. Sometimes I've seen organizations spin for years.
It's been in this, okay, we've collected the first bit of data, but we don't yet understand it, and people are knocking on the door, "Show us the data, show us the data." It's like we have to understand it first so that we can deliver it at a pace that you can absorb. Sometimes that extra 30 days of processing can be some of the most fraught 30 days in the organization. People are like, "Give it to us now even when you have it," and leaders need to resist that call because if we're transparent faster than an organization can absorb in the pace they can absorb, that we risk the business going down.
Detria: Frances, I love that because companies don't compromise the discipline and rigor that they put into, for example, their financial numbers.
Detria: I love what you're saying, and so why would we do this same with the numbers when it comes to diversity or even finding the way to how do we capture a sense of belonging? How do you put a number to that? That's really, really fascinating. There's another question I have that's related to this around how might we create the conditions in our organizations to actually achieve this transparency and collaboration?
Frances: I have a not yet popular view, but I just think it's going to be popular in a year or two, so I'll start with my not yet popular view.
Detria: We're going to make it popular.
Lauren: Keep plugging it.
Detria: Yes, let's go, we're going to help.
Frances: I think that we want data to be as self evident as possible. Transparency in my mind is when it's self-evident, when you don't need a narrator, so you put it out as soon as it can be self-evident. We are going to have to take a step back from our accountability culture and take a step up to high standards. We want really high-performing culture that doesn't have as much accusatory accountability in it. I mean that with all the respect in the world, but we are so busy looking to hold other people in judgment of accountability that it's actually holding us back from performance. That's my take on it is I want to figure out how to put it out there faster and in a place that people can absorb.
I want to liberate all of these people that are looking to hold all of these other people accountable. I'd much rather people were looking to help develop other people because accountability is a little bit of wasted effort because I'm evaluating you. I think you know from year-end evaluations they're helpful, but it's not nearly as helpful as throughout the year development because it becomes in a different place. Accountability is still at the center of what people like to hold onto. My hope as a prediction is that accountability will fade away and it will be replaced by super high standards that we collectively develop one another in order to achieve.
Lauren: Connected to that, and probably a watch out as to why I'm suspecting you're sharing those thoughts, Frances, is there's a burden that comes with transparency. Just because you put the information out there, that doesn't satisfy all the needs of the organization and likely doesn't satisfy all the needs of individuals. Quite often, individuals might feel like they want full access to information and might be seeking that transparency, but in reality, it might be more of a burden than a gift.
We have to be really thoughtful about what we're being transparent about and make sure that we're being transparent about the information that will actually help people do their jobs better, and/or be transparent about the information that will help build trust. That's another reason for leaders to be transparent. Transparency is a really great way for leaders to build trust in the organization, so knowing what should we be transparent about and why are we being transparent about this information is supercritical.
Detria: Lauren, when you mentioned trust, and I would love to know if either of you have found whether it's through the work at IDEO but also, Frances, obviously, this rich background that you have done this for many different companies, are transparency and collaboration, which obviously trust is an arc for those things, are they different? Are they supportive of each other? How do you approach them, are they different? What do you both feel about that?
Frances: I think they're different, but both are necessary. Transparency does really, as we've covered, there's a lot of responsibility in curating in transparency and I think making itself evident as opposed to the partial disclosure. I liked very much your financial example, Detria, because so much care is taken in. We do this quarterly, we do this annually. A lot of curation is done there. On the collaboration, none of this work gets done in the absence of collaboration. To just give one example.
The baseline step of creating a more inclusive culture is sprinkling magic dust on everyone so that we realize it's the job of all of us to make sure each of us feels physically and emotionally safe despite any difference we bring to the table. It's the job of all of us that's deep collaboration to make sure each of us. I think there's a whole lot of that in inclusive work. I would say it can't be done in the absence of collaboration and I frankly think that IDEO is going to come up with really new ways to collaborate because we're at the infancy of thinking about this.
I would go full speed ahead on that, and then I would also, from the IDEO perspective of design, I would design the transparency. I wouldn't just open the floodgates, I would design the level of transparency.
Detria: How do you get started?
Frances: Oh, Lauren, how do you get started?
Lauren: I think Frances just gave me an end there ending on design. As a designer, my first response is going to be you got to start trying stuff, you have to start with prototyping. There certainly isn't a one-size-fits-all right way to do this. I think there are definitely some watch-outs and probably some best practices, but you have to figure out what's right for your organization. Some of the things that we've tried at IDEO, there's a weekly shared consciousness meeting that the North American leaders hold that's once a week and it's really putting all the top topics on the table in terms of what leaders are focused on, but it's also a space for literally anyone in that group to come forth and say "Here's something that I'm working on that I think is important for other people to know."
This is the best practice that we borrow from the McChrystal Group that has a daily shared conscious meeting. We're not quite there yet, but it's all in service of making sure that everyone in the organization is aligned to the same vision and has the right information and the same information to match toward that vision. That's something, a low-hanging fruit you can try. Another one that I personally love is information that our CFO Dave Strong provides called the fin pack, where once a month, he basically provides a recap on business performance and key metrics from the previous month.
He used to send this out just as a monthly email and had been doing that for years, and then in the pandemic, there is an abundance of information, and we can certainly talk about that with transparency too. There's been an abundance of information, so he wanted to break through the noise, so he started recording the walkthrough and adding some of his nice dad humor on top of it, as well as just speaking in simpler terms so that people could really digest the information.
He made space for feedback. He sent the first one out and said, "Hey, I'm trying this, let me know what you think. Send some feedback," and several people did write him and give him different pieces of feedback that would make the information more accessible. How do you get started? You just have to try something, put it out there, be clear with people that you are trying something new, and make space for that feedback so that they can help you make it better. That's how you can bring transparency and collaboration together to get started.
Frances: I'll add onto those beautiful examples, and I feel like I can hear Dave and I like the music, and I'm not sure if it's milk and cookies I want or something stronger, but must see recording. Another way to get started is, particularly if you have a group that is you just know hasn't been thriving more than another one. Like if there's just one group that hasn't been included. What it helps to do is to center on that group, which is sometimes uncomfortable for an organization to center on a group, but you're going to center on that group to bring folks together and ask a version of the following question.
Is there anything you experience that feels like a little nick that's not fatal, but that you just have to endure and it doesn't feel right? Either it's happening to you or it's happening when you observe it. We call this the indignities list. We even use that language and say, "Are you experiencing any indignities?" When you get the indignities list, which frankly, has never been difficult to fill up, you only get it by centering on a group of people, but then when we're going to convert the indignities list to a dignities list, we're only going to be able to do a subset of them. We want to pick a subset that make a big difference and a subset that makes it better for everyone and it is astonishing how well it works.
I would use Lauren's idea of you have to get in motion, and this is a particular way to get in motion that will lead to action in very short order and will lead to really well-received action in short order.
Detria: When we talk about getting in motion, why is this difficult? I'm just curious, I want to take advantage of having both of you together, why is this hard?
Lauren: I think this can be hard within the context of DE&I, diversity, equity, inclusion, because you're talking about people's lived experiences and you're talking about their identities. We're not talking about abstract financials or really beautifully design packaged goods, we're talking about people. We're talking about their motivations, we're talking about their life stories, we're talking about their families, we're talking about the things that we can see on the surface and those things that we can't. There's no playbook and no framework that will have you win every single time when you're talking about people.
Everything is contextual, everything changes depending on the makeup of the group, and so you have to constantly be reassessing, reevaluating, and interrogating the way that you're working to make sure that, to the best of your ability, that you're creating safe conditions for the work and for the people that this work is about. I think that that's scary. That's scary because, regardless of how long you've been doing this work and where even you sit on the margins of an organization, you're still going to make mistakes. You've got to have the stability to still do the work, still be motivated to do the work.
Get knocked down several times, probably cause harm even with the best of intentions and get back up and do it again. All of that can be quite compounded, and so if you're not self-motivated to lean into this work, it can just be really challenging for people to engage.
Frances: So beautiful Lauren, and if we think about another group of people who has been like merrily going along pretty oblivious, and then to do this work means that they have to interrogate their own actions of which they haven't had in their mind a bad thought, but then they learn they've been hitting something with their tail. Which is not a great euphemism I use, but I imagine a big thorny dinosaur tail. When I turn around, I whack something. We find out that we were whacking things and we weren't even aware of it, and that, in a professional environment, where we have taken professionalism super-seriously, that's a big darn deal to come to terms with.
Now, this is why when we do this work, we want to have a rigorous and optimistic way forward, because otherwise, we will wallow in it, we'll only visit it temporarily, and then we want to go and take a nap and pull the covers up and pretend it didn't happen.
Detria: I want to do a double click into that, which is what do you both feel a roadmap looks like? Knowing that this work is challenging, we talked a little bit about how you get started. Once you do get over that fear, once you start to work through areas where people are feeling uncomfortable, how do you actually lean into that roadmap? Like you were saying, Lauren, about making sure that you keep that stamina and bounce back, what does that work look like?
Frances: I like to start with a trust and inclusion workshop that everyone in the organization takes because trust is fundamental to it. Trust used to be thought of as a
Fabergé egg and if it broke, it broke into a million pieces and you could never rebuild it. It turns out it's much more resilient than that and you can rebuild it, so we have to equip people with tools. Even to teach people what inclusion means, like what Lauren said earlier is like a very deep and nuanced understanding of inclusion, so we have to understand what does it mean that it's the job of all of us for each of us.
Then even what do I do if I'm feeling included and I want to do some work, what does it look like? I think there's a tool setting. It's important that it's rigorous and it's important that it's optimistic. I think it starts there, and then it's going to start with a small group of people. Margaret Mead I think is the one who said never doubt the ability of a small group to change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. I think it's start arts like that in any organization. I don't know which small group it's going to be, but it's a small group that are going to disproportionately take this on until the entire organization has taken it on.
Disproportionately taking it on, I mean disproportionately and it's going to come from passion. The sequencing of a lot of the other things doesn't matter as much. I think if you have trust as a foundation for this kind of company, they might do this first for this company. They might do that first, but I would say that the norming in the beginning that it's the job of all of us and that we're an education way. The beautiful thing about being an education way is it's nobody's fault if you haven't learned it yet. "I didn't know." "Okay, great, let's learn it, and then we'll all know, and I think we want to take a lot of humility."
The phrase that judgment and curiosity can't coexist should be applied here may be more than anywhere in the world. We can't bring judgment of one another's into this, but we can and should bring curiosity of one another into it.
Lauren: Love that, Frances. I can pick up and maybe build and double click on that piece about the small group that disproportionately takes on the work since I lead that team at IDEO. To your point, I think the activities, the sequence of them doesn't necessarily matter, but I think some of the key activities that were really important to us. Not too dissimilar from design process, to be honest, but it starts with just looking in. It's quite likely that a lot of organizations have a ton of information, both qualitative and quantitative across the organization.
So having a group actually spend intentional time looking at that information and looking at it through the lens of intersectionality through race and through gender will probably show you some pretty hot spots in the organization where people are experiencing inequities disproportionately across the organization. Start with just the information that you already have, and then you probably want to spend time doing what we call looking out. DE&I, JEDI, as you said, Frances, I and D, lots of different acronyms across the board. This work has been done for decades across many different organizations, across profit, not for profit organizations, within education.
There are best practices out there. Once you've seen what are those hotspots in organization, where do you need to improve. For us, it was a lot around transparency within performance management, for example, it was a lot around onboarding. Go do some research and see where organizations have found success and documented success around things that they have tried, and then you take all that information and you start to try some things yourself. You get into that prototyping, what does it look like for us to try to make improvements around onboarding, around transparency, around performance management?
What's been really critical to us in this work, and Frances alluded to this earlier, is centering those that are most impacted by this decision. Once we started making some recommendations on how our small group thought that we could make progress with IDEO, the first thing that we did is we went to which. What has now become formalized as our employee resource groups and we share those recommendations with them.
We share the insights with them, we share the research with them, and we said before we go to senior leadership, we want to make sure that you will see yourselves in these insights and that we have concluded this information correctly, we want to make sure that you're aligned with the recommendation. That really helps in terms of one building trust that helps in terms of shared ownership and in terms of the work and how people are being impacted. Then also, I would say the biggest comment we got out ot that work is just "Thank you so much for respecting us and respecting our stories and holding so much care of them."
That was the first time that this organization had really done that where we went to the community before we went to leaders to talk about how we were work forward. Those are just a few different ways that, once you have that smaller group together that's focused on the work, that they can really start to lean into how to accelerate it and move forward focusly and optimistically.
Detria: If leaders can learn through the power of design and opening design up for their process and welcoming design into their process, what you're describing, Lauren and Frances, is the power of design as the through-line of what is work that is so needed, but there's no precedence for how to actually do it the right way. I think to your point, Frances, you have to start, you do have to start. I think a question that our listeners would love to hear your wisdom on is what are some internal challenges that leaders can and should expect when establishing this hyper transparency and collaboration that you both have described?
Lauren: I think one of the first challenges that leaders can consistently expect is just critique or challenge to decision making. Once you start to share information, people start to interrogate it. They want to know more, they want to know why that decision was made, they want to know how you got to that specific piece of information, and so leaders should be prepared to speak to their logic. Some tips for leaders. Tip number one is don't be defensive. That's a way that we see leaders hit themselves with their tail as Frances says.
People are questioning the information, not because they don't trust it necessarily but because they want to understand, so you have to allow for that curiosity even though you're being transparent. That's probably one of the primary challenges that I've seen leaders face. I think another one, we talked about this a little bit earlier, but once the most senior leaders start demonstrating this type of transparency so much that any other behavior, other leaders across the organization will start to do the same, which is good, however, now, we might get into the space where we have an overabundance of information.
Now, especially in this remote digital world, you have everyone sending out every single Slack message, every single PDF, every single video, every single article, and that tends to create a lot of noise. It makes it really challenging to know what's important to pay attention to and really important messages can get lost in that, so leaders have to figure out, "How do I, again, be mindful about what information I'm actually sharing where we're actually being transparent?
How do you codify this and be rigorous with information sharing so that it's not creating all this noise that's preventing people from actually doing their work?" because they're spending half of their day just reading Slack messages and PDFs. There's a bit of a balance there.
Frances: I would add on to those, don't be defensive and how do you navigate information overload. In our experience, the senior team gets it and the people, part of the organization doing the work, whether that's the front line or forever, for the listeners, whatever part of the organization is that. Where a problem comes in that has been unexpected but has existed in every organization we've worked with, I don't have a good name for it, but it's the turfy middle. It's the middle of the organization where people are behaving as if they care more about their turf than the organization.
The frontline doesn't care more about their turf than the organization, they're doing it for the organization. The senior leadership doesn't care more about their turf than the organization, they're doing it for the organization, but you do get people in the middle who are jockeying for decision rights and might even make a decision that they'll be ashamed of later that was in their own self-interest and not in the interest of the organization. What I would say is be prepared for the turfy middle maybe rebranded, and then think about how to navigate that with kindness and generosity. It's good people falling into it, and so I would look for ways to help them out of it.
Detria: This has been such, not just a beautiful conversation but you yourselves have been so open in even your paths and the great work that you're doing. I want to thank you, Lauren, for really talking about something that's important around normalizing race as a conversation. There's a lot of depth there, and Frances, for teaching us that it's the job of all of us to make sure that each of us is included. As we wrap up, I want to ask you, Frances, is there a big question that keeps you up at night?
Frances: The only thing that is required to get this work done is the will to do it. I don't know how to create will. I've never seen a problem that can't be solved as long as the will is there. The problem that keeps me up at night is how do you create the will to be different? We have plenty of people who can help, but how do you create will? I don't know how to do it.
Detria: Lauren, I would like to know, is there a new big question for you as a leader right now?
Lauren: That's a great question, Detria. One of the big questions that's definitely top of mind for me as a leader right now is what does repair and healing look like at scale. I mentioned this earlier, but it's really impossible to do this work and not make mistakes, not create harm, even with the best of intentions, even with years and decades of experience, even where trust is already a part of that relationship. Again, when you're dealing with people's lived experiences and their identities, all of this work is so layered and it really is person by person. When that harm is created, how do you repair that?
Is there a way to actually codify that so that we can scale that and so that everyone has access to the tools to be able to have that repair so that we can continue to do the work? Because ultimately, our liberation is all tied together. We need to be able to repair when harm is caused so that we can keep doing this work.
Detria: I know our listeners are going to love this conversation. I personally and professionally am so proud to know you both, but I'm really grateful for you doing this really important work. Thank you so much, Lauren and Frances.
Frances: Detria, that was an awesome conversation, thank you.
Lauren: Thanks so much, Detria, for having us. Thanks, Frances.
Frances: Thanks, Lauren.
Detria: The Big Question is brought to you by IDEO. To find out more about us and how we create positive impact through design, head to ideo.com, and then make sure to search for The Big Question in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don't miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at IDEO, thanks for listening.
Combine the outlook of a visionary with the rigor of a high-performing athlete and you’ll begin to get a sense of IDEO ALUM Detria Williamson. She has spent more than 20 years as an innovative brand experience marketer who gives companies a brave push forward, bringing the discipline and mindset needed to create new brand ecosystems while building on the resonance and value the brand already has to its audiences.