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:
People realised that the elderly and young mothers suffered a disproportionate amount of accidents when it had been snowing.
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).
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.