What does snow-clea­ring have to do with diversity?

From different perspectives

Diverse teams can help foun­da­ti­ons’ work have a grea­ter impact. Lots of boards of trus­tees choose their own members, which can be one reason why these commit­tees aren’t suffi­ci­ently diverse. A tale about snow-clea­ring shows how crea­ting a rele­vant mix of people can boost success.

Trus­tees perform their work volun­t­a­rily, without being given a salary. There gene­rally isn’t any budget for brin­ging new people into the team, which is why people often look within their own networks for new recruits. In turn, this makes it harder to run a broad-based appli­ca­tion process, inter­vie­w­ing a diverse array of quali­fied candi­da­tes. By exten­sion, there aren’t many people to choose from to fill seats on the commit­tee, with most of these people simi­lar to the current members.

Even the boards of direc­tors at limi­ted compa­nies run a considera­ble risk of choo­sing people simi­lar to them­sel­ves for vacant posts: around 90% of all seats on boards of direc­tors are filled without inde­pen­dent advice being sought.

This isn’t a problem per se, provi­ded that a targe­ted approach to diver­sity and a culture of produc­tively inclu­ding diffe­ring perspec­ti­ves are syste­ma­ti­cally encou­ra­ged. But, time and again, this is lacking.

I’d like to use the exam­ple of clea­ring snow to illus­trate how just looking at one single perspec­tive can lead to sub-opti­mal solu­ti­ons. This true story about snow-clea­ring is repre­sen­ta­tive of lots of corpo­rate and phil­an­thro­pic projects.

An obser­vant reader might be wonde­ring whether snow clea­ring can be better orga­nised when this task is assi­gned to a diverse team with a culture of inclu­sion. Let the follo­wing story inspire you:

  1. People reali­sed that the elderly and young mothers suffe­red a dispro­por­tio­nate amount of acci­dents when it had been snowing.
  2. People knew from other studies that young mothers, in parti­cu­lar, spend a large amount of time walking from A to B because they often have to take their child­ren to daycare before heading off to work (whether paid or unpaid).
  3. They noti­ced that snow was prima­rily cleared so that cars could drive on the roads, with pave­ments and access to zebra crossings being of secon­dary importance – ever­y­where they looked.

Previously, the basic assump­tion behind snow-clea­ring prio­ri­ti­sed getting the roads clear so the working popu­la­tion wouldn’t be late if they were driving to work. At least, that’s what people thought if they them­sel­ves drove to work, and it seemed to make sense to them.

In a diverse team made up of rich and poor, young and old, people with and without walking frames, walking sticks and prams, with diffe­ring levels of physi­cal fitness and invol­ved in various sectors, things looked diffe­rent. More diverse. This made expe­ri­ments like the follo­wing possi­ble: as a test, when it snowed, the pave­ments were cleared before the roads were.

This small change meant that fewer elderly people and young mothers suffe­red injury when getting about during the winter. Howe­ver, the number of car acci­dents didn’t increase – enab­ling the snow to be cleared in a way that was safer for indi­vi­du­als and chea­per for the health­care system.

It’s less likely that a homo­ge­neous team would have deci­ded to make this impactful change than a team home to people chal­len­ging each other with their diffe­ring needs and perspec­ti­ves. Why? Because a homo­ge­neous team quickly reaches a consen­sus. That doesn’t mean that the decis­ion it makes is the best one out there: it’s simply the one that comes to mind first for those present.

Diver­sity in teams is often equa­ted to having a good gender balance. In the snow-clea­ring exam­ple, though, it’s evident that an older female mana­ger without any child­ren who drives to work every morning proba­bly doesn’t provide the crucial, diver­gent insight that would come from a young father who takes his child­ren to daycare before walking to work.

This snow-clea­ring story is an analogy for lots of situa­tions at foun­da­ti­ons, with inves­tors and in juries – in short, ever­y­where where people make decis­i­ons about the use of resour­ces. The basic assump­ti­ons under­ly­ing the decis­i­ons that are made align with the perspec­ti­ves and projec­tions of those present. ‘Which perspec­tive is miss­ing and what crucial infor­ma­tion would it add?’: ask yours­elf this ques­tion time and again. Seek out other people’s perspec­ti­ves and let snow on the roads be a remin­der for you to do so – it enables you to have a grea­ter impact.

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