By improving their approach to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), companies enhance their capacity for innovation and creative thinking, both essential for meeting the sustainability and infrastructure challenges of this century, writes Frances McAndrew.
The major challenges of our day – the climate crisis, food and resource insecurity, poverty and inequality – are complex, interwoven problems impacting people to different degrees and in different ways. Organisations tasked with designing and delivering sustainable solutions to these challenges will be better placed to do so if they employ a diverse workforce.
Colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds can bring new insights and perspectives. This diversity yields different ways of viewing problems that can unleash innovation and drive transformation. The ultimate outcome will be more inclusive infrastructure that better meets the needs of communities and end-users.
Diversity can reduce the impact of biases on project delivery. Teams that embrace diversity are less susceptible to groupthink – a problem that occurs when the desire for consensus inhibits people from presenting alternatives, critiquing a position, or expressing an unpopular opinion. Groupthink leads to poor decisions and more safety-critical incidents.
Diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams because they are more likely to be objective, check facts and encourage greater scrutiny of each other’s actions. They process information more carefully and are more aware of their own biases, reducing the likelihood of errors in decision-making, which will in turn reduce costs and overruns and improve project execution.
In contrast, homogenous teams, especially in hierarchical organisations, are more susceptible to optimism bias – which can lead to underestimations of project costs and duration. If provided with high levels of trust and psychological safety, diverse teams are more likely to raise concerns about potential risks, delays and overspends.
Many studies have been published that support these arguments. Cloverpop, a company specialising in decision support, found that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time, in a 2017 study ‘Diversity + inclusion = better decision making at work’. In a 2020 report ‘Diversity wins: how inclusion matters’, management consultant McKinsey found that the most diverse companies are more profitable than their less diverse peers.
Inclusive and equitable workplace cultures
For diversity to be a strength, and for innovation to thrive, workplace cultures must be created where everyone can contribute and where everyone is empowered to imagine, plan and prepare for the future.
At Mott MacDonald we are focused on harnessing the benefits of diversity for our clients and partners. Our leaders and line managers are encouraged to build trust, psychological safety, respect, fairness and belonging to create teams where people feel empowered to speak up, innovate and try new ideas.
The Ovingham level crossing removal project in Adelaide, Australia, is a good example of how we are putting these principles into practice. Women work in a wide range of roles, from site and design engineers and surveyors to contract administration and community relations, and also make up 50% of the PTPAO Alliance management team. Having a diverse team delivers a much better culture, working environment, broader thinking and opportunities to share different ideas with colleagues. This diversity has led to enhanced project outcomes – transformed public realm areas that will leave a lasting legacy for the local community to use and enjoy.
In many organisations, diversity is greatest across more junior roles. Senior leaders would benefit greatly from tapping into this group’s insights either formally or informally. This could mean creating shadow boards or using digital collaboration tools that give those with less confidence to speak up and share their thoughts and ideas.
Our own global early career professionals’ (ECP) network was created to help those starting out on their careers to reach their full potential and influence the future direction of the business. Representatives from the network meet quarterly with our executive chair and are invited to join decision-making meetings and share their views on project proposals.
Organisations also need to be aware of the way in which systems, processes and decisions – large and small – can impact on the opportunities that everyone has to contribute and progress. This encompasses everything from who is asked to lead which project, to how we allocate time for learning and development, from who has ‘face time’ with leaders to how accessible and inclusive our office buildings or technology applications are.
Simply knowing about the effect of bias does not reduce its impact. We need to design systems, processes, cultures, technologies, workplaces and environments that interrupt our biases and help make our behaviour and decisions more equitable. This means designing practical interventions, such as anonymised shortlisting, that steer the unconscious mind to make more inclusive choices.
Making a positive difference to communities
Finding sustainable solutions to complex challenges also requires more inclusive engagement with communities and end-users, giving a voice to those groups who are often marginalised. Without their insights, our designs, plans, solutions and infrastructure can actually make people’s lives worse. Understanding communities’ and users’ frustrations, concerns, sensitivities, hopes and needs is essential for improving the accessibility, sustainability and value of the solutions developed.
Recruiting a diverse workforce that is representative of society, wherever we work, is an important step. Diverse thinking within project teams, reflecting the diversity of communities and users, strengthens our ability to manage risk, enhances our reputation, improves community buy-in, and boosts the performance of the project right the way through its lifecycle. All this translates into bottom line improvements across the supply chain and higher returns for clients and investors.
Diversity, equity and inclusion can set apart the best organisations from the average, with individual strengths contributing to high-performing teams that deliver better projects.
Read our global equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, Everyone’s business, which includes research on the benefits more diverse teams can bring to projects in terms of creativity and innovation.
We are supporting Building Inclusivity, a new cross-industry EDI campaign from the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.