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Mythbusting diversity and inclusion in project management

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Numerous myths exist around diversity and inclusion. Some emanate from limited knowledge and insight, others from lack of access to research data; then there’s our natural, human, reluctance to change; and finally fears that inclusion destabilises our (often privileged) position and genuinely puts our role, progression or projects at risk.

As project professionals who envision, design and deliver projects, it is essential to develop our competence on this topic so we can embed best diversity and inclusion practices into our projects. Additionally, it’s only through being fully conversant with diversity and inclusion myths and the reality that counters them, that our teams, organisations and projects can be considered truly successful, and the stakeholders or communities we serve, can fully benefit with our project outcomes.

Alongside these myths are excuses routinely used to accept the unaltered status quo. They crop up time and time again, and can be paralysing. A range of myths are briefly explored here to debunk them and contribute to the shift in mindset conducive to delivering diversity and inclusion change.

Myth one - Because we are diverse, we are also inclusive

Too often the concepts of diversity and inclusion are conflated. This is wrong as well as risky as it stalls proactive action required to reap the benefits we gain from both. Diversity is about who and the range of differences (visible or invisible) on the team, within the organisation or our stakeholders. Inclusion is how this diversity is valued and addressed within the team or organisation culture, process and behaviour, to foster full participation with a genuine sense of belonging and respect.

Diversity on its own cannot provide associated benefits if the differences are not leveraged. Inclusion is crucial for the innovation, productivity, social sustainability, and other dividends reliant on psychological safety and an authentic mindset and resultant culture. Without inclusion, diversity efforts flounder and fail. Research revealed diverse teams only thrive (and considerably so) where culturally informed inclusive behaviours, practices and processes exist.

Myth two - Becoming diverse requires us to lower our recruitment standards – we only hire the best.

If you believe this, it’s likely that your recruitment criteria may be narrow, excluding a wide range of talent and thus routinely delivering an identikit outcome. Is it possible your criteria seek polished diamonds from a preconceived mould that (consciously or unconsciously) penalises accent, social background, ethnicity, gender or other criteria when seeking a good fit, aka the best?

Diversity is about broadening the talent pool not lowering standards. Both practice and research has proven that blind shortlisting (as at HS2) and auditioning (when hiring musicians) routinely produces more diverse talent outcomes. The introduction of apprentices has broadened entry into the profession and expanded the talent pool we can draw on. Inclusion requires being receptive to multiple entry routes and removing barriers experienced by some. Several accidental project managers have discovered their calling and gone on to excel in our profession. The technical competences for project delivery can be developed, the people skills equally important have not always been so prominent in recruitment.

Myth three – We value ‘diversity of thought’, that’s sufficient.

Diversity of thought does deliver benefits, however the benefits that foster innovation, better decisions and overall improved outcomes is enhanced by extent of diverse characteristics present. Research undertaken of real business decisions demonstrated that teams within which age, gender and geography diversity exists make good decisions 87% per cent of the time, compared to average teams where good decisions occurred 66% of the time. All male teams fared worst achieving good decisions only 58% of the time.

Closer to home, APM’s Dynamic conditions for project success research, also identifies diversity as an important factor; with diversity of discipline and skill likely to be as important as ethnic and gender diversity. While further research is needed, it’s important we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Diversity and inclusion is about redressing historic underrepresentation within our profession and its leadership to better reflect the communities we serve. Projects and programmes are increasingly delivering wider societal transformations and benefits. Disregarding communities and the social purpose with a narrow focus on ‘diversity of thought’ is counterintuitive. For projects to succeed, diversity and inclusion must be part of the agenda.

Myth four - We deliver successful projects already (so our business is successful)

This perspective assumes that diversity is a ‘nice to have’ not an essential element of project success as highlighted in APM’s Dynamic conditions research. Besides, the future, a more VUCA context and altering demography, cannot be ignored. Research has also demonstrated that millennials have a different attitude to diversity. Attracting and retaining talent in future as a ‘great place to work’ will require more inclusive practices, that simultaneously benefit innovation, decision-making and project success.

Myth five - Diversity and inclusion is the responsibility of the HR department

Diversity and inclusion aren’t solely a human resource issue. It is a leadership and strategy issue with teams and individuals responsible for its delivery. Our devolved responsibility includes our behaviour, decisions and project practices. It extends beyond our team members to our wider organisations, suppliers and clients or stakeholders. This surpasses the narrower HR function.

Countless more myths abound on diversity and inclusion alongside excuses for non-delivery or its absence in projects or project leadership. Some are more detrimental in impact than others. As project professionals developing our competence in this area, we should lean towards evidence-based perspectives over gut feelings or assumptions.

This blog is the second in a series exploring inclusion holistically in the project planning and delivery context, adopting the whole project life perspective. We are keen to continue the conversation. To share your thoughts, challenges or successes in this area or to join a focus group contact the APM People SIG or connect with us on the APM Community.

Explore more diversity and inclusion in project management here.


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