Turning to the past to create a diverse and inclusive future

Toby Mildon says a management framework dating back to the 1950s is applicable to today’s implementation of EDI strategies

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In what ways can businesses ensure that diversity and inclusion become part of their DNA, with room for growth and development? While it’s important to have high-level endorsement and strategic leadership, an inclusive culture does not simply filter down from the top. Neither will such a culture survive with a few passionate employees participating in a ground-swell movement.

Cue a management framework with its origins in the 1950s. Can such thinking really apply to today’s implementation of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)? Undoubtedly, yes – and many businesses are applying it right now to advance their EDI strategies.

The framework in question is called OKR, which stands for objectives and key results. The basic philosophy is this: business goals should be developed by both the leadership team and individual teams using a top-down and bottom-up approach. 

Too many companies make the mistake of adopting a top-to-bottom style when setting goals and objectives. The assumption is that leadership simply passes on objectives to middle management who pass them on to team leaders, who in turn pass them on to their team members. However, this cascade model is neither agile nor in the spirit of inclusion.

The top-down and bottom-up approach has several advantages:

  • By taking ownership and being directly involved, teams become more motivated and self-organised.

  • Teams automatically align themselves vertically (with more senior colleagues) and horizontally (with others at the same level), helping ideas and strategies to become embedded.

  • By observing how they contribute to the company's goals, teams gain self-confidence and loyalty.

So, applying this thinking to EDI, objectives should be set from all and any level of the business. It’s really about the interplay between objectives, key results and initiatives. Objectives set out what the business wants to achieve through D&I. Key results detail how the objective has been achieved. And initiatives are the actions used to reach the objective.

However, before any objectives can be set, the senior leadership of the organisation must understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. It is the CEO and leadership team's responsibility to communicate its vision on diversity and inclusion. In the words of Simon Sinek, people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Does an inclusive organisation: create a sense of belonging for employees; better represent your clients; compete for the best talent; benefit your clients and increase the quality of your products or services; increase innovation; develop future leaders; become more profitable and resilient; or is it just the right thing to do?

Using an example helps to bring the concept to life. An objective might simply be: to develop a more inclusive business culture. A key result under this objective might be: at least 30 per cent of our senior leadership team are women. An action to reach the objective might be: audit our talent management processes to identify any barriers preventing women from getting promoted at the same rate as men.

Interestingly, expert comment around the implementation of OKRs points to an important fact – goals do not have to be completed to 100 per cent to be effective. In other words, by setting diversity and inclusion goals, even if those goals are not achieved in their entirety, amazing results will still have been achieved.

There is all manner of advice around how frequently teams should meet and assess progress, and the length of the OKR cycle. These timings will differ from business to business. 

Ultimately, at the risk of using too many initials in a sentence, applying the OKR approach to D&I makes perfect sense. How can any company truly claim to be inclusive if its inclusivity goals are exclusively set by the leadership tier of the business? OKR ensures the involvement of all teams and seeks to achieve goals through business-wide collaboration. The result? An inclusive culture evolving from an inclusive strategic approach. Now that’s something to be truly proud of.

Toby Mildon is diversity and inclusion architect at Mildon