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Ideas Made to Matter

Diversity

Former United States CTO: Why inclusive work leads to better outcomes

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Megan Smith likes to tell a story about Lou Gerstner, the CEO largely credited with revitalizing IBM in the ’90s.

Gerstner is known for his tech-savvy turnaround prowess, but Smith, an MIT alumna and former Google executive who served as U.S. chief technology officer in the Obama administration, is a fan of how he achieved that goal — through inclusive collaboration.

“You have to mindfully design a climate that will help a broad set of people feel comfortable,” said Smith, speaking at the recent EmTech MIT conference hosted by MIT Technology Review.  

“Gerstner, who was turning around the company, looked around his management team, and it was not very diverse,” Smith recounted. “He told his team he wanted to be more connected to all the employees.”

 

To reach that goal, Gerstner engaged his senior executives to work closely with each of the company’s eight employee resource groups — for women, veterans, and employees of color, among other affiliations.

He prioritized the project with a budget and ongoing attention from the senior leadership team, and asked each group to answer two questions: “How do we connect with suppliers, customers, and employees from your community? And how can we help you thrive at IBM?”

That strategy encapsulates the power of what Smith calls “collective genius” — a critical approach to sparking innovation that, when executed well, also promotes equality, a welcoming climate, and diversity of thought through all facets of the business.

“We have to broaden who is part of the innovator set,” said Smith, a life member of the MIT Corporation. “We have to improve the climate to make sure that we’re working on all the different challenges with everybody equally welcome at the table, including leadership from all diverse backgrounds.”

Scout and scale

Smith has put those same principles to work as CEO of Shift7, which works collaboratively to address systemic social, environmental, and economic problems with open, tech-forward practices.

Shift7 and its collaborative partners champion a concept they call “scout and scale.” The idea is to scout out creative and passionate people solving problems in local communities and help them scale — that is, connect them with others working on similar challenges, resources, and networks.

“Instead of assuming only one group has all the solutions, scout around for those who have already fixed the challenges or have created something promising,” Smith explained. Then use the internet and network connections with a shared sense of purpose to create scale. “It's really about using collective genius. We can get ourselves cross-organized and solve a lot more of these problems faster.”

Shift7 has used scout and scale for projects as diverse as promoting inclusion in media and accelerating entrepreneurship in Native American communities. But the practice can help companies internally, too — in expanding their talent pool, promoting more equitable practices, and fostering innovation.

These steps can help turn “scout and scale” concepts into real-world business practices in your organization:

CAST A WIDE NET. Don’t just shop for talent and ideas in traditional pools and pockets. Canvas local communities, schools, universities, and research organizations for people working on similar or related problems and open up lines of communication.

Doing so can result in a range of benefits, from getting diverse feedback on new ideas to facilitating formal collaborations to attracting new employees and business partners that can help achieve core business objectives.

SPARK COLLECTIVE GENIUS. Something as simple as an idea bank can get the enterprise creative juices flowing and encourage participation from all corners of the company, including an inclusive and diverse group of employees.

“Collective genius is so valuable,” Smith said. “Look at how the internet and Wikipedia work to broaden creative participation — they have their flaws, but there’s a lot of value to figuring out ways to be inclusive.” Collaboratively build communities of practice and proactively drive for a welcoming culture.

EMBED DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION INTO BUSINESS STRATEGY. It’s not enough to leave efforts to a specific diversity and inclusion executive. Like IBM’s Gerstner did with his management team, it’s important to prioritize the effort by making it a standing agenda item in meetings, allocating reasonable budget, and establishing clear metrics.

“We know leaders care about diversity, equality, and inclusion, but they don’t prioritize it in the top short list for the company,” Smith said.

To make progress, broadly engage the entire executive team in this work regularly, and provide coaching support to ensure connections, as Gerstner did, Smith said.

EMBRACE SPONSORSHIP, NOT MENTORSHIP. To put scout and scale into practice, companies need to think about sponsoring people or ideas with everything required to make them a reality.

Mentoring people or showing them the ropes is not enough to scale something from a good idea into a successful, systematic, and sustainable business venture. Instead, “champion them,” Smith said. “Work to find and constantly remove roadblocks they face in your organizational culture.”

“What I’m really after with scout and scale is to let more people in,” Smith said. “Let’s change the climate and culture to be less dismissive and unwelcoming for so many colleagues. Let’s start doing more things together.”

As part of conveying the opportunity for more rapid change, Smith shared a detailed action grid highlighting many effective practices organizations have found successful for leadership, advancement, hiring, and overall ecosystem progress.