Consequences are motivational. We choose (consciously or unconsciously to do certain things that we believe will bring us pleasure. We also choose (consciously or unconsciously to avoid doing certain things if we believe they will cause us pain or discomfort. Change in human systems is driven typically by either the positive consequences of achieving goals and visions of desired change or the negative consequences that may result if change does not occur, such as potential loss of productivity revenue, key employees, job, and loss of the business itself. This holds true for individuals and teams, though in many systems such consequences are not clear. For goals to be accomplished most effectively, all parties involved must be clear about the consequences of following through with or failing to follow through with their agreements.
To ensure change efforts in your organization are poised for the greatest possible success:
• make sure that those involved clearly understand the reason for the change and the desired outcome
• make sure that those involved understand their respective roles and responsibilities for accomplishing established goals
• understand what consequences, positive or negative, effectively motivate each individual, and
• clearly communicate the individually relevant positive and negative consequences of succeeding and failing to implement the change.
For many, the consequences of accomplishing goals and fulfilling agreements are sufficient motivators. For others, further motivation is needed and may take the form of additional coaching, disapproval of leaders and peers, loss of status or position, and even loss of job. What works depends entirely on what motivates any individual. Many efforts at change have failed due to a notable absence of clear and motivating consequences.
We design and implement various actions and events to create critical mass for some goal. In some fashion the system and the people in it will respond to those actions and events. Those responses—verbal and otherwise—are feedback that tells us if we have moved toward critical mass (positive feedback) or away from our goal (negative feedback). To be effective we must pay attention to and learn from this feedback to correct our course, if need be, or to hold steady.
In this vein, feedback is a data-gathering process. Such data can be gathered in several ways. Asking for feedback regarding the effectiveness of some event might be done with consensus checks that will tell you how close or how far you are from the needed agreement. I have worked with organization leaders who want to bring a discussion to closure about some action by asking if everyone agrees. When greeted with silence, I’ve heard the leader say, “OK, I’m taking your silence as consent to be disappointed when the requisite follow-through does not occur.” That silence might have been better interpreted as feedback indicating the possibility of concern regarding the proposal. Accordingly, the lack of follow-through might be seen as feedback indicating an insufficient critical mass.
The more important a project is the more important it is to gather, pay attention to, and understand all available feedback. Failing to do so easily leads to unnecessary do-overs and wasted time, energy, and money. Use a rigorous consensus checking process to be sure you have the buy-in needed or to further action that might better move you toward the critical mass of support needed.
An event is an interaction between two or more people designed to move a system, or part of a system, toward the goals of increasing system effectiveness and satisfaction of its members. Events are where contracts are agreed upon. These events might be at any and all levels of the system depending on the scope of the project. Practitioners design events for one person or 100 to get key stakeholders on the same page about goals, strategies, actions, and responsibilities. The OD practitioner also has the facilitation skills that may be needed for the event to be successful. From a practitioner’s perspective this would include:
1. One-on-one coaching events
2. Conflict resolution events at the interpersonal level
3. Meetings and team building events at the group level
4. Strategic planning and restructuring events at the organization level
The intention of a planned change event is to increase the support system for a particular change goal toward critical mass. Such events succeed because they increase the quality of connection between and among the participants on behalf of the goal. Establishing a relaxed, person-to-person (rather than role-to-role or rank-to-rank) dialogue is crucial to creating the level of effective collaboration and mutually useful communication. In this manner, the participants come to specific agreement about the goal, strategies to achieve it, relationship behaviors that would best support the collaboration, the facts surrounding the matter, and the tasks each is to accomplish. In the process, conflict and conformity would shift to learning from differences for the synergy and creativity that differences can produce. All of this is unlikely to be accomplished in a single meeting. Most organization development projects include a series of events at any or all of the human system levels—personal, interpersonal, group, and organization—to achieve the critical mass of support needed.
Contracting is a critical intervention that defines agreements about goals, collaborative strategies, roles, relationship behaviors, and next steps. Developing these agreements—repeatedly—are a core process of managing change in human systems. They build the support needed for the accomplishment of the goals. When that support reaches critical mass, the goal will have been achieved. Such support often creates a deeper sense of relationship leading to greater effectiveness and efficiency. It all starts with the contracting process between the practitioner and the client. It then extends through any desired agreements for support between the client and other members of the system.
These contracts should have two parts: One part focused on task issues and the other focused on relationship issues. The task issues to be covered include basic things like outcomes, strategies, tactics, roles, and accountability mechanisms. Nothing unusual there. What is different, however, is contracting for relationship issues. Contracting for straight talk and feedback are essential to building and maintaining the high levels of relationship quality needed for effective change processes and sustainably healthy human systems. What I can’t fathom is what makes the notion of contracting for relationship issues so difficult to remember! No matter how I coach and otherwise advocate for clients and students to do so, it doesn’t seem to happen unless I am present to broach the issue. When I inquire about this, the responses all circle around, “I didn’t think about.”
If you have any ideas about why remembering to contract for essential relationship behaviors is problematic, I’d love to hear from you!
One final thought: The more explicit and specific the contracting is the better the process! Implicit and general agreements dramatically increase the probability for misunderstanding which will disrupt the change process.
So many clients call me because they are in pain: the pain of low productivity, the pain of disgruntled employees, the pain of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, etc. All of that pain is what gets me in the door. At the same time, goals that are focused on ending pain often reflect an enervated client and an enervated organization, which dramatically slows the change process. Have you ever interviewed a group of folks who are past anger and are into resignation? Their affect is flat; they don’t believe that any change is possible. Many tell me stories of other consultants who have come and gone while making no difference at all.
To mitigate such circumstances, I need to help my clients and the others involved create for themselves personal and organizational visions that generate the positive energy of enthusiasm and excitement! One of my favorite ways of creating positive possibilities is to get a conversation going about what they believe they could accomplish when the pain is gone. This requires some patience and persistence, but it really helps. Another tactic I find to be useful is to encourage the person I’m working with to consciously use the current situation as an opportunity and help them to identify a meaningful support system that affords a more positive outlook.
Whatever your strategies and tactics, helping your clients move from negative energy to positive energy is an important skill. It is a skill that starts with choosing for ourselves a positive outlook. I’ve worked with a few internal practitioners who felt that certain changes within their organization were hopeless. Those practitioners have essentially rendered themselves ineffective. So we are back to our very first discipline: conscious use of self. If we can’t manage our own belief systems we won’t do very well helping our clients to manage theirs!