Outside In: Sofia Falk on Inclusion, Diversity and Innovation

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Outside In: Sofia Falk on Inclusion, Diversity and Innovation

“We need to capture the collective intelligence of difference.” –Sofia Falk

Inclusion and diversity are becoming a new baseline for companies who want to innovate, especially when defining your value proposition and designing unique customer experiences that can win loyal fans.

Diversity of thought and perspective are critical to the success of ideation campaigns. Without this creative friction, it’s hard to generate ideas that really have momentum. The creative conflict that comes with it can be a little difficult for companies to cope with, though.

Helping companies navigate these sometimes choppy seas is the joint mission of both ideation360 and We Are the StoryDoers (WATSD),  a concept and management firm that helps companies turn their diversity aspirations into concrete plans.

It was founded by Sofia Falk, a natural born outsider and storyteller who could never stop herself from asking why or challenging herself (and others) by entering spaces traditionally reserved for people who were different from her. From her earliest days growing up in Colombia, travelling around South America and even back home in Sweden, she was the ultimate outsider. She was the one who wouldn’t stop asking why or trying something completely unexpected.

From her experience as one woman out of three on a military team of 60, to her work in male-dominated fields, Sofia often found herself on the outside. Oftentimes that perspective led to great results, such as during her stint as an intelligence officer in agent in the field in Kosovo, where she discovered an entirely new dynamic. Male military leaders in intelligence weren’t able to get critical information from local women.

“From an intelligence point of view, the whole goal is to get as much information as possible from as many people as possible. I was able to sit with the women and the mothers and I ended up bringing in other female colleagues. The output was impressive. We set up a standard to run gender mixed teams. We had to have the perspective, experience, and know-how to relate to the ones we want to interact with.”

The experience she gained from those experiences shaped a perspective that helps her understand the dynamics at play when we begin to work with diversity on an organizational level.

As the global economy grows more intricately interconnected, and the flow of knowledge and people past borders accelerates, the world is always looking and behaving differently. Digital technology has diffused across the world, knowledge and information is continually flowing into new spaces and creating unexpected possibilities. New perspectives and voices have growing economic and cultural power and are demanding recognizable, authentic experiences that feel relatable.

Because of these trends, when working with ideas, prototypes, design and innovation, diversity and inclusion is a baseline for success.

A lot of companies know this, but they are still not sure how to get there. We caught up with Sofia this week and had a conversation about how companies can get started.

Sofia teaches executive teams and business leaders how to hack themselves and their unconscious biases in order to implement a truly diverse culture.

“it starts at an individual level.” Sofia says, “It begins with awareness.”

She emphasized that inclusion must be established before diversity if diversity is to succeed.

“If you work to get diversity but don’t have inclusion you are wasting your time because if you bring one woman onto a team of 20 men engineers, she is contributing to diversity but she may not feel welcome or be able to contribute to her full capacity, so she will leave,” Sofia told us. “There can be a lot of enthusiasm but also pressure for diversity, which can impel corporate leaders to set quotas rather than deal with how to actually implement this new way of thinking about how you work.”

“You have to have inclusion to have diversity or you will lose the diversity. Inclusion has to come first. It’s a prerequisite.”

Following an era where compliance and quotas focused people on metrics, now to harness diverse thinking we really must challenge ourselves.

Diversity is having a mix of people and inclusion is making that mix work. It’s more than tolerating difference. We have to reach a place where we value difference, we embrace it.

Inclusion means creating a space where all voices are heard and where people are willing to challenge their own biases. This is not the kind of thing that comes about without a quite a lot of discomfort and even disruption.\

“The awareness-raising journey is so long,” Sofia said. “Normally, any team starts out by referring to things that are obvious, such as gender, body type, age, or the color of their skin. Of course those diversity traits matter, but for example if we are talking about a male-dominated industry and we set a KPI of 30% women, but those women all grew up in the same socio-economic class, in the same country, working in similar companies for a similar number of years, in the same industry, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a diversity of thought and perspectives. We need to launch innovation or design thinking or respecting/reflecting our customers instead of just ticking a number. When talking about diversity we have to realize it’s about so much more–our upbringing, education, attitude, work experience, hobbies, and values.”

For companies wanting to create a more diverse culture:

  1. It begins with the executive management team
  2. Plan to invest time in building diversity
  3. It’s about changing our everyday behavior

This simple idea, about changing our everyday behavior is such a big mental shift. A lot of companies want to find a policy, metric or program to implement, but it comes down to people changing their daily behaviors and how they actually engage with one another.

It’s about changing attitudes and behaviors on the most micro level.

It’s not enough to expect everyone to just do their part. Modeling, practicing and challenging exercises can be introduced. Creating a shared language and common understanding is the first step for introducing it broadly.

Sofia recommends that companies experiment with mixing things up. For example, in a staff meeting where the most senior staff always speak first, this practice can be reversed.

It’s challenging but ultimately rewarding work. Her view from the outside turned out to be the perfect vantage point for pinpointing corporate weaknesses. Firms such asEricsson, H&M, IKEA, SAAB, and Volvo have sought out her advice on going beyond superficial diversity metrics to affecting real culture change.

Cultivating inclusion and diversity is critical to the success of ideation and innovation campaigns. Creating a sense of purpose, defining strategy, and linking it to diversity and inclusion initiatives is key to creating a healthy culture where a variety of perspectives, attitudes and experiences can productively engage.

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