Provision #443: Engage Every Stakeholder

Laser Provision

It’s natural to avoid and to isolate troublemakers. Unfortunately, that seldom works. Isolated voices have a way of surfacing and poisoning the well. That’s why Appreciative Inquiry suggests that we involve every stakeholder, even the malcontents, right from the beginning. Enabling everyone to be involved is an empowering experience for organizations. It generates better ideas with more commitment and follow through. If your organization could use a little more of that, read on.

LifeTrek Provision

How familiar is this scenario: in order to fix problems and improve performance, an organization’s leadership holds a daylong work session or an off-site retreat in order to identify problems, brainstorm ideas, develop strategies, and make plans. The leadership, perhaps at the Board and / or management levels, may look at data to assist in the problem identification process. The data may include quantified performance results, disaggregated to pinpoint specific areas of concern, as well as narrative reports representing a variety of perspectives.

Armed with such data, the leaders go to work to do what leaders do • they try to figure out what to do about the problems. Many times a grand scheme for change has been hatched in just this way, and most of them fail to achieve the results the leaders seek. As a result, the leaders go off again for another work session or retreat reviewing the problems and developing yet another strategy. If things don’t turn around, heads will eventually roll.

Ironically, heads will usually roll first at the front line rather than the leadership level. The people making the plans are wont to conclude that they made bad plans or implemented them poorly. They are quick to assume that the people who are tasked to do the work just don’t get it. They don’t work hard enough or smart enough. They don’t understand the new processes or they resist change because they are set in their ways and don’t see the wisdom of what the leaders came up with. How dare they! Of course it’s time for heads to roll.

If the problems continue after new people on the front line are brought in, heads will eventually roll on the leadership level as well. There is a bottom line in every human endeavor • whether you are going to school or running the school, whether you are accountable to stockholders or members, whether you get elected or appointed, whether you are chartered to make a profit or to change the world, whether you work for others or are in business for yourself. Everyone, at every level, in every arena, has someone to whom they are accountable. And when things get bad enough, even the top brass get changed.

Many people are surprised to discover, however, that changing out the leadership does not necessarily change the results. That’s because the leadership inherit not only the existing problems but also the existing practices of problem solving. If they inherit a top-down approach to problem solving, and if they continue in that vein, then they will soon discover that they are no better at moving the organization forward than their predecessors. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, they learn the limitations of trying to solve problems on the same level at which those problems were created.

Fortunately, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers leaders and everyone else who wants to change something a way of approaching problems on a different level from which they were created. By studying what works, and figuring out why it works, people get excited about change and find themselves opening up to the process. It becomes possible for every stakeholder to be fully engaged, since they have nothing to lose in the search for what works.

It cannot be overstated how different this is from traditional problem solving. When leaders go looking for problems, everyone hides. Even when statements are made about avoiding the blame game and wiping the slate clean, no one believes them. They know that problem solving is a euphemism for finger pointing. So they participate, if they are invited at all, with guardedness and half truths. No one wants to risk being exposed in the process.

Enter AI and the search for strength. Once people come to understand and trust that the process is not just a clever ruse for problem identification and fault finding, the degree of participation takes a quantum leap to an entirely different level of group process. Instead of leaders trying to solve problems for people and organizations, they share the appreciative search with people and organizations. This enables everyone to gain access to a wealth of enthusiasm and wisdom which was heretofore buried under a mountain of problems. As a result the outcomes are very different indeed.

This comes from both asking different questions and engaging every stakeholder. The two are integrally and inseparably intertwined. When we ask about problems, the stakeholders withdraw. When we ask about success, the stakeholders let down their defenses and risk being seen. As a result, the solutions are better in both design and delivery.

We can see this work in the true story of a global company seeking to improve both productivity and creativity. They started with one office in Europe, and they used a very appreciative and participatory process. Every single person in the facility was asked about their preferred work environment. They got together in focus groups to discuss why some projects were more successful than others and what could be learned from those projects. They were encouraged to think outside the box and they identified the need for flexible space that enabled them to work together in different configurations from day to day.

Architects were brought in to talk with them about their space requirements which led to the facility being completely rebuilt according to an open-space design with the ability to quickly switch between individual and group workspaces of different sizes and shapes. Upon completion, the results were dramatic. The investment in the process, and the capital expenditure in the building, more than paid for themselves. Both productivity and worker satisfaction soared. The new facility made it onto the cover of an architectural magazine as an award-winning design. Everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, was happy with the results and optimistic about the future.

That’s exactly what happens when an AI process is done correctly. People come up with ideas that would have been unthinkable apart from an empowered and empowering strength-based discovery and design process. Attitudes improve and energy elevates not just momentarily but on a sustained basis over time.

So everything ended up good with this global company, right? Not! Once they had their award-winning design, what do you think they did with that design in their facilities around the world? You guessed it. They went straight back to top-down leadership, announcing a timetable for rebuilding all their facilities according to the same design. Instead of engaging every stakeholder in the design process, as they had done during the pilot, they went to persuading and selling every stakeholder on the wisdom of their solution.

Now what do you think happened to productivity and work satisfaction? You guessed right again. The same award-winning design that had been so empowering in Europe was a complete bust in Japan. Not only did the workers in Japan resent the loss of privacy and traditional boundaries, they also resented the lack of involvement in the design process itself. A solution was being foisted upon them by management, and they acted out their resistance in ways that impacted the bottom line. Doh!

That’s because Appreciative Inquiry is neither an intervention nor an event. It is a way of doing business, a way of working, a way of treating people, and a way of being. AI continuously seeks to engage every stakeholder in the search for, the understanding of, and the innovation based upon things that work.

AI speaks of this in terms of the Wholeness Principle: not only do people seek wholeness, but wholeness brings out the best in people and organizations. Wholeness is both cause and effect. The more holistic the process, the more whole the results. That’s because a holistic process generates both knowledge and buy-in that is simply not possible through any other process. When people are left out we not only lose access to their perspective and their ideas, we also lose access to their love and their loyalty.

It’s hard work to make even small, remedial changes; it’s really hard work to make large, systemic changes. Without the total support, commitment, energy, and engagement of every stakeholder, even good ideas will never bear fruit. There may be occasional, shining examples of how the ideas work; but there will not be enough widespread adoption of those ideas to generate the harvest and deep and lasting change.

 “The experience of wholeness,” writes Diana Whitney & Amana Trosten-Bloom, “is one of understanding the whole story. It comes about when people are able to hear, witness, and make sense of each other’s differing views, perspectives, and interpretations of shared events. The whole story is never a singular story. It is often a synthesis, a compilation of multiple stories, shared and woven together by the many people involved.”

Ideally, everyone involved gets to tell their story including customers, vendors, and the interested public. Take a school system as a case in point. What does it mean to engage every stakeholder? The school board and the district employees are obvious stakeholders. AI would also seek to hear from students, parents, guardians, community members, business leaders, vendors, and governmental officials. Leaving no one out of the process is the universal starting point for AI, with the ideal forum being a summit that would bring everyone together at the same time.

That dynamic evokes trust, observes one participant in an AI process. “When everyone is there you don’t have to feel suspicious about what others will do • there are no others. It is collectively empowering. There is no one else who must approve your plan. You know that whatever you collectively decide can be done.”

When that is not feasible, AI would seek to use technology and forums so that every interest is represented and every individual who wants to be involved can be involved. There can be no wholeness when some people feel excluded or otherwise dismissed from the process.

That’s as true in small groups and family systems as it is in large groups and organizations. It does not help to identify one person as the patient that needs fixing. Only when the system as a whole becomes appreciative of its differing perspectives and voices can we expect to see healing progress and lasting change. 

Coaching Inquiries: How comfortable are you with involving everyone in the discovery process? Are there people you would rather avoid and isolate? How could you become more open to what these people know and what they have to offer? How could a strength-based approach come to you and to your organization? Who could assist you to open that door?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

Your last Provision arrived at the exact time I needed it! I’m very intrigued with the AI approach and love the idea of focusing on the pleasures instead of the problems. A colleague commented on emotions in much the same way you quoted someone speaking about our problems as weather patterns. He talked about emotions as clouds that pass over us. Also, I’ve come to understand my practice of meditation as aided by a gentle, positive attitude toward distractions just as you described. Thank you.

This week’s Provision, “Release Negative Accounts,” is a great read. I really enjoyed it and was inspired to try and notice the decision point between following negative or focusing on what does work. I think you might receive some interesting feedback. Some people will be inspired to not dwell on the negative. And others may challenge the idea of limiting our view of problems to only acknowledging their existence, and then focusing on what works, rather than going deeper into the problem when it may yield a positive result.

As a medical doctor I must say that the practice of medicine is all about problem-solving. We focus on what’s wrong, on disease not health. As Jesus once said, “People who aren’t sick don’t need a doctor.”

Physicians would do well to take an AI approach to life, but it is hard to imagine how to make that work in the clinic. It matters little that a patient’s digestive, renal, respiratory, circulatory, musculoskeletal, and neurological systems are all functioning great if the patient presents with a suspicious mole. The focus of the patient-doctor encounter has to be on the mole. The patient won’t be impressed if you point out that of all possible ailments she could have she is free of 99.99% of them!

Sadly it is the same in public health. The focus is on disease, on the “moles” in the community that cause suffering and concern. We don’t look for health in the population • we just assume it is there when there is an absence of disease. I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s how it is.

I really liked Erika’s Pathway in the recent Provision. I like how she points out that a seemingly positive goal can actually be a goal motivated by negativity. That’s a great insight. It’s amazing to me how much difference a shift in motivation can make.

I loved Erika’s viewpoint on negative energy. That’s been a lifelong battle for me. Thank you for the reminder.

I appreciated Kate’s Pathway, “Coaching Oneself.” I frequently struggle with negative messages running through my head. One of the best strategies I have learned for changing the tone of this inner conversation is a simple meditation I learned from Thich Nat Hahn. On the inward breath, I say “Yes, Yes, Yes.” On the outward breath I say, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.” I find it very helpful, especially as I am trying to quiet that inward noise to get to sleep.

I recently read Bob’s story about his successful journey from obesity to marathon running. Congrats!

I have sent you a video message so that you could put a face to a name and to say thank you ever so much for your LifeTrek Coaching Provisions. They really are good and I wondered if I could use a couple of your articles to put into my own newsletter. (Ed. Note: Thanks for the face! Permission granted, with attribution of course.) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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