Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

The 'Bifocal approach': Linking individual development to organisational change

The ‘bifocal approach’ is a term I coined to encapsulate my approach to organisational change. I am playing with the idea of bifocal spectacles, where the lower part of the bifocal lens focuses on the near (individual change and development) and the top part of the bifocal lens focuses on the distant (organisational change). When I first used bifocal spectacles (and before they became multifocal!) they made me feel rather ill – switching focal length was disorienting but with practice it quickly became seamless, almost instantaneous. Developing this capacity to switch between focal lengths is critical, I believe, to achieving our goals when working towards organisational change.

In my experience most individual development in organisations is just that – individual development that remains disconnected from broader change agendas.

Most women’s programs for example focus on boosting women’s skills and confidence without any reference to the need for broader gender change or the ways in which women and men could contribute to that change. Leaders, despite leadership development, often remain unversed on the critical role they play in creating organisational cultures and are not assisted to examine deeply held beliefs and attitudes that become translated into day to day behaviours and decision-making in the workplace.

Most mentoring programs follow a similar pattern. Mentors focus on providing a career boost for their mentee, focusing on the individual. What is lost is the bigger picture – the capacity to turn mentoring into an organisational change strategy. Adopting a bifocal approach encourages mentors collectively to bring the more distant vision into focus, with an accompanying sense of inquiry. What are they learning about their organisation? And how could they build a more enabling culture for their mentees and others like them in the organisation? Individual development, for the mentee and the mentor can become linked to organisational change.

The other side of the coin are the organisational interventions that fail because they are not linked to individual development. We all know of the policy-practice gaps that exist in organisations. From a gender perspective, many organisations have excellent flexible working policies but the capacity of individuals to make use of these provisions is often at the manager’s discretion. Likewise the capacity for employees to work part-time or jobshare can easily be vetoed. Without a change in attitudes these provisions often remain limited to lower level positions, limiting career advancement. Excellent recruitment policies and procedures can similarly be subverted or undermined by unconscious bias on the part of the interviewers.

These examples highlight the need to link individual development and organisational change. In each case, individuals be they leaders, managers, women, men, mentors – all need to understand how their attitudes, beliefs and importantly behaviours, contribute to, or undermine the desired organisational culture.

The bifocal approach arose from my gender equity work, designing women’s leadership development programs to become organisational change strategies. However I have found it to be broadly applicable. The bifocal approach provides a way to tackle culture change. If we are serious about creating more enabling, inclusive, equitable and diverse organisations – that are adaptive and innovative – then we need to link individual development to organisational change. Either one, the focus on the individual or the organisation, without the other will not bring about the desired change.

In a future blog I’ll explore the importance of program and intervention design. Many women’s programs, mentoring programs and leadership initiatives can be re-designed using bifocal principles.