Despite best intentions, our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts often fail. Let’s consider two questions: How can we challenge the thinking and assumptions in DEI from past decades to redefine our ways of working to effectively solve problems? And how can we approach our work as a design challenge in this fast-changing digital world?
DEI executives and practitioners often want to challenge assumption and inspire innovation. The traditional DEI approach of “best practices” is tactical because of its reactive mode and because it is compliance-driven with marginal thinking. That is why we witness stagnant results and limited value creation in the workforce. Thinking like a designer can help us transform and advance DEI efforts by being more strategic and human-centric.
With its signature traits of establishing systemic and growth mindsets, being problem-oriented, and seeking out-of-box solutions and innovative breakthroughs, design thinking can offer us an effective tool to grapple with speedy change and complex problems and can propel our workforce to outperform the competition in the future.
Stanford University maps out the design thinking process as shown in the figure below.
Let’s follow this road map and examine how design thinking principles can assist us to holistically solve more complex and intertwined DEI challenges today.
1. Research and Analyze to Understand Current DEI State (Empathize)
A good design of DEI solution occurs through continuous focus on, and attention to, the people who matter. Because of its human-centric nature, design thinking helps us achieve DEI solutions centered around removing barriers for employees to achieve their career aspirations with fair, equal and inclusive policy, practice and opportunity, and co-creating and co-owning DEI efforts with the internal stakeholders, rather than the traditional top-down and prescriptive approach.
Design thinking starts with empathy. The core of DEI work is people. To create value through DEI effort, we must have an in-depth understanding of the needs and feelings of our people.
We need to immerse ourselves in their experiences, build rapport, empathize with them and view the world through their eyes, including their pain points, perceptions and feelings about an inclusive environment, learning and growth opportunities, team citizenship and career aspirations. We must maintain continuous feedback loops to have a timely pulse, chart the progress and course correct when needed.
In-depth metrics like descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analyses help us validate insights collected from our associates and shed light on what barriers to remove in their career life cycles. These analytics also help determine how to cultivate the health of our workforce and what is missing along our journey. The result of the effort refuels our strategy, process and program with innovative solutions.
Case in point: The traditional approach of designing a DEI strategy is more pivoting on getting the numbers right and introducing “best practiced” programs, rather than unveiling the core issues and leaning on a few game changers that help solve the question, “What if we removed the roadblocks in our diverse talent’s career life cycle?” This shift in perspective resulted in the relevant achievable goals that would eventually delight our associates and optimize their career journey.
Design thinking requires effective leadership to keep efforts on a path to long-term success. When Ben Hasan took on the chief culture, diversity and inclusion, or CDI, officer role at Walmart, he charged the team to deeply dive into quantitative and qualitative analytics from a variety of channels such as listening sessions, interviews, associate resource group meetings and data mining. This beginner’s mindset puts the old assumptions aside. It just engages, listens and asks questions to uncover associate-centered issues and current DEI challenges.
Putting ourselves in others’ shoes is hard but lifting the veil of ignorance helps us make fairer and more inclusive decisions. This empathetic effort reshaped Walmart’s DEI strategy and road map and transformed our energy from compliance-based diversity to inclusion (everyone included, including white men), from CDI-led practices to co-owned and co-created with business partners, and from good-faith efforts to integrating DEI into the talent life cycle.
One guiding principle of the new strategy is transparency and data-driven decision-making. By granting business leaders the access to DEI data, coupled with the associate feedback, we enabled and empowered them to become smart with data and make timely decisions to course correct, not depending solely on process changes.
In the past, business leaders were not exposed to DEI data; they were “unconsciously incompetent.” By sharing the data and utilizing it as a mirror, the data reflected where they were and what was missing. Suddenly, they knew what they didn’t know and became “consciously incompetent.” After learning from those insights and developing an action plan, they became “consciously competent.” And finally, after practicing it so many times, they ceased looking at it consciously, becoming “unconsciously competent.”
2. State and Define Key Roadblocks That Hinder Sustainable Progress (Define)
The lessons we can learn from the second phase of design thinking, Define, include:
- Ask the right questions and spot the right issues.
- Tackle the game changer.
- Motivate others with head, heart and hand.
Research indicates that organizations waste time and energy solving the wrong problems. We must equip ourselves with the ability to ask the right questions, select the right indicators, spot the right patterns and come up with the right solution. When we double down on the right problem, we will yield twice the result with half the effort.
The insights and knowledge derived from the Empathize phase help properly reframe the perceived problem and gain perspectives, which allows a more holistic look at the path toward the expected solution.
While defining the problem, we must put our associates at the heart of the problem-solving process. This effort allows us to create the most authentic and emotionally resonating solutions.
Case in point: After analyzing three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms, Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, reported that some of the most effective diversity solutions aren’t even designed with diversity in mind. Instead, they nurture a trust-based environment where different groups of people are engaged to share experiences and ideas.
After defining the barriers that hinder the efforts in fostering a trust-based, inclusive culture, we committed to breaking down barriers in a holistic approach and motivating our associates to actively participate in the efforts. We asked ourselves, “What if our associates feel free to be themselves in the workplace?”
We started by offering various immersive experiences that enrich learning and touch people’s hearts. Our design intent is for our associates to internalize the immersive and emotional learning, disclose mental knots, and then become a supporter, champion and leader in cultivating an inclusive culture.
Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO, has led by example. Last year, during the busiest holiday season, he led a two-day tour with his direct reports and senior executives in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting historic civil rights sites to learn about racial challenges in the U.S. in the past and today.
Earlier this year, McMillon invited our associates at the home office to watch the film “The Hate You Give,” and then leveraged the town hall and team meetings to carry on open dialogues on racial equity.
Along with other interactive workshops, gamifications, and resources like the Men Advocating Real Change leaders’ workshop, racial equity training, The American Dream game and the #YourStoryIsOurStory video library, we embrace honest conversations among our associates as a gateway to an inclusive workplace where our associates feel safe and welcome to exchange their unique experiences and perspectives.
3. Intentionally Invite Different Perspectives to Spot the Root of Issues and Options to Tackle (Ideate)
Conventional DEI practices tend to react to standalone issues and more focus is placed on the numbers game.
Design thinking advises to adopt a strategic lens, perceive the separate symptoms in a connected web, reveal the root cause of the problem, and intentionally invite and seek out different perspectives to tap the collective wisdom.
During this phase, we can first employ divergent styles of thinking to uncover more possibilities, defer judgment and create an open ideations space to allow for the maximum number of ideas to surface. We then apply convergent styles of thinking to maintain an overall direction and purpose by isolating potential solution streams, combining and refining insights, and more mature ideas, which pave a path forward.
Case in point: While designing our Inclusion Education Curriculum, we harnessed lessons from failures of traditional DEI training, trying to figure out: “What if we reframed the failure into an opportunity?”
After soliciting feedback and collaborating with our internal partners, we devised the curriculum that helps our associates to bridge gaps in mindset, knowledge and behavior.
Instead of taking a top-down mandatory approach, we provided a set of core inclusion training programs, along with a list of elective workshops and courses, so our associates can choose the ones that tailor to their individual developmental needs and enhance their learning agility.
Walmart’s CDI Toolbox offers our team leads and managers subject-specific learning materials and sound-bite messaging points for them to carry on the DEI conversations at their regular business meetings.
We also explored new technology and innovative approaches to improve the quality of learning. Virtual reality modules and gamification techniques make learning fun and engaging while helping our associates retain and apply new knowledge and skills. The simulation-based and interactive modules provoke rich discussions about the real-life experiences our diverse talent come across and teach how to become an inclusive leader with desired behaviors.
4. Design the Program With a Big Picture and Ecosystem in Mind (Prototype)
Many of today’s DEI programs are designed with a one-size-fits-all approach and control-and-commend style. They are based on fixing others’ attitudes.
Design thinking, instead, pays close attention to users’ needs and their pain points and customization to accommodate differences.
Related to DEI, can our programs build up on each other to touch people’s hearts and minds so that shift helps further change their behavior? By understanding which parts work and which don’t, we can deliver a program prototype to test the solution’s effectiveness and relevance.
Case in point: The traditional way for delivering a solution is to wait until every component is ready, then assemble them and deliver the total package. We contemplated, “What if the opposite were true?”
Design thinking promotes “minimum viable product.” MVP is a part of the agile development approach that delivers the greater value while cutting the product development cycle by accelerating learning, reducing wasted time and delivering the product to customers as soon as possible.
When revamping our mentoring program, we delivered several components as a separate MVP:
- MentorMatch, a system with AI to facilitate mentors and mentees in finding a right fit.
- Mentoring Platform, a mature system to manage mentoring activities and relationships.
- Content Library, well-curated digital contents grouped by different DEI topics.
These components are dynamically connected and support each other as a total solution.
5. Pilot the Solution to Test Results and Consider the Next Iterative That Builds on the Existing Components (Test)
Before rolling out a solution on a large scale, always pilot it with controllable groups to test the results and study the experience. Based on the collected feedback and observation, we have a chance to refine early prototypes into solutions with more promising potential.
This is also the right time to think about “what next,” which may reveal new and unexplored courses of action to follow in bringing about ideal status for DEI work.
Journalist Suzy Welch’s 10-10-10 concept brings the future into the present by asking ourselves, at a moment of decision, how we will feel about it in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. We imagine being accountable for our decisions in the future and this motivates us to get ahead of the game.
Many corporate resources and energies are allocated to developing and executing all kinds of start-stop DEI programs. The solutions brought to the table intend to build a diverse workforce and inclusive workplace. However, they barely generate sustainable progress and make a desirable culture change since they are designed in a discrete nature and with lack of robust communication and an accountability mechanism.
Design thinking is not a sprint; it’s a continuum process. To avoid failure, adopt a cycle of consistent observation, developing a hypothesis, validating it with a broad range of perspectives, piloting and testing the solutions, analyzing the data and formulating new theories and constantly looking out for new tools to boost our efforts.
Case in point: Most DEI solutions are short-term driven and reactive, whereas design thinking encourages a forward look, playing chess rather than checkers.
When designing a solution for achieving gender and racial parity at our workplace, we added a critical component — a constant communication mechanism that makes DEI “always on.”
We ensure that our senior executives are clear about the explicit vision and aspiration. With a regular cadence of communications with our board, CEO and C-suite, President’s Inclusion Council, HR partners and business leaders, we get together to review the status, discuss the progress and insights, and fine tune a course of action via the customized DEI action plan. This effort makes our key stakeholders co-creators and co-owners of the DEI goals and motivates them to advance our journey sustainably in their business units. Over time, DEI becomes a dynamic part of our business DNA.
David Terrar, founder of digital transformation and social business consultancy Agile Elephant, stated: “You don’t have to be a designer to think like one. While learning to be a good designer takes years, you can think like a designer and design the way you lead, manage, create and innovate.”
We can learn and apply design thinking to advance our DEI efforts because it teaches science —finding similarity among things that are different; art — finding difference among things that are similar; and design — creating feasible wholes from infeasible parts.
Isn’t this the ideal prospect we all want?
- Mind over matter: leadership mindsets and actions to drive results
- Innovative Learning Group’s Lisa Toenniges shares her career insights
- It’s time to take lifelong learning from rhetoric to reality
- Becoming a learning enterprise is a culture-change journey
- Learning executives are the T-shaped people organizations need