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The “Embracing Inclusion – Driving Innovation (with Design Thinking)” event at SAPPHIRE NOW/SAP TechEd Madrid has been a mind-changing experience, and I discussed some of my thoughts and experiences in my blog Mind-changing and actionable: Embracing Inclusion - Driving Innovation Event at SAPPHIRE NOW/SAP Tec....

As you can tell from the great comments and follow-up questions in the blog’s comment section, I’m not the only one who has been inspired to think more about this topic area. (Of course a group of topics as complex as Women in Technology, Inclusion, and Design Thinking provides nearly endless food for thought, but then so does any decent riddle book. The point is that many people are, like me, understanding that these topics are highly relevant and carry the potential to bear huge rewards.)

Will being more inclusive drive innovation?

So – question: Will being more inclusive drive innovation? Brief answer: Yes. Longer answer: It depends on whom we include more. If we include more of the destructive, counterproductive, hateful, incompetent, etc., we'll be shooting ourselves in the foot. So whom to include? What are the criteria? Whom to include first? Do the criteria fall from the sky?

1. "Society at large" answer                                               

Instead of "start including," we can also say "stop excluding." If you agree that there is currently a bias in place that leads to the exclusion of certain groups, then removing (or weakening) that bias would be a start. It seems to me that an exclusive society, which sends the message to many of its most talented members that their contribution is not welcome, robs itself of much of the talent pool.

Currently, we're making some of the best people invisible (by treating them accordingly in kindergarten and school) just because they have the wrong gender, ethnicity, or whatever property. If we stop doing that, the result will be more talented, competent, and self-confident people to fill the universities and workplace, and ultimately a larger and better talent pool for our projects and companies.

2. "Include for the task" answer

Another way to answer the question is to look at the moment when you're actually staffing a project, and include the ones for whom you're trying to create value. (This sounds obvious but because of the aforementioned biases we tend to unconsciously some of the relevant groups.) This is a more pragmatic and task-focused way to look at it, and easier to accomplish as a short-term goal.

If you're building something, think long about who will be affected by the design. If you're planning a building, think about the different kinds of people who will use it: those who live in it, visitors, perhaps delivery people. Invite young professionals, the elderly, young women with strollers, children, people with cats, and so on, into the design process. Try to get good input from as many different types of stakeholder as possible. It's obvious that gathering requirements from the people whom it actually concerns will improve the quality and drive innovation.

If you make software, find the actual users and ask them what they need and what stands in their way. Look at the demographic composition of your users and try not to exclude anyone. If you are building for the young and the old, don't just ask the young. If you are building for men and women, don't just ask the men. Asking people that aren't normally in the loop because they belong to a group that tends to be excluded because of negative discrimination will cause you to learn new requirements, thus improving your product.

Dramatic innovations thanks to a fresh look at requirements

I'd like to make the point that we're not just talking about slight improvements that cater to small subsections of your clientele: Becoming aware of requirements that were previously overlooked can lead to dramatic, disruptive innovations, and create new market leaders or even new markets. Even a quick Google search reveals a number of success stories (Kaiser hospitals, Bank of America Keep the Change accounts, Coasting bicycles) where a fresh look at requirements has led to immense business success. Opening up the design teams and including groups that were previously excluded or massively underrepresented could like to just the fresh outlook we need for dramatic innovations in products, services, or processes.

Unanswered questions

When following the “include for the task” approach strictly, one might argue provocatively: Why hire inclusively and invest any effort into composing a workforce that tries to represent end users when these might vary from project to project? Wouldn’t it be better to have a very homogeneous workforce (say, all thirty-something single white male protestant engineering-background people named “Chuck”), benefit from its cohesive power (they understand each other blindly), and pull in other groups as required on a per-project basis? Should the desire to have an inclusive design process automatically lead to an inclusive approach to composing your workforce?

I can, at this point, recur to the “Society at large” answer and say: It’s not even about inclusion, it’s about stopping the exclusion of some of the best people. However, this question will provide more food for thought for me.  

Conclusion, Inclusion is no Delusion

Suppose your company has a recruiting program that works great, but you find out that it excludes everyone who was born on a Friday. Will removing this constraint increase the average quality of candidates? Yes, because

1. the good ones that were born on a Friday join the talent pool, allowing you to skim the top talent off a 17% larger group, and

2. you will be a better company to work for, attracting even more than the average number of good people.

Suppose, further, that your company makes beds. One day, a person who is seven feet tall and a rather burly person join the design team. Do you think that this is the day when chances for product innovations increase? I do.