Where inclusion meets human-centered design

In order to make great products, you must first make great teams, and great teams are diverse and inclusive.

A n assignment landed on my desk this week, and it stumped me. It asked me to list five statements summarizing my point of view on where diversity, inclusion and innovation meet.

This is such an obvious relationship, I thought. Why do I even need to write anything down?

If there were a sign at the crossroads of diversity, inclusion and innovation, it would read: “You cannot have groundbreaking innovation and a radically successful company without diversity and a collective experience of inclusion within your team or organization. Seriously, it’s impossible.”

It would be a big sign.

It stands to reason that, in order to foster inclusion, you need to take a human-centered approach to designing your organization‘s culture and curating your teams. A focus on human needs and an empathetic approach to everyday interactions are both critical ingredients for generating inclusion.

If, indeed, groundbreaking solutions rely on a focus on the innovator over the innovation and radical collaboration and diverse teams are also essential, it is imperative organizations apply human-centered design to create diverse and inclusive teams.

People often ask me for evidence, proof, case studies, data, academic research and a variety of other traditional intellectual support struts for why human-centered design is the right approach to growing diversity and inclusion.

Okay, let’s do this:

The evidence that diversity and inclusion are an engine for revenue growth is tough to miss. There’s evidence that women make great leaders even as the glass ceiling continues to exist. There’s evidence that bringing people of diverse backgrounds together is better than forming a homogenous team. There’s evidence that a human-centered approach to problems can lead to groundbreaking solutions.

Now, there are few problems more critically in need of solving than how to break down barriers erected through unconscious bias and the discrimination that often results from that bias. Those acts of discrimination stand in the way of realizing better solutions to other, sticky problems.

Ergo, why not apply a human-centered approach to growing diversity and inclusion to generate innovation?

Okay, maybe I needed to write it all down, after all.

The five points I went with for the assignment are below, but before you get to them, I challenge you to at least consider what a human-centered approach to growing diversity and inclusion might look like? Could it mean less of a dependence on metrics and optics and more prototyping of new types of meeting practices, space arrangements or recruiting methods? Could it mean employees who feel capable and empowered to take a beginner’s mind when addressing problems relating to team dynamics? Could it mean managers who approach others in the workplace with empathy and genuine curiosity as to another’s lived experience when conflicts arise?

Could it mean new ways to use technology and media in the office to grow awareness, including changing the design of proprietary platforms to make them more inclusive or even creating visuals around the office to help inspire more inclusive behaviors?

The application of human-centered design is different for each individual and within every organization. So, if you are taking a human-centered approach to your organization’s diversity and inclusion work, I would love to know your story. So, please do share them in the comments. If you are considering this approach, I’d be happy to also know your questions.


The five statements outlining my point of view are:

#1 A failure to invest time, money and intention stands between organizations and growing inclusiveness.

“Overall, our research found that most D&I initiatives today suffer from a lack of “three Fs” — focus, funding, and follow-through.” (Bersin.com)

#2 If organizations want to create a “collective experience of inclusion” they need more than data (i.e. diversity metrics) and case studies — they need to learn, understand and apply a human-centered design approach. While stories in the form of case studies are powerful and data can be compelling, they are not enough to empower people to take immediate action that leads to positive change. We cannot continue to address inclusion as an academic question or a potentially risky investment about which we need more data — the evidence that diversity and inclusion are an engine of success is there and widely available, and yet the problem persists. Why? Because it’s easier to exclude people who are not like us. But, as with nearly all easy things, it’s costly:

“It follows, then, that one common way managers kill creativity is by assembling homogeneous teams. The lure to do so is great. Homogeneous teams often reach “solutions” more quickly and with less friction along the way. These teams often report high morale, too. But homogeneous teams do little to enhance expertise and creative thinking. Everyone comes to the table with a similar mind-set. They leave with the same.” — Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business Review

The challenge of growing inclusion is one with vast social, economic and policy implications. It easily qualifies as a gnarly problem, and that’s exactly the type of problem human-centered design is meant to be leveraged against, pushing organizations to focus on the innovators over the innovations and, in so doing, grow their bottom line.

“It may be a natural impulse, when you hear that women earn less than men, to find someone to blame. One obvious villain is: men, presumably for being discriminatory. But as Claudia Goldin told us, there isn’t much evidence to support the discrimination argument. Another obvious villain is: our institutional setup. If we could change — maybe modernize — a lot of our institutions, and the incentives they offer, wouldn’t that lead to more equality? Let’s assume that’s true. The question would then become: which institutions should be changed, and how?” — Freakonomics Radio

#3 A diversity of disciplines on teams does not and cannot preclude diversity of gender, race, sexuality, religion and the list goes on, if a company or organization wishes to remain successful.

“By correlating diversity in leadership with market outcomes as reported by respondents, we learned that companies with 2-D diversity out-innovate and out-perform others. Employees at these companies are 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.” — Sylvia Ann Hewlett Melinda Marshall and Laura Sherbin

#4 Evidence shows that more inclusive workplaces are better for the bottom line and that women, in particular possess unique strengths when it comes to leadership, yet the glass ceiling remains.

“This appears to be an added benefit for female leaders in particular because of the potentially stressful and challenging situation they are in as minorities in leadership. These personality traits allow them to better understand their subordinates and colleagues, bounce back after failures or rejection, and persevere with their efforts for long periods of time.Therefore, not only do these women leaders exhibit traditionally successful leadership attributes but also demonstrate the attributes needed for success on a path full of resistance and difficulties.” Caliper’s Women Leaders Research Paper, via Marie Elizabeth Oliver of Power to Fly

#5 Strictly making people aware of bias is not enough to instigate needed change in organizations that seek to create a lasting “collective experience of inclusion.” Diversity policies and workshops are a good start, but they often fail to incorporate the creative problem-solving lens that allows employees to move past what I have come to call the “blamey-shamey” response. This occurs when marginalized groups feel further marginalized or shamed and majority group or white participants feel blamed for actions they have not taken (or were not aware were harmful) and a history for which they are not personally responsible. Evidence bears this out:

“Most people assume that diversity policies make companies fairer for women and minorities, though the data suggest otherwise. Even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the presence of a diversity policy leads people to discount claims of unfair treatment. In previous research, we’ve found that this is especially true for members of dominant groups and those who tend to believe that the system is generally fair.” — Tessa L. DoverBrenda Major and Cheryl R. Kaiser

I have been working on how we might leave participants feeling able and empowered to make necessary change within their organizations. I, along with Amy Lazarus of Inclusion Ventures, work from the hypothesis that one’s universal bias is commensurate in importance and impact with their universal creativity and that the negative effects of the former can be intercepted or mitigated by the positive results of fully leveraging the latter. There are many lines that one might draw between these two points, the one drawn by way of applying human-centered design may very well prove to be difficult but also the shortest and the best.

UPDATE: I was recently on the SAP Radio Program “Innovating Innovation with Game Changers” to discuss this topic. I hope you find the program interesting, and I would love to know your feedback if and when you get the chance to listen.