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.
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.
We’ve discussed “sound and current data.” Now we need to get a handle on gathering that sound and current data.
The “first and always intervention” is closely related to the discipline of sound and current data. Our assumptions and interpretations about what’s going on and what’s needed are generally sufficient when things are normal and we wish them to continue that way. However, when planning and implementing a change process, sound and current data are needed to make decisions about change strategies and tactics that will lead to desired results.
Gathering sound and current data starts with the initial client meeting. Clients are usually forthcoming about their view of the problem and the solution they wish us to carry out. This initial data-gathering process gives us crucial sound and current data about the client who must lead the project and, accordingly, is a significant intervention. The data gathered during this interview can significantly shift the client’s perspective and provide the added value needed to positively influence the client toward a more systemic perspective. I find myself frequently asking the client questions like, “How do you know that?” and “How might you find out?” The client and I both learn through effective data gathering!
Data gathering during the initial interview is an important intervention for both the client and the practitioner. However, it is only focused on the client’s point of view, which is more likely than not to be the result of assumptions and interpretations of his or her system. Accordingly, the prudent change agent insists on a more systemic data-gathering process during which the practitioner interviews the key stakeholders who need to be involved in the proposed project. These interviews serve several purposes:
a. to develop a more systemic set of sound and current data that often may be quite different than that of the client’s.
b. to galvanize organizational energy in preparation for “something happening.”
c. to provide some initial empowerment coaching for those from whom data is gathered.
d. to strengthen the quality of the relationship between the practitioners and the stakeholders who were interviewed.
To begin these interviews, ask the following core questions
a. What’s working in the targeted system?
b. What needs improvement within the system?
c. What has been done to attempt improvement?
d. What barriers occurred during such attempts?
e. What were the reactions to the change goals and reason for it?
The information being sought by asking these particular questions is to identify the general themes and patterns extant about the state of the system and its readiness for a particular change goal. This data will help the practitioner develop the strategic and tactical plan for the change project and identify needs of the system, which could act as resistance to the change, so they can be considered, planned for and engaged.
Data gathering is not something that should be done only one or two times during a planned change process. It is continual as sound and current data is needed to ascertain the impact of other interventions and to know what’s changed since data was last collected and reviewed. Sound and current data is very fluid as systems are in constant flux, not just from our intended changes but also changes that are simply a part of human life. Thinking that things are now the way you left them is to fall prey to the inaccuracy that too often comes with such assumptions. Keep in mind, as well, that data gathering itself has an impact—raising expectations and/or triggering thought that might not have occurred otherwise—and thus, it is one of our critical interventions.
Learn to Make a Difference in the World of People, Teams, and Organizations
Feedback is needed for effective and efficient goal attainment. That should make it important to us and something that we would want to seek out on a regular basis. To the contrary, feedback in human systems seems to have a particularly bad reputation. What goes through your mind when someone says to you, “Can I give you some feedback?” Time to duck? Regardless of its unpopularity we use it all the time. When driving somewhere in your car you use landmarks as feedback that tells you that you are headed in the right direction. Unusual noises in your car are feedback that tells you that something may be wrong and that it’s time to take it to the mechanic. Those are just two of many, many ways that feedback is important to us. It seems to be feedback from other people that we often find problematic. We think that such unpopularity comes from our misunderstanding of it. So let’s set the record straight.
Feedback is information from our environment about how it is responding to us. With that information, we can judge if we are on target or off target toward whatever goals we may have within that environment. It is sound and current data that is available to us at all times, though we are often paying insufficient attention to notice it. Feedback allows us to evaluate to what extent the impact of our behavior is congruent with our intentions. The more we can fine-tune our behavior to be in sync with our intentions the greater will be our effectiveness.
People often attempt to use feedback as a direct means of changing someone’s behavior. In fact, it is not very good at that. Feedback offered from that intention is often heard as criticism, which, as often as not, generates defensiveness and resistance rather than the desired change. Hence, when someone says to you, “May I give you some feedback?” Duck!
As important as feedback is, managing it effectively calls for understanding three principles:
- Feedback always says something about the giver, not necessarily anything about the receiver. Consequently, let your initial response be curiosity about what’s going on with the giver, then decide what your next course of action might be.
- What is done with feedback is solely in the hands of the receiver. Consequently, be curious about why you are choosing to react the way you are, and then choose a response that might more effectively get you what you want.
- Feedback related the goals of the receiver is more likely to be accepted than feedback related to the goals the giver has for the receiver.
Kurt Lewin offered the formula: Behavior is a function of people in an environment Bf(P+E). Too often we attempt to manage our behavior solely on data from our internal belief systems (ignoring feedback from our environment) only to find ourselves with results we neither wanted nor intended. Effective goal achievement and change management call for paying close attention to the feedback from our environment (including of course the people in it) so that we can adjust our behavior to get the response we wish from those around us.
Learn to Make a Difference in the World of People, Teams, and Organizations http://bit.ly/zFCNfv
In recent blog posts we have looked at the stages of planned change, which can also be thought of in terms of critical interventions, and at the levels of organizations in which the skilled practitioner works. We also offered a general process of Organization Development that takes into account these stages and organizational levels. Now we will consider eight crucial disciplines, the mastery of which binds it all together.
Effectiveness with each of the prescribed stages of change across the levels of organization systems requires a degree of critical thinking that is generally beyond that found in the target organization and the general social milieu in which the organization exists.
Each of the eight disciplines directly supports the empowerability of human systems and the people that live and work within them. They also support the use of collaborative strategies and tactics aimed at open communication, consensual decision-making, cooperation, learning, and relationship building which together can make for powerful and productive human systems anywhere. Each is related to and supports the others toward a systemic understanding of critical thinking as applied to making humans systems both productive and satisfying.
These disciplines focus upon:
- Conscious Use of Self
- Systems Orientation
- Sound and Current Data
- Infinite Power
- Learning from Differences
- Support Systems
We will look at each of them in greater detail in the coming weeks.