Hannibal Lecter:Then something woke you, didn't it? Was it a dream? What was it? Clarice Starling:I heard a strange noise. Hannibal Lecter: What was it? Clarice Starling:It was...screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child's voice. Hannibal Lecter: What did you do? Clarice Starling: I went downstairs, outside. I crept up into the barn. I was so scared to look inside, but I had to. Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?
While you take a moment to picture that memorable scene from Silence of the Lambs, with Hannibal terrifying poor Clarice even though separated by the thick iron bars of his cell, you must be wondering how on earth it connects to organizational change? Sometimes lambs experience change that is scary at first, but then the outcome is a meaningful contribution to a warm fuzzy sweater. They live to talk about it, or baa about it. Other times? They're dinner, along with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti. Baa.
What's So Scary?
Research suggests that 70% of all change initiatives fail. Even if this is overstated, we've all experience failed change initiatives often enough to know it's far too frequent given the effort, cost, and importance. So why does organizational change often end up as overdone lamb chops with a side dish of remorse? We fear the unknown and cling to the security of the present. We'll take what is comfortable and familiar, good or bad, rather than risk a potentially scarier, uncertain future. Who would trade the comfort of frolicking in the hills, with the occasional buzz cut, for even the slightest chance of slaughter?
Se we approach change like little lambs, hoping we face only the shears and never the slaughter. We move but we really don't follow. We nod but we really don't agree. We act but we really don't commit. We just quietly hope that it all just goes away so we can get back to work.
How did change get so messy?
Somewhere along the way we started focusing on problems over possibilities and process over people.
We relegated two uniquely human capabilities to the backseat during change: imagination and hope.
We also neglected a crucial human need: involvement.
Fortunately, a bright light came along named Dr. David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University. He instinctively knew something was amiss by noticing we were essentially studying gravity when our goal was to fly. Over 30 years ago he asked a profound question that challenged how organizations changed: what if we studied the root causes of success? This started him on a lifelong journey exploring a strengths-based approach to change that he calls Appreciative Inquiry (AI). He hasn't stopped challenging us all to continually ask thoughtful questions ever since.
Appreciative Inquiry is an art and practice of asking thoughtful questions that strengthens an organization's ability to identify and use its positive potential to innovate and create. Well, isn't that a mouthful? Stated more simply, we study previous success to build future successes. We explore our strengths. We imagine what is possible. We develop a plan. We make it a reality. What makes AI uniquely successful is how it involves people, at all levels of the organization, in every step of the process. It is the most authentically inclusive and engaging approach ever seen in change management.
Possibilities Over Problems: Root Causes of Success
Root cause analysis is the study of failure in order to move something from poor to acceptable performance. Born from engineering, it found its way into change management and won't go away. Under a conventional change management approach, we identify the problem, diagnose the cause (root cause), and take action to solve thereby returning the system back to acceptable performance.
Returning a poor result back to the low shelf from which it had fallen - the status quo - isn't exactly an inspired ascent to the summit. It's more like a brisk stroll up a slight incline. You might get a little winded but there's little cause for celebration. AI challenges us to instead ask what have we have already achieved and what strengths fueled that success? If we apply those strengths going forward, what else is possible? What will we achieve, build, develop, or grow? What's our greatest aspiration? What will take us far beyond acceptable to exceptional?
This future-focus on strengths and possibilities naturally addresses two inherent shortcomings of the conventional model. The root cause approach has a knack for sapping energy and stifling innovation. It saps energy because continually asking what is wrong or what went wrong is demoralizing and exhausting. Our brains are wired to escape threat and seek hope. There is little hope in the downward cycle of always chasing what's broken. This hopeless state stifles optimism and derails creativity and innovation. The bar is set slightly lower than our morale. We simply want to survive.
"The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” - Socrates -
Root cause also stifles innovation because we simply want the process to be over. We want to solve the problem and get back to work. Our goal is restoration and not innovation. Innovation is born out of asking: what is possible? Engaging our imaginations. The goal is no longer returning performance to acceptable. Instead, we imagine what's possible. By starting with an exploration of our strengths and prior successes, we gain confidence, optimism and hope. We believe the future will be even better than the past. We recognize that the strengths that fueled our prior successes will also propel our future successes.
We are more engaged, creative and innovative. The brain chemistry behind why this happens is well documented. The fear-based fight-or-flight instinct, which we experience while studying our weaknesses and failures, is absent when exploring our strengths and success. We no longer settle for good enough and instead push each other towards exceptional. This is all possible through mastering the study of root causes of success.
People Over Process: Of the People, By the People...
Change is a rich opportunity to create a shared vision of an inviting future, involving employees at every level. The conventional approach tends to favor hierarchical and top-down change. Where critical choices and decisions are made by the few, behind closed doors, and then sprung upon the many.
This change-by-announcement approach is often packaged with over-engineered communications. Where every single word is carefully crafted in order to persuade the many that the few got it right. How else can the few hope to protect their delicate house of cards from the strong winds of frustration from the many? What's remarkable is how this common practice has lacked common sense. How else can we explain why the majority of change initiatives fail? This dog never really had its day.
The AI approach, on the other hand, has incorporated meaningful involvement and inclusion from day one. This strategy has two predictable and desirable side effects: ownership and commitment.
We naturally resist the choices and decisions others make for us, regardless of whether they are good or bad. The human need for autonomy drives this behavior. Inclusion is the only remedy. This doesn't mean AI turns every organizational change initiative into a company-wide committee. It simply means that representation from every level is necessary.
First, more input means better output. None of us is as smart as all of us. Capturing insights from across the organization provides a richness that can't be duplicated by conjecture and supposition. Reality has no substitute. Second, greater inclusions means greater acceptance. Even if many people don't personally participate, knowing that colleagues at their level did means they had a voice in the process. They will be more willing to accept the outcome and support the plan as a result. In the end, commitment is what makes change successful.
"A bad plan that is well executed will yield much better results than a good plan poorly executed." - Otto von Bismarck -
Given the speed of change, even the perfect plan is a bit stale when being executed. Success is not about the perfect plan, it's about near perfect execution. Execution is ownership multiplied by commitment. The more we own the plan, the more committed we are to making it a reality. Commitment is all about understanding the objective and taking massive action to make it happen. Plans will adapt over time to ever changing information and circumstances. Commitment is the constant that makes it all work.
Appreciative Inquiry, with its strengths-based focus which inspires hope, creativity, and innovation, has one other powerful advantage over the conventional approach. It is self-sustaining. We use it to create what we imagine, which feels so right that we go back and use it again and again.