Programming our response

On a recent #nextchat about diversity, there was a brief conversation about diversity programs, and whether or not HR tries to program its way through every challenge. Do we over-program? I’ve been pondering this for a couple of days, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. At first glance, I think, ‘Right on! People, not programs!’ But then I play that scenario out in my head and I realize that programs, when they are done well and for the right reasons, can effect real change.

At the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion Conference, I attended a pre-conference session on leading transformational change. We spent the day looking at different change models and discussing their merits in different situations. This was the key to the day: no one model is the right one. It will always depend on your circumstances. What is the change you are enacting? How do people feel about that change? Where are you in the process? First, understand what you are trying to accomplish and how that change will impact people and then figure out which model or combinations of models might best assist you in leading the change.

Change models have real value as a tool. They give us a framework to think about what we are trying to accomplish, and to make sure we are thinking about the change holistically. It can be easy to gravitate towards the parts of a change, process, or program that you have an affinity for – the part you like or are good at. Change models keep you focused on all aspects, not just the ‘good’ ones.

Shouldn’t we, as HR, approach programs in the same way? The #nextchat conversation was about diversity hiring programs in particular. It might seem on the surface that creating a program is the easy way out. And certainly, there’s lots of historical experience to back up that concern. We see a problem, create a program, and voila! Problem solved.

We all know it doesn’t work that way. Programs aren’t a silver bullet. But if we really want to effect that change – if we really want to hire a more diverse workforce and create a truly inclusive culture – don’t we need a plan? If good intentions were enough, we’d be there. There is no one magic answer, and if we don’t have a plan for what to try or how to coordinate our efforts, how will we know if it’s working? Which parts of what we try are having real benefit and which parts just feel good?

I suspect that the concern about too many programs is really a concern about using programs as a way out, rather than committing to a solution and then using programs as a way to get to that solution. When we use programs to truly solve a problem or make things better, we must be more committed to the solution than we are to the program that we think will get us there. Good programs have built in feedback loops so that they can constantly respond and adapt as needed. Success is not having the program work smoothly; success is monitoring and constantly tweaking or even overhauling the program to continuously improve the results.

We won’t magically find ourselves in inclusive, diverse organizations without real effort. It’s hard and often uncomfortable work. In order for us to succeed, we’ll have to try a number of things. Some of them will work, some will fail spectacularly. But the effort needs intention and planning. Intentional planning becomes a program. Good programs make for good organizations. There’s a lot to critique about the way in which some companies, and some HR pros, approach programs. Let’s keep critiquing to build a better world. But I’m not quite ready to call program a 4-letter word.

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