Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Captain Obvious Rides Again

At the risk of being who my dear friend and colleague, Device Guy (Twitter ID = @DeviceGuy; follow him, he’s a genius), calls “Captain Obvious,” I just had to share this “aha!” moment with you.

I was catching up on one of my favorite blogs, Paul Smith’s Welcome to the Occupation. (It’s an HR blog, but I like it anyway ;-) ) In one of Paul’s posts, he linked to a video by workshop facilitator Joe Gerstandt entitled, Fresh Definition for Diversity. I’ve spent the past year or so learning a lot about diversity and inclusion. I thought I had developed a grasp of the fundamental definitions of these words. However, a significant learning for me came as a result of the particular way Joe Gerstandt phrased his definition. I’m sure I heard a similar definition before, but it just didn’t register in the same way for me as it did when I watched the video.

Joe Gerstandt simply says that "diversity means difference." Check. I knew that. But, then he talks about it as "a relational attribute.” Relational. My mental model for "differences" was more focused on the uniqueness of individuals — sets of qualities unique to each person (Joe Gerstandt might say I was muddling "diversity" with "talent") — rather than the simple distance between two points — the relational difference.

Relational differences are momentary, transient, and only real for those directly involved. They require the participation of two entities to exist. Aha!

This sheds a new light on the whole insider/outsider concept for me. Viewing differences as relational between any two individuals on a point-in-time basis, instead of relational between each individual and the norms of the insider group on a more enduring basis, puts the hierarchy off balance and renders it irrelevant. In my new mental model, all of us and none of us are insiders and outsiders. The differences only mean something important to each of us individually, helping us to make sense of our world through mental models, judgments, comparisons, decisions. Yet, in the overall universe they are equally weighted because they are shifting, transient, without benchmarks — in a sense, unreal.

When I say "unreal," I mean it in the sense that we can't rely on differences as absolutes or truths upon which we can build our value and reward systems (although, that's exactly what we've done, with the result that we have hierarchies largely based on privilege rather than merit). But, that isn't to say that differences are without value. Differences are the basis of potential energy, which can be transformed into kinetic energy to accomplish work, if only we can overcome inertia. Herein lies the power of inclusion. Think of how much we can accomplish if we harness the power of all of that potential energy existing between each uniquely talented individual and the uniquely talented individual beside him/her.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? (“Aha!” or “Duh!” — never quite sure.)

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