Tough CookieEd. Note-I am on Spring Break this week. The Two Tough Cookies graciously agreed to once again provide a week of guest posts. 

So, you have done your cultural assessment, you have identified gaps that need to be addressed in terms of change, and you’re ready to take action. The first tool we’ll explore with you is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The basic premise for AI rests on a “glass half full” perspective, insofar as the basic assumption is that something is indeed working well, rather than approaching a change initiative from the perspective that something’s “broken” and needs to be fixed. This flies in the face of convention, as most managers are equipped to problem-solve, not look for opportunities to change by improving already functioning systems. In sum, AI operates on the deceptively simple premise that organizations grow in the direction in which they focus their attention – when you focus on the problems, the number and severity of problems increase. When you focus on ideals, achievements and best practices, these positive influencers tend to flourish, not the conflicts (more on the power of positive thinking in closing later this week).

Logically, when you get right down to it, people like to be told they are doing a good job, from the bottom organizational rung right up to the top, and in a learning environment, students generally do better overall when told about their successes – it makes them want to work that much harder to get more recognition for a job well done. Traditional problem-solving tends to focus people’s energy on what is not working well, and people can only do this for so long before they become demoralized and resigned to a dysfunctional state. It can also lead to a downward spiral of discussion, with participants often discussing, and displaying to others, their failings. This in turn can generate responses of blame, denial, defensiveness, and anger. Most people do not like to be told they have a problem, or worse yet, are the problem that needs fixing, and in most instances will resist acknowledging their contribution to the problem. This then sets the organization up for a culture of problem-centered improvement (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) with people waiting to take action until problems are identified or systems start to fail.

Appreciative Inquiry, on the other hand, gives change agents a way to identify, replicate, and magnify successes instead of focusing on what is broken and how to fix it. So what does AI look like from a cultural change initiative in a corporate environment? Let’s take your typical “continuous improvement” model. Continuous Improvement is an organizational approach to appreciative inquiry, recognizable as Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing, to GE’s Six Sigma.   But you don’t need to perform a Kaizan event to adopt appreciative inquiry for your organization’s culture change initiatives. What you do need, however, is a team of cross functional participants who are willing to spend an hour or so with you brainstorming to 1) recall past and present successes (small or insignificant as they may seem), 2) generate insights into why those events were successful, and 3) identify steps that can be used to reinforce and amplify what went well.

With a little bit of preparation, change agents can become quite adept at facilitating Appreciative Inquiry “interventions.” But it requires certain skills to be successful at it – you must be willing to adopt a new paradigm for change, one that steers away from problem solving, and leans towards championing successes. You must believe that words carry meaning that create reality. You must be also good at helping others to think in terms of the positive outcomes that have really worked (even if it doesn’t seem like there are many out there to choose from!), helping them sort the wheat (success) from the chaff (failure), and weaning them from a tendency to want to address the failures.   You don’t want to do the thinking for them, you want to trigger a thought process in them that will result in the “glass half full” perspective, which can be a daunting task indeed. You must also be a great listener, using your limited “talk time” to channeling the positives, and helping others identify even the small wins. There is an elegance to the concept of asking people to remind you about what went well in their work, one which helps and even encourages participants be heroes. When the discussions take an upward, positive spin towards recognition of even the smallest of wins, instead of a downward spiral of blame gaming, people will feel incented to be champions for removing barriers to change. Empowerment for change becomes the norm, and a servant-leadership culture will begin to emerge.

Since we are talking about a culture change, and not a process change, start simply – have the team identify their two best bosses they have ever worked for in their entire career. Make sure you have seasoned, senior leaders in the room, people who have been exposed to a variety of work styles throughout their careers. Ask them to list the attributes and behaviors those bosses exhibited. If you run out of time (and you probably will if you only have an hour and 10 participants), give the team homework and conduct a follow-up meeting, creating lists of character traits, leadership styles, and communication techniques employed by these successful bosses. Close out the follow-up session by asking the team to offer some conclusions about their experiences, and capture them carefully. This is the discovery phase of AI.

Send the team out with more homework, asking them to read a few key articles on organizations and people who had successfully adopted and enacted the principles of servant-leadership. Try to find these success stories in industries that are similar to your own, so that the message “If they could do it, so can we” will resonate. Then ask the participants to identify things they had done in the past year that aligned with the servant leadership principles they’ve read about. This is the Understanding Phase of AI, as the participants emerge with a foundational grasp that small and large acts of service are performed every day by virtually everyone in the group, and that they are at their best, and more importantly, feel better about themselves, when they are “serving” rather than “commanding.”

Then take another session to explore the questions of “how can we serve more” and “who else do we need to serve?” Ideas will flow, action plans will develop, and managers can (and should) volunteer to be accountable for results. This process will allow the team to amplify and reinforce 1) what went well, and 2) what will happen next at your organization to lead towards a positive change for the better. You will note, after time, willingness and ability to change as employees learn to recognize what’s working well, and the efforts being taken to reinforce and amplify those positive outcomes. The process can take painful turns throughout its lifecycle in your organization, but the objective should be to empower a culture of liberating and spirited dialogue rather than toxic finger-pointing.

By encouraging people to view their organization with the “glass half full” perspective, and make shared meaning of the answers as to why things worked well, and then act on those responses, AI is a very strong tool for organizational change. It supports organizational learning and development in some very important ways:

  • It helps folks perceive the need for change by the very act of inquiry (discovery)
  • It helps focus on the positive outcomes, and discourages derailment through negativity
  • When you align your discoveries with the organization’s purposes and principles, it translates words into vision, vision into action, and belief into reality. Words carry meaning that create reality…..

I deployed the use of Appreciative Inquiry at one organization I worked for as an emergency measure when an enterprising human resource professional decided to change the participants of the first women’s leadership committee meeting without telling me. Instead of inviting rising stars like I had asked, she invited well-established women leaders to the meeting. As chair of the Diversity Working Group for the organization, I felt compelled to act quickly to avoid the hiccup that was bound to happen, since the invitees clearly didn’t need help becoming ‘leaders’ and would fail to understand what the program’s objectives were without more. So I revised the agenda, and led the team through a discovery-phase Appreciative Inquiry session. The organization was male dominated, with only 10% of its leaders being female in midlevel management positions (even though nearly 50% of its employees were female), and not a single woman on the executive leadership team.

My line of inquiry was rather simple: I asked the participants to identify projects that they enjoyed working on in the organization, and why. I asked them to identify what made the project enjoyable, and asked them to consider “soft” data points (people) rather than hard data points (subject matter, problems tackled, resources allocated, etc.). From this initial session, I asked them to draw conclusions as to why it went well, factoring out all of the hard data, and only factoring in the soft data. To the last, the team identified 4 metrics to act upon: important people skills displayed by project participants, communication difficulties with the male leaders (a bit intimidating but doable if properly coached), the benefit of exposure to other functions and what they learned through the shared experiences, and the mentoring that they received during the projects they worked on. Voila! I said – That’s what our group needs to present to leadership – how to create more of that….

I was able to take this input back to the executive steering committee, and advise them that based on the input, we needed to address the needs of the women in terms of leadership skills building, communications coaching for active listening (for men) as well as confidence building (for women), job rotations or special projects that solicited participation across functional areas, and mentoring programs that would give women in the leadership pipeline much needed exposure to leaders across the enterprise. The experience gave the organization the data points to define the kind of organization we wanted to be with our “Diversity” initiative. It was also the single most important tool we used to define our Diversity “Vision,” articulate it for the broader organization, create an action plan around it, and deliver. Our first women’s leadership conference was a summit of that year’s exercise in AI that drew women from 30 different countries and across multiple functional areas, and was a huge success. It is also one of the most touching, memorable achievements in my entire career as a compliance professional, and it had absolutely nothing to do with catching bad guys, and everything to do with influencing change for the better.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the authors. The authors are not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. 

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