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Why Impact Beats Activity Every Time

Posted by: Nika White on Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s an awful feeling to look back on the body of your diversity and inclusion work only to discover that your efforts are not producing positive results. It may seem like you’ve done all the right things as an organization, but they’re not adding up to a level that makes a meaningful difference. Many people have this reaction when they focus on short-term activity goals rather than long-term, ongoing impact. The reality is that D&I work never ends.

What’s Wrong with Activity?

One common tendency of people who are so eager to become champions of diversity and inclusion is that they often end up creating a laundry list of activities to undertake. Don’t get me wrong, activity is good! It’s a signal to stakeholders that you are serious about diversity and inclusion, and it gives people opportunities to engage and learn. However, the danger in activity is that in the moment, it feels so right. The natural inclination is to check the box and move on.

Celebrating cultural events like Cinco de Mayo or Black History Month in the workplace is one common pitfall. These types of activities come with an end date. Yet, D&I work has to be treated as a continuous, sustainable initiative, not just a one-and-done event. The solution is not to discontinue these events, but rather to look at them as more of an entry point than an end goal. To move initiatives from “activity” into the realm of “impact,” you need to ask questions like:

  • What are some plausible next steps leading from the groundwork laid by this event?
  • What are the takeaways from this event that we can act on to ensure a lasting impact?

Another pitfall I’ve observed is the lack of a succession plan for diversity and inclusion program leaders. An organization might create such a position and engage an enthusiastic employee, but then the role disappears once that person moves on – and their ideas go with them. If there is a replacement, they often have to rebuild from the ground up. In such cases, creating the position was just an activity, one with very limited impact. The solution is to build in a succession plan at the same time the position is created. Ask questions such as:

  • How are we creating a sustainable structure so that if the person in this role walks out the door, diversity and inclusion don’t walk out with them?
  • What kinds of resources are being dedicated to engaging more than one champion in these efforts?

CVS Health has worked to guarantee impact by creating an entire team of colleagues dedicated to ensuring that youth, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and mature workers have a place within the company. As a result of those sustained and dedicated resources, the company has nearly 20 percent more women in senior leadership and 32 percent more blacks, Latinos, and Asians among people promoted into management than other companies on DiversityInc.’s Top 50 list.

What Exactly Is Impact?

Impact is quantifiable or potential change. The Institute for Diversity Certification, where I studied to become a certified diversity executive, stresses that impact happens in the economic, environmental or cultural, personnel and legal arenas. Measuring impact means figuring out what knowledge an activity introduces and how that knowledge is applied. Impact manifests as attitude and behavioral changes that make for a more inclusive environment.

Impact does not replace activity; it just ensures that activities ultimately pay off.

How Do You Bridge the Gap?

In the best-case scenario, you start off an activity with an eye toward impact. Part of its planning includes ways to assess attitudes or behaviors before and after the event during which knowledge is introduced. It is made clear to participants how the activity fits into a larger, long-term effort, and they understand their part in the equation.

If you’ve already undertaken a lot of activities, it’s not too late to reap the benefits. You can still do your best to understand how the experience categorically affected participants or subsets of your organization. You can marshal those who were most responsive to brainstorm a concerted follow-up effort, defining the end goals and determining how success will be measured to refine future initiatives.

Layering on an extra level of work can be a challenging way to approach diversity and inclusion, especially if you’ve already invested a lot of time and effort on that laundry list of activities. But approaching the work with an eye toward tangible, positive impact creates a level of accountability that does pay off – and will continue to pay off on the next watch. As good as activity feels today, it can’t compare to the deep satisfaction that comes with knowing that impact has made lasting change in individual people’s lives and in the organization at large.


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