Using Diversity and Inclusion as a Source for Humanitarian Innovation

By bringing diversity and inclusion to the forefront, even the most traditional organizations can enhance the design and implementation of social solutions.

California -The scale and nature of the social issues humanitarians seek to address is ever-changing, making the ability to innovate a necessary core competence. Developing new ideas, including new ways of engaging with and relating to the people we aim to help, is critical to humanitarians’ ability to adapt and respond. And in today’s world, sustaining and supporting these new ways of working requires that we build an organizational culture that prioritizes diversity and inclusion—indeed, a culture that looks to diversity and inclusion as a new frontier for effective innovation.

A more-diverse workforce brings with it more diversity of thought. And diversity of thought—the cognitive diversity that benefits from different experiences and perspectives—leads to more creativity and innovation. Yet it’s not enough to build a diverse workforce. Organizations need to consider what it means to harness diverse talent, and how to create an organizational environment that truly welcomes and embraces workforce diversity. This means examining not only primary dimensions of diversity such as gender or race, but also beliefs, education, socioeconomic background, and other dimensions that shape and form people’s frames of reference. It means building a working environment that encourages people to bring their entire selves to the workplace.

Based on our experience driving organizational change at the United Nations (UN), we see three barriers to making this happen and four actions that can move us forward.

Three Barriers That Get in the Way
First, as humans, our behavior and interactions with people who we see as different from ourselves are highly personalized and loaded with assumptions. Organizations like the UN, whose mandate is rooted in human rights, may feel inclusion and diversity should come naturally. Yet diplomacy, and fear of offending others or making mistakes, often means people revert to a “lowest common denominator” way of working together, where we default to silence, avert risk, and avoid positions or communication that may challenge the status quo. This approach can keep us from including diverse voices in decision-making and design processes, as well as inhibit risk-taking.

Second, organizations often get caught in their own narratives about what’s possible or not possible. Even senior leaders sometimes tell themselves they can’t change the way their organization works, attributing a lack of innovation to factors out of their control and thus embodying a sense of helplessness and a lack of accountability. This bias toward the known and the current system inhibits opportunities to bring in people and ideas that can expand the notion of what’s possible.

Finally, those who have the power and privilege to support systemic change and new ways of working don’t always recognize the need for it. In some instances, leaders may not even be aware of or understand the experiences of people who don’t have power and privilege. As a result, many government agencies, corporations, and other large institutions continue to cling to established hierarchies, consciously or unconsciously disempowering those who can contribute to new ways of thinking.

Four Actions That Can Move Organizations Forward
So what does it take to overcome these barriers, and create a culture that is more ready to embrace diversity and inclusion, and consequently, diverse perspectives? And how can organizations harness these perspectives to include even more people in imagining new approaches and ideas?

Here’s a look at four actions that can contribute to a working environment that welcomes this agenda, based on our experience within the United Nations system:

1. Aim for Meaningful Co-Creation Across Internal Hierarchies
An organizational culture that doesn’t allow for collaboration across levels of hierarchy can stifle, or even silence, diversity of thought. One practice that helps create a work environment that supports a diversity of thought is to model inclusion when planning, designing, and implementing internal organizational change.

As an example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently set up a “challenge team” to review its global recruitment policy, with the aim of capturing feedback from a diverse range of staff, in terms of function, level, location, gender, age, and nationality. The Staff Council, which works to safeguard and defend the rights of UNHCR staff, joined forces with UNHCR’s LGBTI network and a group of representatives under age 35 to scrutinize and challenge proposed policy changes, informed by their own personal and professional perspectives. One outcome was the full integration of diversity and inclusion into the recruitment policy, including special measures to address gender imbalance and to take account of the constraints colleagues with disabilities and LGBTI status may face when working in different locations around the world.

2. Support Vulnerability to Encourage Diversity of Thought
In addition to co-creation, organizations must support a culture that allows people to bring their whole selves to work. People often check the “messy” parts of themselves—what makes them vulnerable or doesn’t reflect the status quo—at the door when they go to work. Yet vulnerability can be the birthplace of new ideas, and organizations that support an environment where people believe they can take risks, and bring their thoughts, beliefs, and feedback to the table, will foster more imagination, innovation, and productivity.

It’s also useful to take a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion work that promotes a diversity of experience beyond primary dimensions. This means paying attention not only to the cognitive “head” and practical “hands” that attend change, but also the emotional “heart.” Building empathy and relationships as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and expressing vulnerability and emotion in the day-to-day work is particularly helpful for encouraging diversity and inclusion among staff from different geographical regions. We believe innovation happens when people feel enabled and supported to share their own real-life experiences of exclusion and discrimination.

UNHCR’s Innovation Service, for example, launched a staff-led diversity, inclusion, and gender equity project that collated written stories on diversity challenges in the organization, shared recorded interviews with colleagues who experienced the difficulties of exclusion and merits of inclusion, and created visual representations and articulations of the landscape of bias within the organization. The project required that UNHCR staff openly discuss topics such as language inclusion, disability, sexuality, gender, and race, and how it relates to their experience within the organization and supporting new ways of working. For instance, one colleague expressed, “Diversity and inclusion promote [an] environment where innovation can succeed. [It allows] us to think outside the box, outside our own identities, beyond our personal experiences. We can then better innovate and collaborate with each other.”

One of the primary lessons that emerged from the project was that UNHCR staff from non-English speaking countries felt language was a notable barrier to being understood and listened to within the organization. These lessons on secondary dimensions of diversity and other insights on biases later assisted the Innovation Service in better codifying and designing a machine learning application that helps the UNHCR human resources department screen external applicants.

3. Foster Boundary-Pushing Dialogue to Share Ideas and Identify Problems
Another way to break through barriers is to create both formal and informal, ongoing opportunities for staff to talk to peers and managers about diversity and inclusion so that issues below the surface can come to light. We call this practice “communicating for dialogue.” We’ve learned that organizations generally aren’t very good at this, because of the discomfort associated with this type of communication. It is easier and faster to “communicate for information,” where a sender pushes out material and leaves the receiver to make sense of it. Communicating for dialogue, on the other hand, involves creating the space for diversity of thought, possible conflict, and uncomfortable conversations.

UNHCR leaders recently communicated for dialogue when they changed the format of quarterly, global, town-hall meetings. The meetings moved away from top-down, formal presentations with a few carefully crafted questions and answers, toward a more interactive, two-way exchange with staff to identify shared problems.

To do this, the entirety of UNHCR’s workforce was invited to use an interactive online meeting tool called Pigeonhole. The platform facilitated dialogue by encouraging people to share their experiences, ask questions, and vote on those questions they most wanted to hear leadership address. It also gave people the choice to contribute anonymously, and was a remarkable shift from traditional ways of working, as it removed barriers to speaking up, encouraged a diversity of thought on how to improve the organization, and facilitated an honest and transparent exchange that had hitherto been difficult to create. The organization is now rolling out other technologies to better understand how staff undertake meetings, whose voices are most valued in those meetings, and how meetings contribute to new conversations and ideas.

4. Break Down Systemic Silos
By shifting the boundaries of who gets to contribute to innovative approaches, organizations can create new, open spaces that allow individuals to get unstuck from their own biases. People often limit their connections and collaborations to people they already know or who are just like them, but bringing in knowledge from outside one’s team or organization is a great enabler of innovation. Challenging affinity bias and encouraging collaboration between people who are different from each other offers a clear opportunity to fuel innovation through diversity and inclusion.

For example, insights from economics, neuroscience, and psychology have inspired organizations inside and outside the UN to experiment with “nudge” approaches to inclusion. A nudge proposes positive reinforcement and non-obvious suggestions to influence behavior and decision-making among people. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is applying a range of behavioral insights into how it creates solutions with staff and partners. It recently launched a joint experiment with Nudge Lebanon, a nongovernmental and nonprofit initiative working to apply behavioral insights to the policy challenges, and national partners to prevent violent extremism in Sudan using behavioral science and ethnographic research. While we can’t understate the importance of a diverse workforce for supporting a creative environment, collaboration and a willingness to engage outside our sector has also helped drive an organizational culture that provides fertile ground for ever-more dynamic solutions.