Diversity: why leaders must ‘shake the box’ to build a new world

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Like the boy who shouted that the emperor had no clothes, COVID-19 has made it obvious to all that we could have adopted the new normal a long time ago. With it, we could solve climate challenges, raise productivity and improve health and living standards. The prize is huge.

We must think and act differently because the solutions are not the ones we had previously thought. For this, we will need contributions from many diverse people.

Full disclosure – I am biased, because I want women to succeed. My mother (95) was the first Ghanaian woman PhD. I grew up on stories of jealous men who, finding it hard enough to climb the greasy pole against other men, now found they had to compete with this brilliant woman (watch her keynote here).

Born in Africa, I have been black most of my life. I first discovered I was black when I became the first African in over 100 years to attend my British public school. Before that I was just Eddie. I’m biased because I know how a real minority feels. And I want everyone to feel the excitement and joy of being a one-of-a-kind pioneer.

Projects succeed when you use all the talent available

I’m sure you have a group of friends you’ve known forever. When someone says they’re bringing their new partner to your next meet-up, you dread it. You are not against the new person, you just want to preserve what you have. This is the curse of the dreaded J-curve.

The J-curve can happen when you add a new resource and the original ‘superteam’ members ignore their input. Productivity falls. Then another new resource is added, but now one of the superteam has to stop work to show the newbies “how things are done around here”. Productivity falls further. They are included but contributing nothing different. Productivity and creativity keep falling as you introduce more diversity and new thinking.

If you’re lucky, it reaches a turning point – the bottom of the ‘J’ – where the original superteam decide to learn a new way to work altogether, including the diverse newbies. Productivity skyrockets! If the old rituals stay, the team just steadily fails. Smart project leaders ‘shake the box’ with a new kick-off and new ground rules. COVID-19 is a chance to shake the box.

It doesn’t make sense not to seize the advantage of new thinking or behaviour

But here’s why we don’t. As a young scientist, my project needed input from one very senior staff member with a reputation for being aggressive. Anything positive that didn’t fit that view of him, I dismissed. Then I was summoned to his office and discovered he was incisive and helpful! To grab my attention, my colleagues morphed his incisiveness into aggression. After that, my fear and bias kept me in a mental prison. Such propaganda is now called fake news.

Mental prisoners discriminate against ‘new’ or ‘different’ and keep you at the bottom of the J-curve. Fear, ignorance and fake news underpin every ‘ism’. Sexism rests on belief systems and inheritance protocols; racism rests on fake news that echoes from the days of the British Empire.

The new ‘next normal’ is your chance to deliver projects using all the talent available. Here’s how:

  1. Learn first-hand. In the old world, we relied on second-hand learning. Most of your assumptions and attitudes were borrowed. In the COVID-19 world, no one knows how things work. You might as well find out for yourself. Be a pioneer.
  2. Go where the fear is. Fear is the best indicator of areas of uncertainty, chaos and opportunity. In the long run, it is safer to take the opportunity than to remain obsolete in your comfort zone.
  3. Get them out of jail. Connect with those who have an ‘ism’ in a non-threatening way. They are fearful and ignorant. Be kind. Being an ‘-ist’ makes them far more miserable than you imagine. The sexist men who thought that they should be better than my mother suffered because they weren’t.
  4. Keep recreating ground rules. How will we work together? Keep shaking the box, don’t settle on a culture yet and include the people involved in recreating their way of working. Be ready to treat everyone differently in order to be completely fair to everyone.

Your best role model is you. Choose characteristics that help in uncertainty, like courage, kindness and trustworthiness. Project leaders are the ones who really shape the world. Other people just talk about it. You will decide what the emperor wears next.

Learn more about redefining diversity in projects at our virtual event, Think Differently 2020

Flamingo Images/Shutterstock.com

Edward Obeng

Posted by Edward Obeng on 23rd Sep 2020

About the Author

Professor Eddie Obeng is an educator, TED speaker and author of nine books, including Perfect Projects, published by Pentacle Works, and All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, published by the Financial Times.
Reach Eddie on Twitter @EddieObeng or read his blog: imagineafish.com

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