Helping the commissioner move from a desire for something different to committing to something different
Recently I was asked to assist a multi-site, multi-national, multi-lingual division of 300 people to hold a whole group event. They had recently taken part in a larger organization staff satisfaction survey and they wanted to address some of the concerns raised by the results that were specific to their division. The Human Resources Business Partner tasked with organizing this attended a day I ran on Appreciative Inquiry and asked me if I could help them with this event.
By the time I was involved, the leadership had already shared the results with the division and had identified four/five key areas they wanted to focus on for a community day.
Objectives of this paper
I want to take this opportunity to explore the journey of moving with them from where they were in their thinking and expectations when I joined them, to where they needed to be to get behind an event informed by Appreciative Inquiry and positive psychology principles. It was a challenging and at times bruising journey, much more of a challenge than designing and delivering the actual event. The whole experience chimed with my increasing awareness that even when people know they want - organizational practice that is positive, strengths-based, affirmative and so on - they are still thrown by the realization of what working in these ways means in practice. To be able to really embrace these exciting and emerging ways of working means giving up some previously unchallenged ideas about organizations, change and leadership. I thought this might be an area to fruitfully explore further.
The start of the Journey
After some preliminary conversations, the first thing we did was to pull together, for want of a better description, a planning group. The purpose of this group, from my perspective, is two-fold: firstly to work with me to co-create the objectives and process of the event; and secondly to act as ambassadors back into the organization spreading the invitation, generating interest in, and excitement about, the event and encouraging people to come. In doing this they are putting their reputations on the line, which pretty much means they have to themselves believe in the potential of the event. In this process we are calling on the social contagion process identified by positive psychology whereby people become infected by the emotions and ideas of others. I needed to infect the planning group and they others.
I flew in to join a group of over twenty people distributed amongst the room I was in physically and two video conference screens for other locations. The group was a mix of the invited and self-selected, including the three senior managers of the division. These were busy people with a keen desire to help their division by telling those assembled the answers to the challenges and what should happen. They also expected me to come with a clear design for the event.
Instead I turned up keen to identify the questions we wanted to address on the day; and to consider the broader context of the division beyond just the staff survey results. So instead of scribbling down all their ‘answers’ to what the division should do, allowing them to feel they had done their bit of contribution, I insisted on saying things like ‘If that is the answer, what is the question?’ and then ‘Is that a question we want to consider at our event?’ And ‘That sounds like a great idea, save it for the day’ and ‘What is the overarching or organizing question of the whole event – you’re all talking about the need for a shift in work culture in order to meet a changing future – how can we both connect to this and the staff survey?’ This clash of expectations about both the process of the meeting and the point of the event took us all by surprise. It was a bad-tempered meeting with a high level of frustration expressed by many of the people in the room.
One of the ways to indicate difference to others is in the language we use. One of my consistent challenges in this assignment was that everyone document I wrote in positive, appreciative, vital, emotionally laden language, was reviewed and edited by others before it could be communicated to the group, and would consistently be translated back into the safe, familiar, bureaucratic language- devoid of life or emotion- of the organization. Words like ‘dreaming’ ‘playing’ and ‘poetry’ were excised as being outside the permitted lexicon. It became clear that a considerable shift was needed before the group would be in a position to do anything different. And that would take courage from the internal commissioners as well as myself. It also meant I had to be courageous in the face of considerable opposition to my approach and ideas.
Meanwhile background discussions with the divisional leader revealed that he wasn’t so much leading this process as delegating it.. However, he was behind our approach in principle. We discussed whether attendance should be voluntary or compulsory. We agreed to go for voluntary attendance. This puts the onus on the planning group to ensure the event is clearly valuable, accessible and inviting. It means people have to put their reputations on the line by saying ‘It will be good, you should come’, they can’t hide behind ‘the organization says you must’.
The continuing journey
Back in the planning group, those present are fixed on the idea that the day must be clearly based on the five key items identified from the staff survey (understanding of job role, teamwork, relationship with line managers, learning and development, how we work within our organization) as needing attention. It is also clear the group as a whole have a conventional analysis-and-recommendations event in mind. I am at a loss to understand how this approach can address the challenges. How can you plan to affect relationships with line managers? You have to create different relationships through different experiences and conversations. Facets of organizational life and culture like this need to be addressed ‘in relationship’.
While I have a clear sense of the structure they have in mind as it is common organizational currency, I am struggling to help them see the approach I am suggesting, a co-creative dialogic event based on Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space, since it is not. They persistently describe it as vague and insubstantial and demand that I make it more concrete. There is a high level of skepticism in the room and continuing frustration that ‘no progress is being made’. I am ready to give up; I didn't sign up for a fight. I offer to run a webinar to explain the thinking and research behind my approach. This is agreed.
In the webinar ‘Introduction to large group change methodologies’ I outline the difference between the mechanistic and ‘living human system’ view of organizations. I explain that this leads to two key different ways of approaching change: planned and emergent. I explain the factors we work with to influence emergent change. I talk about large group emergent change processes, the importance of attending to mood and factors that affect employee engagement. In other words I explain the psychology behind these approaches. Not everyone attends the webinar but some do and this proves to be a turning point.
After the webinar I send this out to help people see the difference.
Comparing Conventional Problem Solving and System-Growth Approaches to Creating Change
This document is designed to be read following the webinar.
This table compares and contrasts the two approaches on a number of dimensions. The intention is to make the difference more evident.
By the next meeting some people are cautiously optimistic. It is agreed that for the next meeting the internal consultant and I will present two alternative plans for the event. The internal consultant creates one based on the organization’s standard operating procedure of allocated ‘splinter groups’ that work together throughout the day on the five ‘ topic streams ’ and then ‘feedout’ their findings and recommendations at the end of the event. I put forward an alternative based on an Appreciative Inquiry structure with an Open Space section for ‘design’.
At the meeting to discuss these two approaches it emerges that the standard design has been used by this group twice before. And that those who were present at these previous occasions can report that a great day was had but that afterwards ‘nothing changed’. This articulation facilitates a second significant shift in the conversation. More participants are ready to engage with the idea of doing something different. The conversation moves towards exploring this by articulating their fears about trying something different, and specifically about the approach I am suggesting.
Some of the fears expressed about my ‘system’ approach
- Staff members won’t speak up in front of managers
- People can’t be trust to follow ‘simple rule’ instruction e.g. to form groups with people they don’t know: they need to be told where to go
- People can’t be trusted to follow a process: effectively they won’t ‘play’ and will revert to deficit conversations despite invitations and instructions to have different conversations
- It’s too wooly, people won’t understand and won’t come
- People will use it as an opportunity to pursue personal vendettas
- People won’t be brave enough to name what needs to be named or to put forward topics for the Open Space session
- Our people are too sophisticated to want to ‘play’ with objects to create visual representations of possible futures, they will find such an invitation insulting to their intelligence.
In attempting to alleviate these fears people put forward ideas such as
- Managers shouldn’t be allowed to attend
- Every group needs to be facilitated to ensure it stays on track
- Everyone must be directed at all times about where they are to be and who they are to be with
My response to this conversation was based on three key principles
1) The method must match the desired outcome. So, for example, if you want to use the event to increase staff empowerment (as they did) then the process of the event must itself be empowering: people must be allowed to self-organize and make decisions around guiding principles or simple rules (new desired culture), not be micro-managed (current obsolete culture). By the same token if you seek to create greater engagement then the event needs to be engaging, which means that people need to able to talk about and work on what is engaging to them.
2) To be effective any changes discussed and agreed need to include and reflect the whole system ipso facto we really want the managers to be present as they are part of the system that we wish to affect. Incidentally if ‘the relationship with line managers’ is one of the outcomes from the staff survey they want to affect then its going to be very hard to have impact on that without the managers being present.
3) I can’t guarantee that these feared outcomes won’t happen, they might; when you give people choice (empower them) you can’t also dictate the choice they make. What we have to do is create the environment that makes it likely that the kind of conversations we want to happen will happen, that creates the conditions for a great event and great outcomes. We can only invite people to take part and to come with us. We can work hard to create the best possible chance of that happening.
And so, not without misgivings, the group decided to take a risk and go with the unfamiliar design. At which point the large group dissolved and a smaller group of five of us became the ‘logistics’ group.
As the group got busy on issuing formal and personal invitations the numbers expected grew from under 100 to over 200 and in the event was over 250. The event was deemed to be a tremendous success with a great wave of energy generated and lots of ideas were volunteered to be carried forward by different groups of those present in different areas and projects. Many participants expressed their pleasure in an event that concentrated on the positives, and that gave them time to think or to breathe. Many commented on the pleasure of meeting so many of their colleagues. A number of members of the planning group expressed a sentiment along the lines of: ‘Well I have to admit I was rather skeptical about this but actually it’s been really good.’. Once again my faith in the power of Appreciative Inquiry to transport people and transform human relations, to draw out the best of people, had been vindicated. However, I found the journey to get there tough and was more than once on the point of withdrawing, giving up or giving in. I wanted to draw out some of my reflections on the process of getting from there to here.
1) Sometimes commissioners know they want something different but they find that difference hard to visualize and are alarmed by the reality of the difference.
2) The path for any particular group from there to here is found and forged as it unfolds. In other words while the event itself, by design, has an emergent quality so does the journey of getting to the event.
3) It is challenging to be in the position of upholding the integrity of a true co-creative dialogic event: it would be easy to succumb to a series of seemingly small concessions that would help the commissioners feel safer but would seriously harm the delicate yet robust balance of factors that cause these events to work.
4) That we need to be more like a windmill, engaging with the force of sentiment and argument by redirecting and deflecting it rather than like a brick wall, meeting it head on. A key way to do this is to ask questions that allow people to see and think differently rather than always providing answers. In this instance one of the most powerful questions was ‘And then what happened?’ after someone had described the two great previous events they’d had based on the Standard Operating Procedure. This question produced a thoughtful silence, an admission of the fact that actually ‘nothing really happened’ and nodding agreement, and then more thought and an emerging willingness to contemplate something different. I didn’t have to argue against doing the same thing a third time, some of the group themselves started to argue against it and for trying something different. While ‘What have we got to lose?’ might not be the most inspiring call to action it is definitely a place to start.
5) And finally, for myself, the realization that my sense of where the work would be was misplaced. I imagined the challenge to be around designing and delivering a great event. In the event that was the easy part. The real challenge lay in helping the group shift sufficiently that they could even engage with reality of hosting an event of this nature: of getting them from there to here.