Inclusive organisation design

On Wednesdays I look after my 20-month grandson.  Last week we had to do a complex journey on the London Underground, with a couple of changes of line.  It’s a good job we weren’t in any kind of rush, as navigating the system with a pushchair and bags takes knowledge, skill and experience.  I am a beginner in this particular activity and it takes a beginner’s mind to maintain calm in it.

‘Step-free’ is a bit of a stretch concept when, even if it’s possible, you have to take multiple lifts many walking-steps distance apart from each other (to get from one line to the next) through the underground passages, with sometimes confusing signage, masses of people, buskers and public alerts.  This all take alertness, concentration and focus – not easy to keep hold of,  when I also needed to divert my companion from the intriguing number of push/pull buttons, handles, interesting things to poke/touch/yell at on the route.

In the middle of the transport process, and feeling somewhat stressed and  weary of it, I remembered a piece I’d read and then tweeted about a couple of weeks ago:  ‘Everyone needs better design, especially older people. And making ‘things that are functional, stylish, useable, accessible will benefit not only them but people of all ages’.  It’s a good point-of-view paper from Don Norman who wrote the book, Design of Everyday Things, on user-friendly design.

Inclusive design is a great aspiration.  As, Norman says ‘Do not think that thoughtful design is just for the elderly, or the sick, or the disabled. In the field of design, this is called “inclusive design” for a reason: It helps everyone. Curb cuts were meant to help people who had trouble walking, but it helps anyone wheeling things: carts, baby carriages, suitcases.’

He references a book Mismatch: how inclusion shapes design, by Kat Holmes I took a look at it, the blurb says ‘In Mismatch, Kat Holmes describes how design can lead to exclusion, and how design can also remedy exclusion. Inclusive design methods―designing objects with rather than for excluded users―can create elegant solutions that work well and benefit all.’ I’ve downloaded a sample chapter.

The Inclusive Design Toolkit, answering the question ‘What is inclusive design?’  says ‘Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude customers. Inclusive design emphasizes the contribution that understanding user diversity makes to informing these decisions, and thus to including as many people as possible. User diversity covers variation in capabilities, needs and aspirations.’

It’s a lot easier to consider inclusive design if you are in a situation of creating something from scratch.  But often, we are adapting existing structures, objects, processes or whatever.  As an analogy, Transport for London is alert to inclusivity and accessibility issues and has great info/resources for travellers, but the possibilities for true inclusivity are limited by the original design of the system, and the over-the-years modifications to it.   Now, the system is not easily transformable to a fully inclusive accessible design.

However, if Crossrail’s Inclusion Policy is anything to go by, it looks as if the new Elizabethan line will be fully inclusive, (or at least in the new parts) which means all travellers will benefit – a point Don Norman makes – when he says,  ‘Some of us have permanent disabilities, but all of us have suffered from situational and temporary problems. When outside in the sun, the text message that just arrived is unreadable: wouldn’t it be nice if the display, whether cell-phone, watch, or tablet, could switch to large, higher contrast lettering? Are elderly people handicapped? Maybe, but so is a young, athletic parent while carrying a baby on one arm and a bag of groceries in the other (and perhaps trying to open their car door). Ride-share bicycles and scooters cannot be used by people who need to carry bulky packages. Everyone has difficulty hearing people in noisy environments. Noise-cancelling headphones are for everyone, not just the elderly. Almost anything that will help the elderly population will end up helping everyone.’

Although this is said in relation to products and services, and customers as users, I wonder how we would design organisations differently if we were truly designing or re-designing our organisational systems, processes, and operations through an inclusivity lens – not just including our customers, but our employees and other stakeholders.

Indeed, most organisations want to design organisations to be inclusive.  Many have an explicit value around inclusivity.  Starbucks, is one example, saying they live the value of ‘Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome’.  The UK’s National Health Service has ‘Everyone Counts’ as one of its values, saying ‘We use our resources for the benefit of the whole community, and make sure nobody is excluded or left behind.’

We could start small with thinking about designing meeting protocols.  Someone sent me an article by Bruno Kahne, who teaches hearing people to communicate like deaf people. Kahne’s a consultant and trainer who ‘realized that through their “handicap,” deaf people had developed certain communication skills more thoroughly than most hearing people, which made them uncommonly effective at getting their point across. Thus, a radical experiment was born: to work with deaf people as communication consultants for our corporate clients’.  Here, the teachers are deaf people, and hearing people are the students.

Kahne’s realization is similar to Don Norman’s – that inclusivity benefits everyone.  Kahne points out ‘Hearing people can see deaf people in two different ways. Either as people who have lost something – their hearing – or as people who have gained something – the ability to communicate without sound.  In the first case, hearing people will express at best compassion towards deaf people, which will be perceived by them as offensive. In the second case, pity will be replaced by curiosity, respect of the difference, and desire to learn skills which are not found in the hearing world.’

He started working with deaf and hearing people, saying  ‘I was surprised to find out that thousands of books and papers had been written on all the sufferings and misfortunes of deafness, and on all the things that deaf people should learn from the hearing world, but nothing on what the deaf world could bring to the hearing one. I was stunned.’

This work led to Kahne writing a book containing 12 lessons from the deaf world to help hearing people improve their communication skills.  Five of the lessons are described in an article Lessons of Silence, headlines are:

  • Look people in the eye.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Say what you mean, as simply as possible.
  • When you don’t understand something, ask.
  • Stay focused.

It sounds easy and straightforward, but observe meetings that you are in.  Do people practice the 5 lessons?  Would you have a more inclusive, better designed meeting if they did, what would it take to adapt/redesign your meetings to role model those lessons?

This week, my travel experience, and the reading of the Kahne articles have highlighted for me:

  • We must design our organisations and interactions for inclusivity – everyone will benefit
  • It’s hard to adapt existing design (and mindsets) to make them inclusive
  • Inclusive design is more than the built environment, products and services, it is systems, structures processes, protocols and interactions
  • We can learn how to design inclusive organisations looking at other disciplines that strive for inclusivity
  • Starting small (e.g. with meetings) will illustrate the complexity of developing inclusive organisation designs.

What’s your view on inclusive organisation design?  Let me know.



One thought on “Inclusive organisation design”

  1. Hi naomi
    I’ve just been reading your blog and you have written ” ride-share bicycles and scooters cannot be used by people who need to carry bulk packages”.
    Well just before Christmas last year ,in this part of town, people were buying their eight foot Christmas trees and using a mobike with the the trees balanced on saddle and handlebars and wheeling them home.
    All the best.

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