Inclusive Visioning

The future requires more than “thinking outside the box.” It requires redefining what the box is in order to let go of institutional structures that no longer serve us. Inclusive Visioning is a tool that institutions and organizations can use to redefine the box and harness the power of diversity to transform their self-perception and revolutionize their vision.

American society is becoming more diverse in viewpoints and values, and that’s a good thing. Researcher Katherine Phillips, who is the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, believes that increased diversity will give us permission to be ourselves. She states that the mere presence of social diversity makes people with independent viewpoints more willing to voice their views and makes others more willing to listen.

Yet even academic institutions seem resistant to intellectual integration. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), at most postsecondary institutions, faculty and staff remain predominantly white at a time when white student enrollment has been declining. In a 2015 report, NCES reported that among full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 79 percent were white, 6 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and, making up less than one percent each, Native Americans or Alaska Natives and those who identified as two or more races. NCES reported comparable statistics in administrative ranks in 2012, noting that of 2.9 million staff members, 69 percent were white, 7 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, and 12 percent some other race.

Diversity is important because it fuels innovation, improves intercultural communication, and produces a better brand. Yet despite so many positives, institutional ambivalence to diversity still remains.  IV2

One possible reason for such ambivalence is noted by Yale researcher Kenji Yoshino in his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. He says that individuals “cover” to tone down a disfavored identity and fit into mainstream culture. According to Yoshino, the benefits of diversity will remain elusive if members of minority groups are accepted only when they conform to and reflect the values, cultural norms, and aspirations of the majority. Therefore, the mere presence of previously underrepresented groups will not reflect a true integration of diverse ideas and viewpoints if these individuals are covering their uniqueness in order to fit in.

However, there is an approach institutions can take to cultivate diversity. Inclusive Visioning (IV) is aimed at helping institutions develop strategic plans that are an organic synthesis of equally valued ideas. The IV system flattens unnecessary hierarchy by pushing power down and out, and it infuses diversity into the strategic planning process through a team-imagining technique.

Think of Silicon Valley during its infancy. Billion-dollar companies were founded by university whiz kids who used the petri-dish dynamics of their college experiences to shape the environments of their startup businesses. To allow spontaneous creativity to thrive, these cutting-edge businesses offered pool tables, flexible working hours, organic cafeterias, and crash pads; they even allowed employees to bring their dogs to work. Similarly, IV helps institutions understand what they need to change — and how to change it — in order to promote new dynamic growth (i.e., to re-think the box).

Many forward-leaning organizations, including academic institutions, find themselves hindered by tradition and hierarchical structures. Hierarchical systems are often resistant to diverse viewpoints and averse to innovation. These structures can also rigidify the institutional ego in ways that consolidate all power at the top and ignore the fact that good ideas can bubble up from unexpected places. The best institutions are eliminating artificial walls that keep them from gaining a competitive advantage, and they are finding ways to share decision-making power across a broader spectrum of stakeholders.

Change leaders must identify historical impediments to inclusion and address systemic resistance to diversity. Essential to removing these barriers is understanding an institution’s “backstory.” Leaders must be aware of an institution’s history in order to identify ingrained values that are resistant to inclusive decision making and need to be eliminated.

In today’s world, the speed at which knowledge advances belies the top-down manner in which power has traditionally been exercised. Creating an inclusive vision will therefore require that teams, or micro-communities, collaborate as equals to both identify and execute institutional goals.

If Yoshino is correct, many institutions err when they reward only those individuals who most closely conform to the status quo while ignoring or minimizing the contributions of those who don’t. Diversity is not just about hiring people or recruiting students who are different. Diversity is a process of infusing the institution with nontraditional values and experiences that help move the institution beyond the limitations of its past and re-shape it in new and exciting ways.

Through team imagining, institutions can promote the development of breakthrough ideas with the help of organic brainstorming. Team imagining helps create cultural diffusion by suspending a false belief in what is best, what is acceptable, and what should be done. It allows team members to uncover the strength of nontraditional ideas and creates a space where consensus can be reached. This power for dynamic change can only be achieved when people feel free to make contributions that reflect their uniqueness and when their intellectual diversity is not, as Yoshino says, “covered.”

Finally, once an institution has embraced diversity as a strategic goal, it will need to develop a multicultural action plan (MAP). Institutions must be intentional about their diversity goals and have a specific strategy — a MAP — for achieving them. By asking themselves critical questions, they can examine the impact demographic shifts will have on their vision, mission, and key constituencies.

Inclusive Visioning suggests that institutions benefit when they do not just allow room for diverse voices to be heard but also allow those voices to shape the very fabric of their institution.●

Sylvia Gail Kinard, Esq., is the chief diversity officer for Medgar Evers College at The City University of New York.