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A December 2022 Harvard Business Review article by Ella Washington, “The Five Stages of DEI Maturity” makes a strong case for why DEI efforts underperform.  So many well-intentioned programs die in their infancy. Why is that? Washington claims that any program goes through five predictable stages.  Unless an effort reaches stage 5, the probability of it significantly impacting an organization is unlikely. Following are a couple of observations before I describe Washington’s stages. First, a DEI program is a change management or organization development program.  When organizations undertake other change management efforts, they turn to people who are skilled in this area.  These people have backgrounds in industrial/organizational psychology or organizational development.  This is not to say that someone leading a DEI effort should not be a woman, a person of color, or both.  It is a strategic mistake if an organization selects someone to head a DEI effort who does not possess either the characteristics of the group they are trying to champion and previous experience implementing large-scale change efforts.

The stages of DEI Maturity that Washington describes are: 1) Aware, 2) Compliant, 3) Tactical, 4) Integrated, and 5) Sustainable.   At the Aware stage, a case is being made that there “IS” a problem.  In the Compliant stage the organization is creating measures to demonstrate that “something” is happening.  In the Tactical stage, you will have various programs, projects or prototypes showing the impact of DEI. These independent efforts are not embedded in the organization’s strategy.  They are stand-alone pilots.  In stage four, the Integrated Stage, two things happen: 1) they become part of the strategy.  This is one of our top 3-5 priorities as an enterprise. 2) These independent efforts must come together and show a connection to the overall strategy. At this stage, measures of effectiveness and success are defined and refined.  For example, we can show a 5% increase in this area, which resulted in $XX of increased sales.  There is a straight line of sight from the strategy to the effort and its results.  The final stage, Sustainable, is where, in this case, DEI becomes part of the way we do business.   In Stage 4 the DEI effort may have been somewhat tied to a champion or sponsor.  Once a change effort reaches Stage 5, it takes on a life of its own.  The person at the head of the organization needs to be capable of articulating those connections.

Earlier, I said that someone leading a DEI effort and being able to get to the Integrated Stage 5 in Washington’s model requires skills in organizational change, transformation, and/or organization development.   The fact is that all organizations left alone are in a “steady” or static state.  There are forces promoting the way things are, and there are other forces pushing the other way and trying to change that status quo.  The first couple of stages in this change model are more emotional in the sense that a case is being made for something (DEI, Total Quality, Safety), and we are trying to create measures of it and a baseline.  All these helping and hindering forces need to be understood and managed or the change effort will get derailed.  When you move into Stage 3, Tactical, you are creating pilots and model programs where an assessment like the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (LAI) can be extremely helpful.  It is in Stage 3, that managers start talking in the language of business or numbers.

Let me digress briefly and talk about Burke and the Assessment.  Dr. Warner Burke is Professor Emeritus at Columbia University.  He and his doctoral students developed an assessment to measure learning agility.  According to Burke, learning agility is finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do, and figuring it out.  Burke spent 4+ years identifying the 38 items that roll up into 9 dimensions which  define learning agility.  His research behind the assessment is strong.  Three additional research studies demonstrated that someone who scored high on the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (LAI), independently was seen as a better performer.  Why would that be important?  A company’s senior management is being asked to make difficult and important decisions about placing women and people of color in important company positions. In many cases, these candidates don’t possess the prerequisite experience anticipated for the position they are being considered for. The Burke Assessment could  provide a data-based means to increase decision makers’ comfort levels.  Let me be more specific.

The Burke LAI measures people on their overall level of learning agility.  They also provide information on nine dimensions: 1) Flexibility; 2) Speed; 3) Experimenting; 4) Performance Risk-Taking; 5) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 6) Feedback Seeking; 7) Collaborating; 8) Information Gathering; 9) Reflecting.  An organization could collect this learning agility data from everyone in their DEI program.  As assignments or placements or promotions are being made, the decision makers could know how learning agile this candidate is and what their learning agility strengths and development needs are.  A Coach, Mentor, or Supervisor could be assigned to help the DEI appointee succeed in their new role.  It would give the “Coach” and the placement committee that made the assignment a language with which to talk about what they are working on and how it is going.

Over time, data could be collected about participants in the program, their learning agility capabilities, and their assignment results.  This could inform future focus in an organization’s DEI efforts.  Making  data-based decisions is one of the hallmarks of a program being in Stage 4 or 5 of Washington’s model.  This is how you make this critical priority a hallmark of this organization and part of how it achieves its competitive success.  The DEI effort is no longer dependent on a key manager or sponsor.  The managers will come and go, but the DEI effort has been institutionalized.  While Washington’s DEI stages capture the process of institutionalizing organizational change, the Burke Assessment adds greater measurability and language for describing the learning challenges of the assignments.

About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.