Written by Contributing Writer, Allison Jones
Thankfully, the conversations we’re having around inclusion and diversity have changed over recent years. Most leaders now understand that having a diverse workforce at all levels is not just good optics; it’s good business. But even if we understand WHY diversity and inclusion are so crucial for high performance and resilience in a fast-changing world, embedding the HOW of inclusivity in our day-to-day decision-making and work life remains problematic.
It’s not just a hiring issue. As workplaces become more diverse, everyday decision-making and the routines of work life need to keep pace, and that means we need to think more consciously about who is being excluded or disadvantaged in our routine practices. After all, diversity without inclusion is an own organizational goal, as well as being profoundly uncomfortable and unsatisfactory for those being excluded.
The answers aren’t always complex or hi-tech. Sometimes it’s as simple as creating time and space for each person to do their best work in their own way.
Take meetings, for example, and particularly those meetings where a team comes together to ‘brainstorm’ (itself a problematic word) solutions to a problem. All too often, these discussions end up involving only a small proportion of the people in the room and/or on Zoom. Those people tend to be:
- relatively high status
- native language speakers
- male (studies show men tend to speak more readily and be interrupted less frequently than women).
Where there is early and confident input from such people, the risk is that the rest of the group falls in line behind them. This isn’t just about making everyone feel included for the sake of it: groupthink generates suboptimal outcomes.
So if we want better outcomes and more inclusivity, what do we do?
One simple but very effective tool that can be used in any meeting to increase inclusivity and also improve outcomes is exploratory writing.
Rather than simply throwing the question to the group and waiting for people to speak up, consider starting your next idea-storming meeting with five minutes or so during which each person writes their thoughts in response to the question or challenge facing the group in whatever way works best for them.
Keep in mind that it’s vital everyone knows their writing will not be shared with the group and that the page in front of them is a safe space in which they can develop their thinking without judgement. When we invite people to write their ideas on sticky notes and bring them up to the front, we may avoid group-think. Still, we substitute a different kind of exclusion: instead of privileging the confident speakers, we load the dice in favour of confident writers. Exploratory writing frees everyone up to focus on the content rather than the style of their contribution. Non-native speakers can write freely in their own language; highly visual thinkers can draw the issue out rather than writing; introverts and reflectors have time and space to organise their thoughts quietly before they’re called upon to share them; people joining remotely find themselves, for a few minutes at least, on a level field with those in the room; those with dyslexia or dysgraphia can forget about being judged for their spelling or word formation and simply concentrate on their ideas.
And everyone has the chance to develop they’re thinking a little more, to go beyond an instinctive response to explore the assumptions behind that and other possibilities, unswayed by a persuasive or high-status opinion, which means you’re more likely to generate more and better ideas.
You might feel that you’ll be able to ensure all these advantages if you circulate the agenda at least 24 hours in advance, but realistically a good proportion of people won’t have a chance to look at it. And even if they do, they’ll most likely be thinking about the issue in an unfocused sort of way. Giving everyone those few minutes for focused attention at the start of the meeting is a quiet but effective way to bring the issue front of mind without distraction. (You may, however, want to ensure that anyone using assistive technology such as dictation software has early access to the agenda and/or any prompt so that they can dictate privately in advance if they prefer.)
Jeff Bezos famously did something similar at Amazon when he banned PowerPoint and instead required that every meeting begins with half an hour or so, during which participants silently read to themselves the contents of a six-page ‘narratively structured’ memo setting out the issue under consideration, taking notes and preparing their thoughts. Jack Dorsey took a similar approach at Twitter, beginning meetings with 10 minutes of silence while everyone read and added their comments to a Google document. He claimed it helped a team ‘get to truth/critical thinking faster’.
Both these approaches rely on someone preparing the long-form memo or document to which others will respond, and that may only be feasible for significant projects or problems. But that same principle of quiet reflection and individual ideation ahead of the discussion itself can be used in any meeting on any topic with a more lightweight prompt or suggestion from the organiser.
Exploratory writing – raw, messy writing that’s intended just for yourself as a thinking tool rather than as a means of communicating with others – isn’t just a tool for more inclusive meetings: it’s a great technique for a whole range of applications such as creativity, problem-solving, empathy, wellbeing and managing to overwhelm.
In our always-on, screen-based, distracted workplaces, the blank page can be a simple but powerful space for whatever we need at the moment. We think differently and more creatively when we’re writing with pen on paper than when we’re typing on a screen, and we can focus more effectively when we’re not distracted by notifications and incoming messages.
Try it for yourself, and then try it with your people. You might just be surprised at the quality of ideas that emerge, and the range of voices that put them forward.
About the Author
Alison Jones is the founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast. Formerly Director of Innovation Strategy at Palgrave Macmillan, she now works with business leaders and entrepreneurs to help them clarify their thinking and communicate more effectively.