I was working with some learning professionals recently who were facing resistance whilst rolling out company values. They listed all the workshops, all the planning they had done. So much care had gone into engaging people in thinking about bringing values to life. And yet they had low attendance at workshops, low interest and for them now, low morale.
“Why are you rolling out values?” I asked. “Because the executive team want us to have core values embedded in the business” came the reply. “What are their reasons, what will this yield in terms of business results?” I asked. They looked at each other: they suspected the Executive had been steered that way by a conference they had been to. They had a few (untested) assumptions – but they didn’t actually know.
In a genuine desire to do their best, that team were unintentionally reinforcing the less desirable aspects of that culture to ‘be good’, ‘do the right thing’. So where did it all go wrong?
I spend a reasonable amount of my time in conversation with other people thinking with them about organisational effectiveness. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I realise that genuinely not knowing something is a useful aid to others, to facilitate them thinking for themselves.
Recently I was in a client meeting and the CEO said: “Meg will know the answer to that.” Oh man, the pressure to know! “What’s the question?” I asked. “How long does culture change take?” was the question. I thought about it and said: “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” I was there to work on culture so this was possibly quite high stakes…but the sigh of relief around the room was palpable. Trying to know something that is unknowable takes energy away from working with what is.
L&D teams are in my experience committed to making things better, incredibly conscientious and caring, and skilled coaches and facilitators. It’s possible that they are working with anxiety that their budget will be cut, and perhaps feel the need to ‘know all the answers’ to demonstrate their competence and abilities.
For example, I’m surprised at how often participants in management training programmes are not part of the design process. Content expertise is hugely valuable – context however belongs to the participants. We can all now access content, so inviting participants to co-design their own learning experience means they are more likely to be engaged in that learning, and take accountability for putting change into practice. So why design in your own silo? Design with participants and sponsors, start with evaluation; where do we want this to take us? What will be different, better, stronger as a result of the work we do?
“If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, get busy asking some questions.”
Here are some things that I have learnt along the way, that I hope will help you strengthen your consultancy skills and work more systemically:
1. Explore, clarify and then do that some more before you jump into action!
If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, get busy asking some questions. Organisational development is a data driven discipline where qualitative data has equal value to quantitative. Human beings are meaning making beings, we all love being asked questions!
2. Know your ‘why’
If you, your team and your participants can’t clearly articulate why you are doing the work in relation to your strategy, then you still have some work to do.
3. Stakeholders are everything
Who will benefit from the work you are assigned/initiating/delivering? What does success look like for them? What do they expect to be different as a result of a programme? What aspects of the strategy are being targeted? What would happen if you didn’t take any action? (Have another look at point number 1 above)
4. It’s not about you
If your delivery of something is brilliant, people will go away and having had a good experience. Will they know what difference it will make, will they know how they will apply it, will they be able to explain it to their team, how will it contribute to their business unit’s performance? Ensure that you have given them what they need to do that.
5. Design with space to incorporate new insights that emerge.
Pilot and test everything and be non-defensive. Be prepared to redesign in real time, based on feedback. If you’re rolling out a programme, don’t do the thinking for the recipients. Find every way you can to tap into their thinking to inform and stimulate yours.
What else would you add to this? Is there anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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