Lead to Regenerate

How to apply principles of regeneration for self and organizational development

Diversity at workplace

This article was first published on in my fortnightly column titled ‘Jargon Jungle”
Diversity should be seen less as a burden and more as a business requirement and leadership challenge

“In our company, women don’t really have a problem when it comes to pay hikes and promotions.” Aparna and her friend were discussing discrimination against women at the workplace. They were attending a training program and were chatting during lunch break.

“I think we are at par with our male colleagues in these matters. One reads about a lot of issues like sexual harassment and other serious crimes against women. Fortunately, we haven’t faced them here. There are just about 4 per cent women in our company but, being an engineering firm, I guess it is normal. My real problem is that I don’t find anyone to chat with. I do speak in male majority groups at times, but there are issues which I wish to discuss with women colleagues that I can’t talk about here. It is a matter of choice, I guess. It can be hard for someone like me,” Aparna added.

It is human nature to bond together in ways that feel comforting or that give an advantage. By that logic, it is natural to feel suspicious or antagonistic towards those who don’t belong to one’s group.

Which is why there are diversity and inclusion policies and laws — to avoid discrimination and protect those in a minority.

The differences

Tensions, conflicts and discrimination are more likely to occur when people from different backgrounds work together. They can happen even among a relatively homogeneous workforce — haven’t you seen vociferous arguments between developers and marketers, or between production and quality assurance departments?

People who have different mother tongues speak differently, even if they are conversing in a common language like English or Hindi. People with different life experiences may find it difficult to relate to each other. Put a war veteran and a freshly minted MBA in a team, and you may have friction about such things as how to stand or speak. Not just that, a war veteran is more likely to be alive to risks in business situations than the young graduate is.

One can think about diversity along many dimensions, such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, language, age, or nationality. One can go beyond such dimensions and think in terms of knowledge and skill-sets, life experiences, professions or occupations, locations, economic status and beliefs.

Organisations must meet legal and regulatory criteria on diversity. And instead of treating it as a compliance burden, they need to look at the business case for diversity.

Permanent brainstorming

The business case for employing people from diverse backgrounds is simple — people from different backgrounds think differently; they observe differently. Ideally, a diverse workplace is expected be in a permanent brainstorming mode.

In such an environment, people’s biases become evident. While diversity in group can mean taking longer to close a discussion, you can be assured of making better quality decisions. Diversity improves the ability of an organisation to sense changes in environment and respond accordingly. It can also help the company lead a change.

A little bit of this and that

If you are developing a new product, don’t restrict the team composition to only developers and marketers. Try to include a field support person as well. Try including someone who potentially thinks like your to-be customers and vendors.

And being in a global business means diversity in teams isn’t a matter of choice.

If you wish to promote ‘out of the box thinking’ or innovation, diversity in your teams will be a definite plus. However, despite the obvious advantages that build a good business case, diversity at workplaces hasn’t improved much.

Little progress

US companies spend millions of dollars annually on their diversity and inclusion programmes, and yet, Silicon Valley has an overwhelmingly white, male workforce. Corporate India too has initiatives that promote diversity, but most companies have a fairly homogeneous staff.

So why is it that companies lag in developing a workforce that has a good mix of people from different backgrounds? Well, compulsion seems to be one of the main reasons.

Studies show that diversity programmes born out of compulsion are usually run to save the company from litigation or legal hassles. In such cases, the minority or disadvantaged groups don’t necessarily feel encouraged or valued, while the majority feels discriminated against.

Challenges of diversity

But while diversity has its share of positives, in terms of out of the box thinking and new perspectives, it is, in no way, a silver bullet. It poses its share of challenges.

1) It needs both empathy and understanding towards people from different backgrounds. Those in decision-making positions must have this trait.

2) More effort needs to be put into communications, and to reach a common, shared view.

3) People must also moderate their behavior and language in a diverse group — this can be quite taxing.

4) Leaders, especially, have to make a special effort to enlist diverse views, record them, sort, evaluate, and synthesise them into shared view and action plan. They need to show better transparency so everyone feels that they have been heard.

Diversity should be seen as a business requirement and a leadership challenge.

JargonJungle: Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside box is not an airy-fairy affair that means just looking at the blue sky.

This article was first published on in my fortnightly columns titled ‘Jargon Jungle”

“Think innovatively outside the box,” he exhorted his colleagues. Clearly, Chetan was in a hurry. The team leader ran a brainstorming session to come up with ideas for a new app, that would help his company engage better with its customers.

But while he casually threw around the words, in his hurry, he overlooked the fact that innovating isn’t very different from thinking outside the box. Perhaps he wanted to place a ‘double’ emphasis.

Whatever his reason, the world seems to be placing increasingly greater emphasis on ‘thinking outside the box’ or innovation. This kind of thinking also enables one to use cutting-edge technologies innovatively in solutions such as remote patient care or student-centred learning.

Know your ‘boxes’

The most popular method of ‘thinking outside the box’ is by running a brainstorming session. But what really happens in a typical session? Consider Chetan’s group as one ‘box’ and their conference room as another box.

People in a group put a limit on what can be said or thought. To understand this, simply observe what happens if one of the team members walks in late or someone from another group is called in. You will notice a shift in the conversation. This change is more evident when a boss walks in or leaves the room.

There are other invisible ‘boxes’ that restrict our thought process — an individual, a team, a department, company, markets, social and cultural practices, and ignorance of technology, among others. However, we aren’t all that conscious of such boxes.

A conference room, through its familiar walls, posters, pictures and even window blinds, cues us to a familiar thinking pattern, due to its sameness and familiarity. You notice this only when you get out of it.

Without being aware of various ‘boxes’, it is impossible to think outside them.

A big enough box

While ‘thinking outside the box’ needs a box that is big enough, one must ensure that it isn’t too big. Let me illustrate this.

Too big a box for Chetan’s group would be thinking in the context of a totally different business model or a totally different technology platform. If ideas are not feasible, the brainstorming sessions are bound to be useless. It is important to find out more about the ‘big box’ before you start jumping outside the smaller ones. You can start by asking questions like:

~ How would I define the aim or the problem more clearly? (How is customer engagement measured?)

~ How much time do you have to show results? (When is the app needed?)

~ How much of a budget do you have?

Perhaps you can start the session with a discussion on the Big Box definition. The above questions will lead to more questions, which will in turn help in productive thinking.

Demolishing small boxes

Having defined the Big Box, you have start demolishing the smaller boxes. Here’s how you can do that.

Set a different perspective; ask people to play a customer and watch what happens; use a tool like Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, which helps people leave their personal boxes aside and think without inhibition.

Another powerful tool is to devote some time to only asking questions. Avoid spending time in answering them initially.

Here are some questions that can be asked in Chetan’s group: ‘Why would customers want to be engaged with us?’, ‘What will they get through engagement?’, ‘What will we get through it all?’, ‘What is meant by engagement?’ and so on.

No walk in the park

They say innovation or creativity is fun. This may be true for some who genuinely enjoy it. Or it could be also because of the way it is portrayed — companies like Alphabet or Apple make it appear fun. It is certainly cool to be a designer or an engineer who creates something new that gets talked about.

But while the outcome of thinking outside box is exciting and fun, the creative process itself isn’t a walk in the park. It is like sweating and gasping through a hard climb to find the exhilarating breeze at the peak. Not everyone enjoys the climb; some may find it too daunting.

Thinking outside box is not an airy-fairy affair that means just looking at the blue sky. You have to set up conditions, painstakingly navigate many questions, and rigorously harvest discussions.

Thinking outside the box needs a big box, some rough rules of moving about, and someone who leads the project with clear goals, flexibility of tools, and the tenacity of a trekker — someone who considers pattern-busting thoughts a reward in itself.

 -Hemant Karandikar


(This article written by me was first published in my column ‘Jargon Jungle’ here )
It’s more than giving decision making powers to people

In today’s corporate world, we doubt there is anyone who hasn’t heard of ‘empowerment’. Don’t believe us? Try finding a company’s website which completely misses this word in its ‘employees’ or ‘people’ or ‘team’ pages. You won’t.

One major global conglomerate’s website threw up 164 results, when ‘empowerment’ was searched. Another famous company threw up over 100 results.

If you ask managers, “Why do you have to empower people?”, you’ll get a range of answers:

~ It helps in better performance

~ Employees will be better engaged

~ To retain talent

~ Better service

~ Faster response

Are you empowered?

And if you ask employees, ‘Are you empowered?’, many might say ‘yes’. Some may say, ‘no’. If you don’t want to directly ask the question, you can take a different track. Ask your colleagues or friends in other companies:

~ Do you feel in control of your work?

~ Can you make decisions to reach your key result areas and execute them?

~ How often do you feel helpless?

~ Do your decisions often get overturned by your boss or someone in other departments?

~ Do you feel confident enough to make your decisions?

~ Do you have necessary information, knowledge and ability to make your own work related decisions?

~ Do you feel uneasy when you face customers or people from other department when there is a problem to be solved?

Answers to the above questions will give a better picture of ‘empowerment’ in your organisation.

Why empowerment may not help

You might think that bosses are responsible for not empowering their people, and that maybe true as well. But before you make that your opinion, read out what this CEO said about a similar ‘empowering’ situation.

“Our company supplies complex automation equipment for use in factories. When I joined as a CEO, I found that our customer service was not up to the mark. Customers complained repeatedly, often escalating problems to me. One of the reasons for our delayed and unpredictable complaint resolution was that our service engineers had to get permission from their service manager for replacing parts and obtaining them from our stores.

“After consultations, we decided to authorise the service engineers to replace parts costing below a particular value (without approval) and even buy them from local markets, in case they were available off the shelf. We expected this step to address over 90 per cent of delayed cases. But a couple of weeks later, we were surprised to find service engineers still waiting for approval by the service manager. Apparently the problem was something else too.”

Now, there could be many reasons the service engineers did not use their powers.

~ Credibility: Maybe they weren’t sure about management’s intentions.

~ Relationship with manager: Or maybe they weren’t sure about how their immediate superior would feel (service manager’s insecurity).

~ Competence: They weren’t sure about their own diagnosis, about which component needed replacement.

~ Interdepartmental issues: They felt they needed to consult engineering department also(design issues).

~ Customer relations: The engineers feared that if their customers came to know about the new policy, they would demand an on-the-spot resolution of an issue, even for more costly parts.

Organisation structure and goals matter

To understand this point, let us look at two extreme organisations — military and a voluntary group.

In military, powers are clearly defined at various levels and everyone follows a code. In that sense, everybody is empowered (at least there is complete clarity). There is a clarity on how things are to be done (processes).

In a voluntary group, everybody is empowered by their own will, but there is no clarity on what (or who) supersedes what (whom). When given a specific goal, the military is more likely to be effective. The voluntary group may need to go through some iteration to achieve its goal.

The organisation structure (command and control) and processes both need to be taken into account or changed for empowerment to work and give expected benefits.

If the above issues, aren’t well thought out, if the work processes aren’t changed properly, if people aren’t trained adequately, the old jargon ‘delegation’, just gets replaced by the new jargon ‘empowerment’.

The number of times the word appears on your company’s web site is immaterial. Empowering people is much more than giving powers to people.

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