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.