On my Mind
I think labels can have an almost magical power sometimes. We can reduce something complex to a buzzword and maybe a logo. Repeat it often enough, removing the need for thought, reflection and criticism. It creates a temporary and convenient “truth” around which to rally people. Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew) used it to great effect with the “torches of freedom” campaign promoting smoking to women in 1929. When it came to propaganda, Bernays – literally – wrote the book.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”Edward Bernays
The techniques he described remain powerful as a way to steamroller discussion on essential subjects, replace them with policy and training protocols, and create whole industries from health and safety through leadership and on to diversity.
The challenge is that the insights, understanding and innovation that might otherwise be triggered by dialogue remain hidden and replaced by dogma and orthodoxy. When things are relatively stable, there are perhaps arguments to be made in favour of this in pursuit of ‘greater good,’ but when things are volatile, and uncertainty rules, they promote dangerous complacency.
The industrialised label that is on my mind at the moment is diversity, equity and inclusion. Doing a quick search shows a huge range of services offered, including from all the major consultancies, so I think it qualifies as an industry.
It strikes me as an area of fundamental importance that is in danger of being sanitised by lazy labelling that encourages us to outsource it to a consultancy, department or initiative rather than actively engage with it in person. It is not just a question of equity but also of the creativity triggered when differing views and perspectives are brought into generative discussion in support of community.
Labels may be convenient, but they constrain through their blanket descriptions. An area of sensitivity for me personally concerning diversity and inclusion is that I am ‘old” “white” and “male” – all of which are true, none of which I can do much about. They have very little to do with my attitudes to diversity and inclusion, shaped over decades of practice in areas where I have been a minority. Despite that, the processes we adopt have me walking into any discussion with people I do not yet know with an influential label on my forehead, as if it’s some party game.
Let’s unpack this for a moment. What is “DEI”?
Diversity – mid-14c., diversite, “variety, diverseness;” late 14c., “quality of being diverse, fact of difference between two or more things or kinds; variety; separateness; that in which two or more things differ,”
Equity – early 14c., equite, “quality of being equal or fair, impartiality;” late 14c., “that which is equally right or just to all concerned,”
Inclusion – c. 1600, “act of making a part of,” from Latin inclusionem (nominative inclusio) “a shutting up, confinement,”
These admirable qualities need a container to hold them, where all these words can be translated into lived action. Two that spring immediately to mind for me are:
Community – from communis “common, public, general, shared by all or many”
Democracy – “government by the people, system of government in which the sovereign power is vested in the people as a whole exercising power directly or by elected officials; a state so governed,”
In other words, EDI is an essential component of the “glue” that holds us together around shared values and purpose. Critical in times of uncertainty.
DEI is a function of community, but despite the hype, very few organisations are genuine communities. They are increasingly more like expensive hotels for those with career paths to follow. Communities are found closer to home.
How do those in “Governance” talk about it?
A quick scan of “best practice” DEI statements suggest perhaps a different stance by those who create the labels:
The signatories to this charter believe that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is essential to reflect the society we serve today. It makes business sense because it helps us to attract and retain the best talent, it enables us to understand and meet clients’ needs more effectively, and so provide a better quality service. Law Society.
Promoting and supporting diversity in the workplace is an important aspect of good people management – it’s about valuing everyone in the organisation as an individual. However, to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce it’s vital to have an inclusive environment where everyone feels able to participate and achieve their potential. CIPD
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (the Authority) is required, under the Public Sector Equality Duty (Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010), to publish information in order to demonstrate compliance with the Act. Yorkshire Dales National Parks Authority.
These statements are positive, and we’re undoubtedly better with them than without them. However, what strikes me is the language – primarily third party, more about “them” than “we”, and more about policy than philosophy. In the language of Citizens, they are about subjects who consume more than citizens who participate, and more about control than community.
I think it’s important. My seven decades on the planet have seen enormous changes in the privileged country I was born into. It now has fifty percent more people, from more diverse origins, and is altogether more vibrant and more creative at the same time as it is more unequal, less democratic and run more as a business proposition for a few rather than as linked communities with shared values. A concentration of power at the centre has successfully alienated Scotland, the country I grew up in, Wales and Northern Ireland, and much of England outside the Home Counties. Unfortunately, it looks as though much of the current direction of travel, looking to normalise breaking international laws and treaties we signed up to, will continue this alienation. The “glue” is distinctly poor quality. I suspect the task of whoever is managing the Conservative Party Brand, as with that of an ethics adviser to its leader, is for heroes. I’ll be interested to see who steps up, but won’t hold my breath.
So what might we do?
Policy statements do not solve problems – all too often, they submerge them beneath a raft of rhetoric in the hope that the issues will avoid too much scrutiny. So perhaps one of the first things to do is ask some questions about our approach and our felt experience of the reality.
- Are carefully designed diverse groups more effective than more uniform groups that recognise their lack of diversity and factor that into their thinking?
- How prepared are we to tolerate the inevitable “storm” period as we form diverse teams and the hard work of norming in business cultures dominated with a requirement for near term “performance”?
- What is our sense of inclusion in the institutions, work and otherwise, that shape our day-to-day lives? How fair does that feel?
- Who do we trust to improve our sense of inclusion and equity?
For all the DEI initiatives, the reality seems to be that global unhappiness is increasing (and when it gets into The Economist we know it’s more than sensationalism). Key factors include poverty, broken communities, hunger, loneliness and the scarcity of good work. If that’s not a DEI agenda, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps we need to “insource” DEI to reflect not some sanitised statement to sit alongside other anodyne “values statements” on an office wall that becomes invisible, but rather something more local, closer, and felt in those groups of which we are part. To notice how diverse the people, ideas, and experiences we surround ourselves with, how we include them in our thinking no matter how uncomfortable that may be, and what we do to make our small communities healthier.
I hate that those we are encouraged to rely on are not showing up, busier with self-promotion propaganda than they are with real purpose, but that seems to be how it is.
DEI is critical to the health of our communities. It is a set of human qualities, and if we want to succeed, I think we have to make it personal practice, no matter how small and incremental, rather than rely on those whose focus is elsewhere.
What I’ve noticed most in the last two years is the incredible strength of the “glue” that is conversation, with diverse people, many of whom I have not, and probably will not, meet in person. Regular conversation of the sort hosted by Ian Berry, Johnnie Moore, Sue Heatherington and others. It ticks all the boxes here, with not an organisation, policy, model or values statement in sight. Human to human creativity, connection and joy, unplugged.
When it comes to making glue that sticks communities together, there is nothing stronger.
The “fifty percent problem.”
I have been delving into the challenges and benefits of artificial intelligence this week as part of a project that is emerging, and have been grateful for the time and generosity of those who have been shining lights into the vast cavern of my ignorance on the subject.
What is becoming clear is that the technology is not a problem – a combination of human ingenuity, machine learning, and computing power offers us enormous capability, and makes the idea of “singularity” really quite real. The problem we seem to face is what we ask it to do.
“Fifty percent problems” are those where we want to increase the odds on making a good decision – to beat the house, and get a better than fifty percent success rate, even as the level that of the fifty percent that defines average gets ever higher. It’s not about never being wrong, it’s about being slightly more right, slightly more often. The rules of probability and poker. AI is getting very, very good at that, particularly when faced with having to parse multiple variables, and offers propects of a generative relationship with human imagination, curiosity and intuition.
The “one hundred percent problem” is one where the solution has to be right, every time, for a binary problem. Like driverless cars spotting red lights, or people wandering into the road. No room for error (unless we’re a psychopath of course, which leaves some uncomfortable wiggle room for professional psychopaths in charge of large organisations – or countries)
The insight for me has cleared a path through the jungle of options I have been wresting with. Thank you to John Morley for introducing me to an intellect as sharp a a very sharp machete.
On Learning from Children
A beautiful twenty minutes reflection on hoe we learn, as against hoe we’re taught.