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Innovation depends on inclusion

The word

A few weeks ago I wrote about how solving the challenges facing the news industry requires fundamentally changing newsroom culture. While newsrooms have depended on referrals from social media and search engines to find audiences and make an impact, both of those segments are in flux, and audiences are therefore declining. The only way to succeed is to experiment and try new things — and, therefore, to have a culture where experimentation and trying new things are supported.

While the article was focused on journalism, the same changes are required for any organization to succeed in the face of rapid technological change. Building an open culture of experimentation is just as important for technology and manufacturing companies as it is for news: every organization experiences challenges in the face of major change.

Okay, but how?

Building a great culture is non-negotiable. The question, of course, is how you build it.

There are a few versions of this question to consider. For me, the most interesting are:

  1. How do you build a great culture from scratch in a new organization?
  2. How do you build a great culture in an established organization that has not yet invested in building one?
  3. How do you build a great culture in an established organization that has an entrenched bad culture?

Of course, to consider this, you have to have a firm opinion of what constitutes a good or bad culture. I strongly believe it relates to building an open, nurturing culture of experimentation, which I have previously written about in depth:

The best teams have a robust, intentional culture that champions openness, inclusivity, and continuous learning — which requires a lot of relationship-building both internally and with the organization in which it sits. These teams can make progress on meaningful work, and make their members valued, heard, and empowered to contribute.

One indicator

I believe the litmus test of such cultures is inclusivity.

Consider this hypothetical scenario: the individual contributors in an organization complain to management that underrepresented members of the team are not able to be heard in meetings and that their ideas are always overlooked.

The managers could react in a few different ways:

  1. Dismiss the complaints outright.
  2. Try to make the complaints go away as quickly as possible so everyone can get back to work.
  3. Listen deeply to the complaints and to the people affected, then work with the whole organization to get real training and build better processes in order to ensure everyone can participate and is heard.

Only the third option represents an open, inclusive organization. The first is obviously dismissive; the second is arguably even worse, as it allows managers to delude themselves that they’re doing something while actively trying to do the bare minimum. (They might privately roll their eyes at having to do it to begin with.) In the third scenario, managers stop and listen to the people affected and work with them in order to effect real change.

Now consider: what happens if nobody brings that complaint to begin with?

In a truly inclusive organization, nobody has to bring that complaint, because managers are constantly assessing the well-being of their teams, and likely receiving continuous, honest feedback. This doesn’t happen by default: the culture of the organization has to be well-considered to ensure that a focus on inclusivity is a cherished value, and that everyone feels emotionally safe to contribute without needing to put on a work persona or mask away aspects of their identities.

This has certain prerequisites. In particular, it’s impossible for an organization with a top-down leadership style to be inclusive, by definition. Even if upper management is truly representative of the demographics and backgrounds of the wider organization and its customers (which is never true), top-down leadership misses the perspectives and ideas of people lower down the hierarchy. Gestures like “ideas boxes” are performative at best. If they wouldn’t be out of place in your organization, its culture is probably top-down.

Organizations can foster inclusivity by implementing regular feedback mechanisms, providing training on both inclusivity and management, promoting transparent communication, and establishing clear systems and boundaries which allow managers to say “yes” more often.

The received wisdom is that rules are barriers to innovation. But it turns out that establishing the right kind of structure helps innovation thrive.

The tyranny of structurelessness

News often does have a top-down culture, inherited from the editorial cultures of old-school newspapers. It’s not alone: finance, law, and many other legacy industries also suffer from this problem. This is a giant headwind for any kind of real innovation, because every new idea essentially has to achieve royal assent. There’s no leeway for experimentation, trying stuff, or getting things wrong — and managers are more likely to take credit for any successes. If something doesn’t fit into the manager’s worldview, the “no”s come freely. But, of course, that worldview is derived from their own experiences, backgrounds, and contexts, rather than the lived experiences of other people.

Structureless organizations, where culture has been under-invested in, tend to have these characteristics. If it’s not the managers dictating what happens, it’s the loudest people in the room, who tend to be the people who come from relative privilege. Without structure to ensure inclusivity, inevitably you’ll lose out on valuable perspectives and ideas.

It just so happens that the structures that establish inclusive practices also form the backbone of intentional cultures for everyone. It’s not just people from vulnerable communities who aren’t necessarily heard; by creating structures that intentionally lift those voices up, we lift up everybody and ensure everyone gets an equitable say.

Ensuring that all voices collaborate on the strategy of the organization and are able to define the work makes for better work, because a wider set of ideas and perspectives are considered — particularly those that managers might otherwise be blind to.

Inclusivity should never be considered a nice-to-have: in addition to being the morally correct path, it’s the key to unlocking an innovative culture that has the power to save existing industries and establish new ones. The people who roll their eyes at it are doomed to live out the status quo. Ultimately, inevitably, they will be left behind.

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