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Posted: 11 May, 2020

By Joanne Rumley

4th May 2020

For a number of years now we have heard businesses talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion and seen conscious efforts made to proactively address diversity deficiencies. This is based on robust statistical analysis showing that truly diverse teams lead to more effective decision making, increased productivity and better creative thinking. Why is it then that as we face the biggest challenge in a generation, the global Covid19 pandemic, many businesses have hunkered down and reverted to tight familiar senior inward teams to manage their response to the crisis?

As a specialist dealing with crisis management on a daily basis, where businesses are distressed or failing, the need for speed of decision-making is not lost on me and I can understand the immediate responses we have seen to Covid 19 which came quickly and unexpectedly.  Clearly it is easier to make decisions with people who think as you do and support the agreed approach meaning decisive action can be taken quickly.  But, in my experience, having worked with multiple and varied boards of directors in times of crisis, the quick, small group decisions made by like minded individuals are not always the most effective decisions. This is especially apparent when it comes to re-imagining how to come back better and setting the strategy for the future in a restructure or turnaround of a business for the longer term.

I am fortunate to be working with a number of boards and decision makers as they review the impact of their immediate crisis response to Covid19, as they plan for recovery and more importantly begin to  think strategically and creatively to design and adapt their businesses to emerge stronger for the future.  Every business is different, but all will currently be thinking about the future impact of their approach now on: their people, clients/customers, product offering, infrastructure (technology, buildings and geography), governance structures, risk analysis, organisational structure, brand, value and ethos.  In addressing such issues boards have to understand how culture needs to adapt and/or be strengthened.

Creating the space and opportunity now to bring together inclusive teams and truly diverse thinking will ensure that the radical questions, which drive real change and that challenge the accepted assumptions on which current cultures are formed, are asked and properly debated. 

It seems to me that we have a unique opportunity to explore every aspect of how our businesses work, how they could work better and how powerful change could be made rather than simply falling back to the way things have always been done, driven by the way a set of people think.  Within our own workforce or stakeholder groups we all have a wealth of talent, experience and diversity of thought and now is the time to harness it, seek ideas, challenge the status quo and embrace creativity and innovation to think big and brave.  This will require the break down of hierarchical barriers and traditional structure and an open and transparent sharing of information with diverse work groups.

I am aware of one plc board that has sought to do precisely this by creating a separate group of people focussed entirely on the forward looking agenda, leaving the operational day to day crisis management to another group – perhaps food for thought.

In my experience of sitting on boards, either as a director or advisor, there is great energy, drive and feeling of ownership where there is rich diversity of thought and inclusion and we all need that in the current climate.  Let's tap what we already have in our own organisations by ensuring we pull together diverse teams, regardless of seniority, and that we champion inclusion as we make the critical strategic decisions that will enable us to emerge stronger from the pandemic crisis. Inclusive behaviours will engender loyalty and ownership, both vital to delivering change management.

If the statistics on the impact of diversity on decision making are right why wouldn't we ensure that diversity is a part of our decision processes?  Let's seize the opportunity to test the theories and statements on diversity; we have nothing to lose and everything to gain! And the result could be a seismic shift for the better as we move away from "doing" diversity, but rather embrace diversity and inclusion as a natural part of all we do.


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