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.
Conscious use of self, described in our previous blog, calls for learning how to be aware of and direct our beliefs, our emotions, our thoughts, and our behavior. These are the primary points of choice that allow us to consciously manage ourselves. The choices we make at those points directly impact how well we manage or create change in our personal or organizational worlds.
Unfortunately, most of us normal human beings have only begun to develop full command of these tools of self. Most of us respond automatically to many situations where our goals would be better served by greater awareness and consciousness about how we are using our selves. Our automatic or habitual reactions are based on responses that were successful in some (generally unconscious, often childhood-based) past experiences. However, when applied too broadly and unconsciously to current situations, we find that the impact of too many of our behaviors fall far from our desired results.
How we use ourselves in one situation may or may not be very effective in another, though similar, situation. Over reliance on past experience is a significant pitfall to the flexibility we need to effectively work our way through today’s world of constant change. To gain this needed flexibility a deeper understanding of the choice points is useful.
Every action we take is directed by some combination of emotions and thoughts. Those emotions and thoughts are directed by our database of beliefs. The database is constructed from conclusions from past experiences, socializations (Edie says, “We’ve been duped by society”), and ideas of our own invention. For example, imagine that I want members of a team for which I am responsible to decrease the time they spend in conflict and increase their productivity. First, I need to determine what I’m doing (my actions, my behavior) that is contributing to the way things are rather than what I want, and what I could do that would work better. To find that out, I ask my team’s members. If they get that my curiosity is genuine, they’ll tell me. Now, I can consciously choose the behaviors that work rather than those that don’t.
Part 2 to be continued next week
Previously we looked at the stages of the organization development process: Contracting and Re-contracting, and Data Gathering, Intervention, Evaluation and Disengagement. Those stages are applied across the five levels of organizational systems—personal, interpersonal, group, organization, and community—as needed. These levels make up the second dimension of the Meta-Model of Planned Change.
At the personal level individuals are systems of intellect, emotion, and physicality that include their personalities, belief systems, opinions, attitudes, aptitudes, and relationships with others outside of the organization. The OD practitioner works at this level of system to support increased functionality regarding behavior that impacts the other levels of the system. This is what makes the work of the practitioner different from the psychotherapist—though we often need to refer clients to the latter.
Individuals, of course, interact with other individuals on a one-to-one basis. These relationships range in quality from close to distant, from attraction to conflict, and from trusting to distrust. It is the quality of these relationships that often dictate the quality of groups and teams that are the next level. The healthy organization can tolerate only a certain amount of dysfunction at this level. Where needed, the practitioner works to resolve dysfunctional interpersonal relationships to higher levels.
How well people work together in the group level of the system dictates a major portion of organizational effectiveness. At this level of systems strange things (that we have become quite used to) occur. Think of meetings you’ve been in where the individuals present were intelligent, likeable, and well-meaning, yet the meetings were dull and unproductive beyond belief. Groups are the fundamental units of organization. The bulk of the work of most organizations is done at this level. If the organization’s groups and teams do work well, the organization will do work well. Helping groups become teams and helping teams improve their productivity and levels of satisfaction is a crucial skill area for the practitioner.
An organization is essentially a group of groups working together. Sometimes these groups, these units of the organization, are not working well together. They may be at odds about priorities, strategies, or tactics. They may see themselves as competing for resources, status, or attention. Regardless, the OD practitioner helps her client identify and resolve as needed the various misalignments and conflicts toward improving productivity and satisfaction.
A very important aspect of the organizational level is culture. What is the culture of the organization? Is it helping or getting in the way of effectiveness and efficiency? Where are key levers needed to shift the culture if need be? The culture of an organization dictates as we’ve discussed earlier the beliefs, emotions, and general behavior of an organization. All of which in turn impact the functionality of the organization. How might a very authoritarian, bureaucratic, command-and-control culture that is very stable but stifles creativity be changed to one that is more participative and collaborative and, therefore, more able to innovate and be flexible enough to develop new products quickly? The skilled OD practitioner can identify and help change the human processes that hold culture in place.
The next series of posts will examine the third dimension of the Meta-Model of Planned Change—the eight disciplines of managing change in human systems. Stay tuned!
This is the second of two posts that look at the stages of the organization development process. The first post discussed Contracting and Re-contracting and Data Gathering; now we will look at the other three stages: Intervention, Evaluation and Disengagement. Bear in mind, however, that the stages are not discrete. They overlap. They are iterative. They often must be orchestrated simultaneously. Each can trigger the need for another.
Implicit in the idea of the empowerability of human systems is the assumption that through improving relationships within the system the leaders and members of the system can begin to identify and resolve their own issues and, in the process, create whatever change they wish. This could mean improving the relationships and resolving conflicts between system structures, between groups, and between individuals. At the intrapersonal level, some change action is often needed to help resolve the internal conflicts that bedevil many system executives and managers.
Interventions, then—as a stage in the total change process—are those actions designed to improve relationships within the target system on behalf of opening communication and developing more informed and inclusive decision-making processes. Interventions include, in their various forms, feedback to the system, team-building, strategic planning, training, conflict management, and coaching.
Two important skills needed to design and carry out these interventions include group facilitation and conflict management. Those two skill sets require deep use of our listening and straight-talk capacities. A systems orientation wherein we act from a perspective that keeps in mind impact on the entire system is essential. Of course, the ability to use ourselves flexibly and congruently with any particular situation is fundamental. Use of self and a system orientation are notable as the first two change management disciplines described in the sections below.
As much an ongoing process as a specific stage, the Evaluation stage informs the change agent and the system about the results the change project or specific change actions have had. In essence, evaluation is a feedback-based data-gathering process—feedback which will give the change leaders critical information about how the system has responded to a change action and how they might design the next action to be more effective. This concept is notably different from the use of feedback as a means—generally, ineffective—of getting someone to change. Feedback is more useful as a means of determining the quality of relationship that has or has not been stimulated by a particular change action. Feedback is essentially an evaluation process that can also be used to gather data about what can make a more effective next change action.
Evaluative processes can be as simple as asking someone or a group how well something worked and what might work better next time. More formal group processes can take a form where everyone takes a turn responding to an evaluative question (such as, what did you learn about managing change this weekend?). System-wide evaluations might be done at the end of a change project and at periodic intervals after that to see how much staying power some systemic change might have. It is a good idea to have evaluative feedback processes built into a system’s ongoing routine to monitor the specific and general wellbeing of that system.
Little discussed in the change management literature is the process of completing or ending a change project. A typical disengagement process for the participants in the change project might include a closing evaluation session, statements of learnings gleaned from the project, and celebration of whatever success was achieved.
In addition, the change leaders—task leader(s) and process facilitator(s)—should get together to formally agree that the project is completed or otherwise at an end. Additional and more personal feedback might be shared in this meeting about what worked well, what worked less well, and what might be done differently in a future project. Some celebration would certainly be in order.
Appropriate closure and disengagement allow the system and the people in it to learn from their experience in the project and to let go of what has been completed to move effectively on to whatever is next.
Next we will look at the levels of organizational systems across which the stages are applied.