The case for building true organizational diversity

Leo Burnett's Ben Tarr shares his work-in-progress manifesto on ways to help eliminate disparity.

Direction diversity

By Ben Tarr

A number of months ago, our team at Leo Burnett worked on an incredible project to address a major road safety issue in Sri Lanka as it related to motorbikes, the predominant mode of transport. We looked at opportunities to help improve children’s safety and reduce risk of road accidents while riding with their parents. We assembled a team of professionals from various disciplines and backgrounds and included stakeholders and business partners in a co-creative session. We designed concepts, built and tested prototypes, all to get to the most effective solution. What we believed to be an inclusive creative process led to biased solutions which could have been a big miss had we not included one main user group: the children.

Until this point we had done everything by the books except making the assumption that we fully understood children and how they behaved, that we could empathize with their needs and design ‘for’ them; some of us are parents after all! What the children taught us was that some of our ‘assumed’ effective solutions were in fact ineffective in a real-life scenario. Had we not included them in the creative process, results could have been catastrophic.

This experience made us ask ourselves a series of questions: are we ‘creating with’ instead of ‘creating for’? Are we being truly inclusive? Does our process allow for inclusion and diversity of thought? What is our perspective on diversity in thinking anyways? How does our organization embrace diverse representation of the many identities of people whom we are in the service of? How do we stay open and how do we ‘include’ instead of ‘assume’?

Examples like this happen more frequently than they should in the creative industries when biased thinking (often subconscious) coupled with lack of diverse representation in teams and companies result in products and services that end up being nothing short of a failure – just like a dysfunctional soap dispenser with a motion sensor tuned to only detect certain (white) skin colours. How do we make sure we learn from these mistakes and avoid another case where only a small portion of our society is represented properly and the rest are neglected?

True organizational diversity

There is a real business case for being more diverse beyond the ethical choice.

Statistical evidence shows that diversity in teams fuels better thinking, resulting in better business outcomes. In the latest report on why Diversity Matters, McKinsey reported that racially and ethnically diverse companies outperform industry norms by 35%. In the same study UK data revealed that for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBITA rose by 3.5%.

So now we need to address one question: What is true diversity in an organization?

There seems to be two prominent perspectives. One group of organizational design experts argue that your main objective should be to ensure diverse representation of many identities of people (Demographic Diversity) while another group focuses on figuring out how to unlock and activate diversity of thinking regardless of a diverse representation (Cognitive Diversity).

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These world-views are often perceived as dichotomous and opposing. Believers in cognitive diversity argue that if your goal is to have people who behave and think in different ways, you should focus less on their gender, nationality and ethnicity. They would conclude that you cannot assume that demographic diversity will automatically translate into behavioural diversity or diversity of thought. On the other hand, experts invested in maximizing diverse representation would argue that diversity of thought is one outcome of a successful Diversity & Inclusion initiative but should not be the target in itself. They conclude that we may use diversity of thought as a shortcut and distract ourselves from implementing internal culture shifts required to make a sustainable change.

In our quest to understand true organizational diversity and to form our own perspective on the matter, we at Leo Burnett have been asking ourselves: “Shouldn’t we advocate for a two-pronged approach to diversity and advocate for both?” Why not invest in ensuring demographic diversity across the organization (specifically in leadership) and also building a cultural platform that nourishes cognitive diversity of thought and harnesses the collective intelligence in the way we approach our work?

Some idea starters

In an ongoing effort to build a demographic and cognitive diverse organization, I assembled a set of guiding principles, a playbook of sorts, an incomplete manifesto for putting true organizational diversity to action:

1. Don’t use diversity of thought as a shortcut to undermine diverse representation.

Think of diversity of thought as an outcome and diverse representation as a requirement. Don’t assume that because we all have different backgrounds and life experiences, we can empathize with everyone.

2. Create an equitable system that eliminates biases.

Approach diversity systematically and with a plan. Dedicate resources to create an environment that breathes equality. Effect change from the top-down, beware of prejudices and don’t assume that leaders are void of biases. Hiring practices offer a rich territory to create change towards cultivating a more equitable system.

3. Encourage disagreement and conflicting perspectives to avoid groupthink.

Desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in a homogenized thinking and subdued diverse thinking. Celebrate, encourage and reward diverse opinions and say ‘Yes’ to hearing ‘No’s.

4. Have the courage to build existential flexibility into your culture.

Don’t mistake culture for ‘the way we do things around here.’ The stronger ‘the way’ the less diversity will be nurtured. Be open to redefining norms, challenge the status quo and think in spectrum not opposite ends.

5. Harness cognitive diversity to fuel divergent thinking.

Diverse perspectives result in rich and resilient collective intelligence. Think of cognitive diversity as a way to transcend beyond linear problem solving to a world where contextually appropriate thinking is inherent.

6. Commit to ongoing incremental change.

If the gender gap will take a century, then we must realize that continuous actions are the only way to push for a more inclusive world. At Leo Burnett we’ve already committed to the Rooney Rule for every external hire, meaning we will ensure we include at least one woman and one underrepresented minority on the slate of candidates for all positions.

Think of these principles as a starting point for a much broader conversation with leaders who aspire to see the change we need to eliminate disparity. I know our own team at Leo already have many more thoughts on how we can tackle the systemic issues that exists today. Challenge them, change them, add to them, and let’s talk about them more openly, and remember that diversity of thinking leads to better thinking in the end.

BTarrB&WBuilding a diverse organization will take time and will necessitate personal change in many of us. I grew up a cis, straight white male, in the predominantly white South of England in a time when racism was prevalent (and still inherently is today). The fact that we knew and openly told racist jokes in school at the age of 7 is telling of the kind of racism that was normalized in our social context.

But over time I’ve been given experiences that have helped to re-wire the hard code of my brain. Seeing my wife who you’d never know is half-Chinese, experience racism, having my son who will take on life with special needs and my daughter who shows me the world through the eyes of a woman, plus strong female characters through work that have educated me along the way, gave me the start I need to effect change.

Ben Tarr is the president at Leo Burnett and sits on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS).