Time to retire “diversity of thought”?

Consultants pride themselves on being right at the vanguard of conversations taking place within their industries, and on having a point of view on all of the issues that matter to their clients. And in 2020, it was nigh on impossible to do that without paying attention to the topic of diversity and inclusion. The George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement shone a light on issues of racial injustice; at the same time, as the year dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that the pandemic was serving to exacerbate pre-existing social and economic divides. A recent McKinsey study, for example, estimated that COVID-related job losses among women occurred, globally, at a rate almost twice as fast as they did among men—mainly due to the fact that women were significantly more likely to be employed in the sectors worst hit by the pandemic.

As a result, even those consulting firms that had not previously seen diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority were forced to start taking the issue seriously. And those that had already made a commitment to diversity realised that they needed to be much more vocal about that commitment externally. In the past, many industry leaders had seen campaigns like Black Lives Matter as too heavily politicised to take a public stance on—but last year, almost every leading firm expressed their solidarity with the movement in one way or another. Similarly, over the course of 2020, firms became more and more proactive about drawing attention to their internal diversity and inclusion initiatives.

However, there’s one phrase that firms should strongly consider retiring from their vocabulary when discussing these issues with clients, the media, or potential new hires: “diversity of thought”. Talk to consultants about their firm’s D&I initiatives, and you will find that this is a concept that almost invariably gets brought up sooner or later. “There’s more than one type of diversity,” they’ll say; “Demographic diversity is important, but if we want to maximise our ability to find creative solutions to our clients’ challenges, we also have to ensure that we have access to a wide range of different thinking styles on every project team.”

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? In theory, nothing; it’s certainly true that firms that promote a culture of groupthink will end up getting outcompeted by those that don’t. But in practice, the concept of “diversity of thought” often gets wheeled out by firms as a way of avoiding real accountability and justifying a lack of progress on D&I issues. Unlike demographic diversity, diversity of thought is more or less impossible to accurately and objectively measure—and thus can act as a convenient placebo that allows leaders within a firm to convince themselves that their organisations are more diverse than they actually are. Spend too much time talking about diversity of thought, and there’s a danger that your clients will notice what you aren’t telling them about the representation of people of colour among your partnership, or the pay gap between men and women in your firm, or whether you’ve provided enough accommodations for employees with disabilities, and so on.

Anyone who’s spent even a tiny amount of time working for a large professional services firm knows that this industry has a diversity problem. Yes, firms have made some great strides over the past few years—particularly when it comes to diversifying their graduate intakes—but even so, women, people of colour, LGBT people, and many other groups are still dramatically underrepresented within the upper echelons of a typical consulting firm. Until these issues are addressed, shouting too much about your firm’s “diversity of thought” risks sounding hollow at best and hypocritical at worst.

None of this is to suggest that a diversity of thinking styles isn’t important, or that it can’t help firms deliver more effective client solutions. But it should emerge as an organic result of promoting demographic diversity. The way people think is informed by their lived experiences; so if you fill your firm with people who have had different experiences of interacting with the world—as a consequence of their race, their religion, their sexuality, their gender identity, and so on—then you will naturally create a situation in which different thinking styles are represented within your organisation.

After all, if your firm was a genuinely diverse one, you wouldn’t need to brag about your “diversity of thought”; it would be second-nature.