Achieve Diversity Results with a Whole System Approach

About a decade ago, I had an epiphany about whole systems thinking when my project team and I were asked to figure out why an effort to digitize the company’s backup data systems was failing. After reading about the business trends of companies converting tapes to CD-ROM, an executive at my company thought that he could save the company millions by digitizing data onto CD-ROM instead of storing larger tapes at a third-party storage facility. After six months of running on the new CD-ROM-based platform, however, the company’s savings were negligible, nowhere near expectations. When the troubleshooting team compared our process to that of companies that had successfully lowered their back-up storage costs, they quickly discovered the problem. While moving to the CD-ROM approach was a good move, it was only one of the significant changes that other companies had instituted across their whole back-up storage system. We had looked at only one piece in the data-storage chain.

Since then, I have repeatedly observed how companies – in many different situations and in many different environments – fail to understand the entire context of a problem. This is especially the case with many diversity efforts. Diversity consulting leaders such as Linda Stokes, CEO of the Orlando, Fla.-based firm PRISM International, say piecemeal efforts with narrow scopes are very common in the world of corporate diversity — usually resulting in frustration and failure.

The Frustration of Failed Diversity Initiatives

“We see this all the time, most often with companies that are attempting to increase the number of women and minorities percentages in their EEO reports solely through recruiting efforts,” Stokes says. “They essentially mount a huge diversity recruiting campaign and get a few women and minorities to join the company. Shortly thereafter, the still-new hires leave because they don’t feel fully included and/or engaged in the company’s business strategy. A year later, when the HR managers see that the EEO statistics are unchanged despite their recruiting efforts, they either abandon the effort or they continue to invest more dollars in their piecemeal approach to so-called diversity recruiting. And the cycle – and the frustration – continues.”

According to Stokes, the most common outcomes of this ineffective approach are:

  • Senior management’s loss of confidence in the people who promoted and led the diversity recruiting effort; they wonder why their employee demographic numbers haven’t changed.
  • Employees’ loss of confidence in management’s commitment to diversity.
  • Increase in SG&A as a result of inefficient recruiting and high turnover and disengagement costs.
  • Burnout, resulting when the enthusiastic employees who wanted to make a difference aren’t supported. The company then pays the opportunity costs of failing to utilize potentially lucrative ideas and business-savvy talent.
  • The ever-wasteful and demoralizing blame game. When new recruits leave after realizing the chasm between recruiters’ promises of inclusion and the reality of the situation, managers often resort to criticisms of the candidate or, worse, of the diversity initiative itself.

How to Develop Your Plan

The good news is that the cycle certainly can be broken. To start, consider the most common reasons for failure. One is too narrow a scope. Think of a car manufacturer focusing strictly on improving brake pads while trying to strengthen their cars’ ability to stop quickly. They don’t evaluate tire effectiveness relative to road conditions, or the positioning of the brake pedal relative to the type of driver. While the car may end up with great brake pads, it will still skid on a slippery road because the driver may have trouble getting a foot from the accelerator to the brake on time, or perhaps because the tires provide insufficient traction. The brake system as a whole must be addressed.

A second major reason for failure is reluctance to address elements in the organization’s culture, policies, practices and procedures that may be hampering diversity. For example, instead of recommending direct changes to existing workplace recognition and reward practices that neglect women and minority recognition programs, diversity managers, employee resource groups or diversity council members may choose to start a new set of “shadow” (or what Stokes refers to as “bolt-on”) reward and recognition practices. While this may seem noble, it is not the best approach.

“It’s important that councils not circumvent the lack of effectiveness of the company’s official practices and processes by creating ‘separate but equal’ ones,” Stokes says. “These bolt-on solutions in my experience rarely work,” and even when there’s some success, “the benefits never last.”

To avoid failures resulting from the piecemeal approach and build stronger whole-systems diversity solutions, take a whole-systems approach that integrates diversity into your company’s formal workforce, workplace and marketplace practices and processes.

Here are seven straightforward steps for you to follow:

  1. Design better mission-formulating questions. If your goal is to increase the percentage of women or minorities in your company, don’t ask the limiting and shortsighted question, “How can we recruit more women and minorities?” Ask, instead, “How can we increase the percentage of women and minorities in this company?” While the difference may seem minor, the impact on the quality of your entire solution is huge. The first question is similar to someone who wants to increase net worth asking, ‘how can I make or how can I save more money?’ as opposed to ‘how do I increase my net worth?’
  2. Identify all the specific components and systems you need to include in your project scope. Once you have formulated a clear mission question that sets the right scope, consider which company systems and components must be included in your search for a solution. To avoid the pitfall of recruiting hires who leave while still new, don’t stop at modifying how and where you recruit; look system-wide at workplace policies, practices, norms, traditions, management practices, promotion and development practices, etc. Diversity could be undermined in any one of these areas.
  3. Ask more questions about each identified component. Staying with our example, you might ask, “Do our current work policies, structure, philosophies make us a workplace that would attract, engage and leverage women and minorities?”
  4. Decide which specific components need to be addressed. Based on your answers to the questions developed in Step 3, determine which components of the total system need to be changed and how.
  5. Prepare formal change proposals and recommendations for your senior management. Be specific and assign accountability. If, for example, you need to change the way managers are trained, don’t propose getting the diversity council to create a separate diversity management training program. Propose that the person who owns management training be charged with integrating diversity perspectives into the existing program. (The council can support the effort by reviewing approaches and providing the help of external consultants.)
  6. Monitor and manage the execution of the approved proposals. In this phase, your diversity council should be supporting and monitoring the execution of the approved tactics. Again, the job of the council at this stage is to support the process owner, measure progress and offer status reports to senior management.
  7. Continuously evaluate whether your tactics are working toward your ultimate diversity goals. It’s important to closely observe your programs and recommend modifications to the process owners until you start to see the results you want.

The road to diversity success, like many other corporate endeavors, is littered with the failures of piecemeal approaches that tiptoe around real change to corporate practice and culture. By following these seven steps, your diversity initiatives will stand a much stronger chance of achieving sustainable success.


Joe Santana is the senior director of diversity for Siemens Corporation in the United States . He is co-author of “Manage IT” and author of numerous published articles on key management topics.