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Creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy? Don’t Overcomplicate It.

IBIS offers strategic DEI planning services customized for a range of organizational sizes, goals and needs. While our strategic frameworks vary between clients, senior consultant Alex Suggs makes the case, below,  for the application of “design thinking” when it comes to DEI.

Since its inception in 1978, the firm IDEO has practiced what it refers to as human-centered design. And, in the last 15 or so years, the firm is often credited with popularizing the widely-known, human-centered methodology know as design thinking. This approach to problem solving enables people to develop innovative, feasible, and desirable solutions that effectively resolve problems.

How does this relate to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Often, organizations recognize the need for a data-driven diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy but they don’t know where to start. Let’s walk through an easy-to-follow model that breaks this down so things feel a bit more manageable.

The 5-stage model of Design Thinking was originally proposed by the Hasso-Pla

ttner Institute of Design at Stanford. The stages include: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Let’s see what this might look like in practice.

Stage 1: Empathize.

At this stage, you will want to gain a better understanding of your employees – the people you are ultimately aiming to support. What are their biggest pain points? What do they love most about your organization’s culture? Are systemic inequities coming to light?


  • Gather qualitative data via focus groups and interviews for individual perceptions.
  • Focus on discrepancies across demographic groups and levels in the organization. For example, Black women in your organization may feel very differently than white men; individual contributors may feel very differently than leaders.
  • Don’t assume you know the issues. Listen to what employees are telling you – perception influences one’s reality.
  • Compare what you’re learning with any quantitative data derived from climate surveys and assessment of policies, practices, and programs to uncover systemic issues.
  • Realize your employees may have more trust in a third party. Consider seeking out an experienced partner to assist you in these efforts.

Stage 2: Define

Next, analyze your gathered data to pinpoint your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Define what exactly you are solving for and who you are solving for so that your organization’s DEI strategy addresses the true needs of your employees.


  • Ensure the data is being analyzed by a diverse group of stakeholders. People may approach this data differently depending on their mental models and identities. What may stand out to one person, may go unnoticed by another.
  • Don’t discount your organization’s strengths. By building on these, momentum can be generated for tackling the hard stuff.
  • Reframe problems into questions. By focusing on what you want to achieve, you can then find innovative ways to address any issues.
  • Summarize the key findings with your employees. Do they feel you heard them correctly? Reactions to the findings is often data itself.
  • Learn what data is still needed but know when it’s time to move on. If you get stuck at this stage, progress comes to a halt and fatigue may kick in.

Step 3: Ideate

Utilize the data to define your employees’ needs. Then use this stage to solve for them. This can range from straightforward, practical ideas all the way to outrageous, unthinkable suggestions for transforming your organization’s culture. Begin with brainstorming but then eventually pair down the final action steps that may help your organization meet your employees’ desired future state.


  • Start big. Take off your devil’s advocate hat and let yourself dream up any and all ideas. By starting too small, you may fail to properly challenge and stretch your organization in a way that can result in meaningful change.
  • Don’t do it alone. Bring together culture champions and known influencers in your organization to form a DEI Council charged with developing the strategy. Ensure this group is diverse for best results.
  • Don’t know what best practices to integrate? Once again, consider tapping into the expertise of an experienced partner.
  • Use colorful sticky notes for this stage (just for fun).

Step 4: Prototype

Draft a plan – your first prototype. See what it looks like on paper. Take it around the organization to various stakeholders to get initial feedback. Keep what feels right to them, toss what doesn’t resonate.


  • Break down the strategy into concrete pillars that align directly with your organization’s broader business strategy and priorities. Not only will this result in less time connecting the dots for stakeholders but it will also reflect how DEI will enable your organization to meet its bottom line.
  • Ensure there is governance and accountability built into the strategy for employees to review. Without this, it won’t gain traction. Senior leaders are required to step up to find success.
  • Don’t get too married to this initial draft of action items. It’s a prototype meant for feedback. If employees don’t feel it’s hitting the mark, let that dictate your next draft.

Step 5: Test

You’ve made it to the final stage. Pat yourself on the back and now get ready for the hard part! Finalize a strategy and begin implementing action items. See what progress your organization can make in the short-, mid-, and long-term. Take note of key learnings, keep an ear to the floor and listen to your employees as you go, routinely measure progress, and revise and refine the plan on an ongoing basis.


  • Pair each action item with concrete metrics, owners, budget allocation, and a timeline for completion – what gets measured gets managed.
  • Identify and prioritize the foundational items in the strategy that set up the other action items for success.
  • Bring employees along on the journey. Help them get involved at each step. Without them on board, who is this strategy for?
  • Communicate progress – no achievement is too small.

Following this stage, prepare to apply this model again in time to continually center your organization’s employees. A human-centered strategy is sure to be met with greater success. Let’s solve for the right things and be adaptable for when those things inevitably change over time.

This work is hard, but don’t let the initial ambiguity of this process keep you from taking the first step! Good luck and reach out should you need a hand.

Alex Suggs is a Senior Consultant at IBIS.  She is energized by courageous conversations and operating through a design-thinking lens, engaging in a human-centered approach with empathy as a key aspect in approaching challenges.