In the face of growing cutbacks to budgets due to economic uncertainty, there can be a propensity to go about business as usual — checking boxes, following best practices, and not trying anything new in order to avoid risking failure. And when it comes to DEI initiatives, the propensity to steer clear of all innovation is even stronger.

For example, leaders may notice that a lot of promotion advocacy happens on the golf course, so instead of coming up with new avenues for more inclusive off-sites, the company may offer golf lessons for their women employees. Trying to fit people into pre-existing workplace conditions that were designed for White men may feel like a step in the right direction but it actually lacks ingenuity and it resists true inventive thinking.

If you are going to try to create change, you're going to make mistakes, and it's going to be uncomfortable.
Eliza VanCort, consultant and author of "A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space"

Instead, DEI initiatives should be treated like a new product launch — where you design, test, and iterate as needed. Like any ambitious project, there also has to be room for failure.

“If you are going to try to create change, you're going to make mistakes, and it's going to be uncomfortable,” says Eliza VanCort, consultant and author of A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space. “And that's okay. Because everyone else has felt uncomfortable for a very long time, and you're trying to make it better.”

Even in her work as a DEI expert, she openly notes the times she’s fallen short. Last year, she shared a speech pattern on a social media video that she explained could read as passive aggressive and unkind. But, she was quickly called out by commenters on her page about how that was a vocal standard for White women and could be interpreted differently for Black women and her advice might be considered “tone policing.” After listening and having many conversations with experts on the topic, she posted a video apologizing and thanking the people who were willing to engage in a discussion with her. “I made a mistake that was quite insensitive, but what mattered was the fact that I didn’t make the mistake someone else’s problem,” she says.

On the organizational level, failures can and will happen — but it’s important to be aware of the many iterations that failure can look like. “You’ll either hear a lot of constructive feedback, or you’ll hear nothing, but [true failure is when] there is no shift in the number of [diverse] people moving up the leadership ranks, no shift in the employee engagement survey results, and no shift in hiring more people from equity-seeking communities,” says Ritu Bhasin, CEO and Founder of Bhasin Consulting and author of We’ve Got This. It’s better to try something new and receive feedback, than to risk seeing no progress in reaching diversity goals.

These “failures” can also be addressed proactively. “Just like any other programming or organizational design shift, we’re trying to implement, gather feedback, input the data, and do a full analysis,” says Bhasin. So she recommends asking your team to do a retrospective: “What did we do? What didn’t go well? What could have been done differently?”

When DEI is treated as seriously as a big product launch or a corporate reorg, only then can it have real, radical impact towards building a sense of belonging and creating a culture that isn’t afraid to adapt and innovate for equity.