Some difficulties of making inclusion work

Yesterday, there was a terrific event at SAP Teched on inclusion, and design thinking. I was invited to be on the panel, but unfortunately could not make it in the last minute. This is just a short post to share my thoughts on that, since I could not discuss it live and learn from the panel and the audience.


When I started in SAP in the 90’s , Indians were a minority in this space.  I also remember the joy when I was included in teams where I felt excluded from. I have several accomplished women in my family (including my mother)  who did well in life, despite all the challenges life threw their way. As a result, inclusion naturally is very close to my heart. Even though I do believe inclusion is the right thing to do for many reasons, I see a few challenges to make it work effectively in an organization.


1. It is all about priorities


There is usually something else that is more important than inclusion for a given team. An example is the inclusion event yesterday – it could only be done with a small percentage of Teched attendees, due to budget, timelines etc.  Oranizations, teams and projects all have such constraints, and they might trump inclusion. This may be somewhat countered by mandatory inclusion by policy or law.  But laws might apply only to macro scenarios – a company might want something like number of women to increase by two times in next year. But does that mean HR, Finance and IT will all have twice as many women as they have today? Usually not. If not, then does it really help the whole organization despite championing inclusion?


2. Can you have ground rules? and who sets them?


Rules are the opposite of inclusion. Rules by definition, exist to exclude something or someone. But without rules – there will be chaos. So who decides which rules are inclusion friendly and which do not? Just by choosing someone to decide this – you are excluding some one else.


3. Inclusion for who?


Proponents of inclusion can have a bias depending on their own background. Women might think they are the ones that need to be included, racial or social or economic minorities might decide it is them that needs to be included and so on. It does not always end in a win-win situation for all parties.  And obviously, it is pretty darn hard to have every combination of inclusion work in a situation. So someone loses out and will feel they are not included.


4. What about the majority?


I have only seen opinion articles on inclusion – and not real conclusive research. I will continue to look for it. But there seems to be a thought out there that just by doing inclusion – will you decrease the effectiveness of a team?  Hypothetically – a team of people from one country that have worked together for a while, might not necessarily like a person from another country to be suddenly put in the team , even if he/she can do the job just as well. Over the long term, this will probably be ok – but there is a big risk that short time productivity will get a downward trend. How many managers and teams with short term deadlines will take this chance of decrease in productivity?


5. What is the link to design thinking?


Will inclusion help design thinking? I have some reservations. In general – if you have more ideas to choose from, you might get a better solution. But then again – what kind of inclusion will work?  Say you want a product that is designed primarily for men. Will a team of women be able to design it well? may be they could use a few men in the design process? That is inclusion – I agree. But inclusion can also be adding more Chinese and Japanese team members to the team. Would that inclusion make the design any better? I doubt it.  So it can be argued that inclusion as a general principle has limitations, and you need more filters. And once you filter like this – can it be called inclusion at all?


I am sure there are solutions to all of these – and I am speaking to a few people today to find out their perspective on this topic, and solutions they have seen to these problems.  It is way too important an issue to leave open for long.


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

7 thoughts on “Some difficulties of making inclusion work

  1. Hi Vijay, thanks for your blog and sharing it with me :). I’d love to be included in your discussion about “What is the link to design thinking?” as the two of us actually did not have a chance to talk about that.
    a number of people feel some “natural” fit – for the lack of a better term. And DT to be a method of choice to drive matters forward. There were many insights and ideas bubbling up last night. One of my favorite themes that I heard was that people think “working in mulitdiciplinaire and diverse teams is inspiring and will lead to better results.” The question now is what does this mean in more details and how might we enable that? I also beleive we got some really cool ideas to address just this one theme.
    Looking forward to the discussions.


  2. I’d love to share my “rules” for the event and get some feedback from you, my community.
    1. Keep an open mind
    2. Leave your title at the door
    3. This is a safe environment
    4. Our only agenda is to encourage creativity
    5. Sit with people you don’t know
    6. Sit with people who look different than you

    Perhaps also “leave your agenda at the door”


    1. Don’t take my responses too literally – my point is to prove that any rule is arbitrary. And rules might not get intended results despite best of intentions.

      1. Who decides whether mind is open or not? my open-mindedness might not look too open to the next person.
      2. Will that give a free pass to some one else who I think did not work as hard, and hence did not get the “title” ?
      3. There is no safe environment. You cannot control what people will say/tweet etc 🙂
      4. Creativity for me a given person might look like “he/she has an agenda” to the next one.
      5. That helps only for few minutes till you know the other person
      6. different in what way? this is not easy to pull off amongst people who attend a conference since they usually have a lot in common.

      And “leave your agenda” – does that mean there is some “other” agenda we should watch out for?

      again – don’t take this literally. My point is that hard as you might try – inclusion is generally elusive.

      I think human beings over generations were taught to not be inclusive – by nature, by society and so on. And hence it is an uphill battle to fight it.


      1. Of course rules can be viewed as arbitrary but think perhaps instead of rules of the concept of declarations. Now declarations can be seen as arbitrary statements for an intent as well, but stay with me on this for a moment……
        1. A declaration can also call something into being from a nothingness or an absence of that thing. A declaration, albeit “only words”, can help propel the creation of something new. Think: “Declaration of Independence” where formally there was a state of dependence. The declared intent can help propel action. So declaring a “state of open-mindedness” might help propel some consciousness of open, whatever that means to whomever, where there wasn’t any consciousness of openness previously.
        2. Hmm… do you want to say that having a title is a differentiator that “buys” one entrance? I certainly hope not. I don’t like titles, I prefer deeds and reputation. A title doesn’t ensure either of those things.
        3. Safe environment should be the opposite of control. Why would we wish to control what one says, thinks, does, in a safe environment? Safe environment should provide the place for people to freely share ideas, however uncomfortable others might be with them.
        4. We all have “agendas” but being fluid enough to allow real collaborative “flow” is key to creating an environment of “optimal experience” (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for reference)
        5. Wow, can’t imagine one would “know” another after a few minutes. Classify? yes. Judge? yes. Brand? yes. Be attracted to or have an aversion to? yes. Know? I think that takes a bit more time as knowledge isn’t a “blink” activity (ala Malcolm Gladwell)
        6. Different? Would you prefer the explicit? Different culture, language, job role, age, company, gender (landmine of course), many attributes beyond TechEd attendee ;-).

        Some found it interesting to observe just how we struggle with agendas and a way around titles, promotions, fixed ideas, aversions, obvious likes, but I think that became more apparent as the evening and the design thinking workshop progressed.
        Sorry indeed that you missed that. But you have a seat reserved for next time.


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