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Insights

Diversity is Not Enough in an Increasingly VUCA World

By Dan Burrier and Hitendra Wadhwa

Whether familiar with the term VUCA or not, we are all familiar with its effect on both our personal and business lives. Originally introduced in the 1990s by the US Army War College to describe a new world of military engagement, VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

It is often said (and difficult to dispute), we now live in a VUCA world. This world puts heavy demand on workplace teams and leaders. To solve problems and advance our agendas, we must be more than just experts – we must be agile, quick, innovative, collaborative, decisive, adaptive and creative.

To that list, let’s add two more critical qualities: that our teams and people must be diverse and inclusive  – two of the most important organizational concepts for making successful high-impact decisions in such a world.

A plethora of research supports the call for diversity, including a recent study from McKinsey demonstrating that companies with high racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above respective industry medians. Common sense and managerial best practices further suggest the need for a plurality of points of view, experience, expertise, beliefs – even hunches – as inputs to achieve the decisive, high-impact outputs we so desire.

There is the well-understood notion of “getting out of the box,” of course, and the somewhat more challenging view once proposed by a Zen master that, “the instructions for getting out of the box are written on the outside of the box.” Which is to say that if your only frame of reference is the inside of the box, how do you even know there is a box to get out of? Or as John F. Kennedy pointed out, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations.

Add diversity to your team and you’re sure to see the instructions for getting out of the box more quickly, to break through clichéd and prefabricated solutions. And yet, just having diversity in the room does not automatically assure a true diversity of inputs because if you don’t actually include the divergent voices and views in the decision making process, it’s just the same as if they weren’t there at all. Enter the importance of inclusion – of creating a culture that recognizes, celebrates, includes and integrates the diverse and the different.

In other words, having diversity in the room means nothing if that diversity cannot be expressed, actually heard, credibly considered, assessed and integrated into solutions. Furthermore, you can have a room packed with diversity – of gender, ethnicity, role, function, experience, belief and so forth – and the advantages of that diversity can be undone in an instant by well-known syndromes such as “seniority first,” “smartest person in the room,” “the loudest gets heard,” or “the most aggressive prevails.”

How, then, do we create a culture of inclusion? How do we avoid the “clichés of our forebears”?

This is a key part of the inside-out training in our program on High Impact Decision-Making at the Institute for Personal Leadership. It is inside-out because you won’t be able to engage in the best behavior without first understanding and mastering your own thoughts, emotions, beliefs and motivations. Nor will you be able to get the best out of others without first understanding their inner lives.

Our research and practice at IPL shows that once a person has integrated the science of inner mastery, they are ready to use a variety of principles and tools to create an environment ripe for inclusion – one in which the best thinking can emerge, where silent voices can be heard, where conflict becomes collaboration, and where curiosity among all participants is encouraged and cultivated.

High Impact Decision-Making helps teams learn how to follow the principles of AIDE, in which everyone helps everyone 1) ALIGN with a common purpose, 2) continue to INQUIRE with humble questions and an open mind, 3) nurture effective DIALOGs, and 4) foster an environment in which everyone can ENGAGE.

This quickly moves teams from traditional team culture and dynamics better suited to bygone times to a new, inclusive culture more suited to the VUCA world. A culture where:

1. Collaboration supplants competition
2. Learning is as important as short-term results
3. Everyone is the “smartest” in the room
4. Reflection balances confidence
5. Productive conflict is nurtured rather than avoided

In short, the diversity you have hired is now truly included, and the organization reaps all the additional benefits. A blank canvas is created upon which the best new ideas can flourish and really begin to shape the future. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity? Meet diversity and inclusion – powerful allies for leadership in an ever-changing world.


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