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Slow and Steady Wins the Race. Or Does It? A Lack of Urgency for DE&I


The Speed of Change

What is the best approach to change? Is it to move quickly and jump into action or should we pause and carefully craft a plan? Long-term planning is important and we should think through efficient and effective ways to take action. But in adopting a slower and more incremental approach, we forget about something important – momentum.

Two Crises

A recent episode of HBR’s After Hours podcast discussed the contrasting responses to the two parallel crises that we have experienced over the past year – the pandemic and the national reckoning around racial injustice. 

In response to the pandemic, a significant number of organizations took the opportunity to make radical changes to how they operate. These companies vowed not to “waste a crisis”, and as a result, we have seen rapid and sweeping changes made to the way business is done. The crisis around racial injustice, on the other hand, has been met with much more of an incremental approach. We lack the “same critical mass of companies deciding they’re not going to waste this crisis.”

Urgency Vs. Caution

So why do we pick and choose which crisis to respond to with urgency and which to respond to with caution? The reason we’ve seen companies adjust and even thrive in response to the pandemic is due to the shared understanding that to survive, we must innovate and change. We can’t ignore the fact that the urgency and speed of change played an important role in the success and resilience we’ve seen. 

The need for change and innovation is the same when it comes to addressing racial injustices and systemic barriers that hinder diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within our companies. We know that an increasing number of job seekers, especially younger generations, care about working for companies that are diverse and inclusive. From both the business standpoint and talent standpoint, companies cannot compete without diverse perspectives and cultures of inclusion and belonging. Yet we have not seen the same level of urgency when it comes to addressing these issues. 

Instead, companies have made statements, drafted vague plans, but hit the breaks when it comes to taking action. As a whole, the response has been acknowledgment coupled with the introduction of future, incremental action. Doing just enough to appear inclusive has become the new baseline, but it’s not enough. The companies that have made great strides in addressing DE&I are those with a sense of urgency that have allowed their momentum to drive them to take action.

Incremental Change, Incremental Results

The problem is, incremental change produces incremental results. Keeping an eye on the future is important, but momentum is what gets us up the hill and keeps us going. It reminds us of our need to continually change, adjust, and improve. 

Many organizations have wrapped their DE&I initiatives into nice two, three, or five-year plans. In doing so, action becomes less likely and accountability wanes. Companies get the credit for voicing their intent to address injustice and work on inclusion independent of whether or not they end up doing so. But why should credit be given for failing to accomplish the assignment?

Imagine if the same were true for the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, a five-year plan or pledge to make strides toward social distancing, health and safety precautions, and remote working would sound silly. It would be too late. These companies would simply not be able to compete. In the same way, incremental and phased approaches to DE&I miss the mark. 

Taking action on inclusion can’t wait – there are humans at stake.