Sarah Cordivano
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Sarah Cordivano

Why do DEI teams fail?

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Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I was recently asked: What are some of the challenges for teams working in DEI? What are the pitfalls to avoid? I gave it some thought and assembled the main challenges and reasons why I’ve seen DEI teams in organizations fail.

Lack of top-down, executive level endorsement

Oftentimes companies see DEI work as a grassroots (bottom up) initiative or a HR-only topic. Both of these approaches will lead to failure. Organizations need to show frequent and clearly visible top-down support and endorsement for DEI. This sends the message that DEI is a topic for the entire organization, not just Employee Resource Groups or HR. Otherwise it’s very difficult for DEI professionals to make meaningful progress because stakeholders within the organization don't see the topic as a strategic priority. In order to succeed, you will need a lot of strategically positioned leaders to be bought in and willing to put their time, energy and visibility behind the work.

How to avoid this: Make sure an executive team member is sponsoring the DEI work, speaking about it frequently and championing it within the organization. Make sure the topic is a strategic priority ranked alongside other business priorities. Make sure many leaders across the organization are capable of speaking on DEI and have visible roles in the DEI journey such as executive sponsors of ERGs.

Underfunding, Underprioritizing, Undersourcing

Many companies see setting up the DEI team (or just hiring a single DEI role) as the solution to their DEI problems because it is a visible step that shows they care about the work. It’s not the solution. It’s the start of the solution. If an organization does not properly fund and fully staff the team and prioritize their work within the organization to achieve the objectives, there will be no progress.

How to avoid this: Be very transparent with your stakeholders what it will take to achieve your strategy (including time, budget and commitment). And for the decision-makers in the room: trust that a DEI team knows what they need to succeed and then put the necessary funding, support and visibility behind the DEI team.

Optimizing for the wrong skills

Here’s my blog where I explore the skills needed to succeed in DEI roles. In summary, project management, communication and stakeholder management are absolutely imperative. So is having DEI expertise or knowing how to build that expertise as you go.

How to avoid this: Hire for the right skills. Understand the difference between grassroots/academic DEI work and corporate/organizational change making. It’s a different approach and requires different strategies.

Working without a strategic focus

DEI has a million topics and things you can focus on in every moment. And every topic is deeply personal and meaningful to someone. It can cause whiplash to constantly change focus and react to lots of things that pop up. DEI work should be driven by an overall long term strategic objective and a road map of initiatives that help achieve that objective. This should be transparent to all stakeholders and employees.

How to avoid this: A DEI team should, at ANY time, know exactly what their overall strategic objectives are. They should know and be able to articulate what they are trying to achieve as an organization. See this blog on creating a first DEI strategy. A DEI team though, also needs some flexibility to revisit the overall strategy if it’s not working — but in general it should not change often.

Not being able to measure or recognize success

DEI work is painstaking and slow. It can be tedious because recognizing success is not always easy. This is where measurable goals with metrics come in. Make sure the metrics are meaningful and communicated regularly with employees and stakeholders.

How to avoid this: Measure your success against output metrics as opposed to input metrics (when at all possible). More info on input vs. output metrics here. These metrics should be able to measure whether the team is achieving their commitments or whether the initiatives are successful. For example, in this commitment “We will make technical improvements in the experience and accessibility of our apps and websites to guarantee that everyone can access an inclusive web experience.” An input metric would be how many webpages or web experiences are scored as accessible. But the output metric would be trying to measure the following with a survey somehow: “Do people with disabilities find your website more accessible and therefore are more likely to use it?.” The second one is more meaningful because it directly measures what you are trying to achieve.

Of course there are more challenges and pitfalls, but I hope this helps to introduce the topic. Please leave your own challenges and pitfalls in the comments below.




This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

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Sarah Cordivano

Sarah Cordivano

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

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