We’re experiencing a transformational moment, one that offers forward-thinking companies an unprecedented opportunity to merge social impact with innovation to drive sustainable business growth.

Today, there’s no more ‘business as usual’. Generative AI is transforming our lives. The climate is changing rapidly. And social movements are pushing hard for corporate responsibility. "It's all happening at once and most companies weren't built with these challenges in mind.” says Mike Solomons, Senior Client Partner and Inclusive Innovation Solution Leader at Korn Ferry. “Every company must transform to grow.”

Meanwhile, differentiation is becoming ever-more challenging, with fewer opportunities to stand out from the crowd, adds Solomons. “Traditional innovation practices don’t push us enough, given what we’re dealing with.” Many institutional innovation teams focus on default user experiences and use exclusionary design practices that ignore the needs of many. This reduces the quality and reach of innovation, resulting in greater competition and market expansion challenges. “To achieve breakthrough innovation, it's crucial to seek insights and co-create with those individuals and populations who've been historically overlooked or underserved,” Solomons says.

Lastly, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives established over the past years are at risk of having a limited impact. Despite significant advances, many of these gains have been more performative than transformative. “We have a compelling opportunity to leverage the power of DE&I to drive business outcomes such as innovation,” says Alina Polonskaia, Global Practice Leader, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consulting at Korn Ferry.

And what is that opportunity? To change how we deliver innovation, we need to harness the power of all to create a competitive advantage.

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Collective Intelligence: The power of all

How do you leverage DE&I to drive innovation? By utilizing equity and inclusion to unlock the collective intelligence of diverse teams.

Every company must be an innovation company

Opportunities for differentiation are increasingly becoming scarce. True game-changers don’t come from looking in the same places. Leading innovation with inclusion forces you to go to the edge and incorporate the needs of typically overlooked and underserved users into the design process.

Diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions 87% of the time.

Innovation is a team sport

Diverse teams are smarter teams. When we harness the collective intelligence of diverse teams, we deliver better, more innovative solutions.

75% of inclusive innovators are more likely to see ideas become productized.

Diverse teams have a broader, lasting impact

Design is powerful. By involving a broader diversity of stakeholders in the design process, we can create solutions that serve more people, reducing the need for constant redesign as our markets grow.

Companies with above-average diversity report 19% higher innovation revenue.

Inclusion unleashes the power of all

It’s not enough just to bring a broader diversity of people into the room. The diversity needs to be unlocked by inclusive leadership. Inclusive leaders know how to create a safe and equitable environment through the activation of inclusive teams. They know how to remove the barriers that slow us down and help us press fast-forward to the sustainable and more inclusive future.

Inclusive behaviors and structures

Inclusive Innovation is an organizational capability with four components that work together to support continuous, sustainable co-creation.

It all starts with teams that have the right mix of skills, identities and lived experiences. “We call these 'diverse-by-design' teams, to emphasize the intentional aspect of their formation,” says Polonskaia. “It’s critical that we include team members who are experiencing the challenges we’re trying to solve,” she adds. This expands the range of options right from the start, broadening the scope of where the team can seek new opportunities.

However, to truly supercharge innovation, simply establishing diverse teams isn't enough. This is where inclusive leadership plays a crucial role. Inclusive leaders provide the teams with clear purpose, process and roles and more importantly, they cultivate an environment where differences are valued and integrated into new ways of thinking, designing and implementing—in effect creating inclusive teams that effectively optimize their diversity. 

Another critical element of Inclusive Innovation is the integration of breakthrough practices: particularly inclusive design and systems thinking methodologies. Inclusive design, which was pioneered by Dr. Jutta Treviranus three decades ago, aims to identify individuals for whom the existing state falls short and engages them in a collaborative process to address their specific challenges. "This design approach allows us to create solutions that work for a greater diversity of people. By opening our design process up to different needs we challenge our way of thinking resulting in higher quality innovations,” explains Solomons. Systems Thinking helps teams to understand the relationship of different environmental factors that may be contributing to holding problems in place. Armed with these tools and mindsets, teams can adopt a common frame for experimentation and learning, he says. 

And how do you make it stick? “We’ve found that embedding Inclusive Innovation practices across the workforce through a center of excellence is highly effective,” answers Polonskaia. It’s a group of experts tasked with scaling Inclusive Innovation for their organization. They are both movement-makers and movement-keepers that work with the rest of the organization to internalize the new ways of designing and creating a culture of Inclusive Innovation. Members of the center of excellence model the innovation mindset, facilitate innovation labs and provide direct proof of these capabilities' impact on top-line growth.

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The four strategic pillars of inclusive innovation

Diverse-by-design teams

Assemble a team with an intentional mix of identities, skills, and lived experiences. This maximizes collective intelligence and helps members build on each other's ideas, utilizing their unique skills and experiences to tackle challenges.

Inclusive leadership

Inclusive leaders empower diverse-by-design teams to problem solve by establishing clear purpose, removing barriers, and cultivating an inclusive and safe environment in which everyone can contribute.

Breakthrough practices

Establish an innovation methodology for diverse-by-design teams that leverages inclusive design and systems thinking to address the needs of typically overlooked users AND discover innovative solutions that benefit all, not just a few.

Center of excellence

Innovation at scale is possible—but only with a sustainable and ongoing coaching framework to maintain it. Embed Inclusive Innovation into every part of your organization and teach best practice to all your employees for a scaled-up approach.

Go to the edge with inclusive design

Many design practices unintentionally leave out certain groups. Their approach aims to meet the needs of the most common users, thinking it's the most efficient route. But this mindset can stifle innovation and set the bar lower than it should be.

Worse, says Polonskaia, it often results in a one-size-fits-all design centered around the 'default man'—generally white, straight, middle-class and able-bodied. “It not only excludes a significant number of people, but can also harm them.”

For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many pulse oximeters failed to provide accurate readings for people with darker skin, despite the critical role of oxygen level measurement in assessing pulmonary health.

The inclusive design approach introduced by Treviranus expands the art of the possible, adds Polonskaia. “It’s an important methodology that recognizes that there’s no such thing as a default person.” Inclusive design principles are about addressing the needs of all potential users and solving problems for the most excluded user first. This enables a better solution for all. Notably, curb ramps were originally designed around the needs of wheelchair users, but also benefit cyclists, parents with strollers and even joggers—and are detrimental to no one.

By embracing difference—and designing for it—companies can meet the needs of a wider range of customers and create products and solutions that no one else has envisioned.

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Are you ready for inclusive breakthrough practices?

f you're ready to use inclusivity to reframe problems, supercharge innovation and create game-changing outcomes, we've laid out some key principles for getting it right in your organization. 

Inclusive design in practice: 

  1. Use divergent and convergent thinking practices. 
  2. Explore experiences of individuals and populations whose needs are often overlooked.
  3. Identify root causes of issues by thinking through symptoms, behavioral patterns, underlying structures and mental models. 
  4. Co-create solutions with various stakeholders. 
  5. Run experiments and develop prototypes

Innovation is fundamentally inclusive

Companies personify Inclusive Innovation when they expand the diversity of their design teams and co-create with those who are currently excluded from using their products and services. Leaders can become Inclusive Innovators when they involve their employees, customers, and community members in co-creating products and services that impact them. Managers demonstrate Inclusive Innovation when they intentionally construct diverse-by-design teams, harnessing their collective intelligence as an inclusive team. And operations leaders express Inclusive Innovation when they invite diverse suppliers and broader ecosystem partners customers to join them in crafting sustainable solutions. All of these acts of inclusion drive innovation and positively impact business growth.

At Korn Ferry, our commitment to Inclusive Innovation extends to our collaboration with you. We will co-create with you in a way that resonates with your unique culture and values. Let’s initiate this journey with a pilot, tackling one of your biggest challenges, to demonstrate just how powerful Inclusive Innovation approach can be.

To learn more and take the first steps toward a more innovative future, get in touch with us here.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Unleash the power of all