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The Power of Inclusion

When I was in the third grade we went on a field trip to a team-building ropes course. This of course was one of the highlights of the year because as any 3rd grader will tell you, leaving the classroom to essentially go play outside all day can’t be beat.

And while it was fun, there was one activity in particular that helped shape who I am today.

It was the infamous,

“get your team across the river of lava” activity.

We were given three big boards and two small boards to use as our tools to get across the field without touching the molten hot lava below us. Okay it was grass, but at the age of eight your imagination has no limits. The boards were not long enough to reach across the whole field, and we had to get our whole team across at one time.

Without any further instruction from the adults, we all raced to the boards. The fastest boys and girls shoved their way to the front each wanting to take charge of how to get across. It started primitively, throwing the boards across the field, trying to leap frog across from board to board, but morale quickly deteriorated as each attempt continued to fail. With 20 kids and only five boards, only a select group got to be a part of the planning process for our strategy to get across.

And so there I was, the outlier— a little too shy and a little too defeated to try to fight my way into the “situation room” that currently contained the most outspoken, and popular kids in our class. Over 20 minutes had gone by, an eternity to a 3rd grader, and we still had not figured it out. Sitting demoralized on the side, I began to watch and think about what really needed to happen. I could see how the boards could be connected to make a bridge, and while that had been tried initially the idea was quickly shot down because the boards still weren’t long enough to cross the whole field. But as I sat there, I realized that if we formed the initial bridge, we could all squeeze onto the boards and start an assembly line passing the back board up to the front, and work our way across the field.

Still sitting on the sidelines I was hesitant to share my revelation because I didn’t think anyone would listen. Mrs. Tridle, my 3rd grade teacher, must have noticed my wheels turning and asked if I had an idea. I told her my idea but explained how I wouldn’t be able to convince my 3rd grade peers. With her support and motivation, she encouraged me to step up and share. At first I was hesitant, but as I explained and as more of the other outliers jumped up to support me, we started on a new path to build this moving bridge.

After a little trial and error the method worked!

Everyone had to get involved as part of the assembly line, everyone had to keep their balance so as not to fall into the lava, and we each felt included in the solution of this challenge. With all of us listening to each other, supporting each other, and holding on to each other we finally crossed the lava with no more time left to do any of the other planned activities.

I share this anecdote not only because it was one of the first times I experienced being a leader, but more so because I think it highlights the key distinction between collaboration and inclusion.

Unfortunately, the “situation room” for the lava strategy with only the most popular or outspoken kids continues to happen 20 years later. The main difference is that instead of outside in a grassy field, it’s happening in board rooms. As more and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon of trying to enact more collaborative processes, I would caution to make the distinction between collaboration and inclusion.

  • Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something.

  • Inclusion is the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

The goal should not just be to collaborate, but to inclusively collaborate.

For those first 20 minutes of failing to get across the lava, we were collaborating. But that collaboration was not inclusive.

Inclusive collaboration has to be intentional. Leaders need to have awareness and humility to be able to recognize when it’s not happening, and a desire to correct social exclusion. Just as Mrs. Tridle was able to detect my eagerness to participate, our leaders need to be able to do the same — to motivate and encourage everyone in a group to share their unique skills to solving the challenge at hand. Not everyone is naturally extroverted or charismatic, but that should not determine a person’s value nor should it exclude them from being invited to collaborate. I appreciate Susan Cain’s perspective on this in her Ted Talk about the power of introverts.

As work becomes more complex and the need for collaboration increases, a need for empathy to drive social inclusion should be emphasized.

It should also be said that not all work is complex and not all work requires inclusive collaboration. Certain problems can be solved by individuals, and those times should be respected as well. We should not collaborate just for the sake of saying we did. Inclusive collaboration should be meaningful, and each person invited to collaborate should have a meaningful purpose and should know their value. Too often this is assumed, or not even considered.

If leaders and facilitators can make this skill a priority then they will be able to harness the power of inclusion to achieve any challenge, including crossing a river of lava.

Madison Stevens

Design Leader and Strategist M.F.A, Design Thinking and Leadership

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