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How to Engage Stakeholders in Generative Change: A Conversation with Gervase R. Bushe, Ph. D, Part II

In Part I of this two-part conversation with collaborative change and organizational design expert Gervase R. Bushe, Ph. D, we explored rethinking how to approach major change initiatives using the concept of Dialogic OD and generative change. 

In this continuation of the conversation, and building on i4cp’s Culture Renovation® research, which revealed the criticality of engaging hidden influencers in any change process, Gervase explains how to apply progressive concepts to better engage employees and encourage more comprehensive buy-in across a workforce.

Shifting now to the methodology of engaging groups of people in these ways, something you've studied in terms of Appreciative Inquiry specifically, as well as the other methods you've identified more broadly. Can you describe how these structures differ from the traditional ways of engaging people in change initiatives?

Well, traditional ways of engaging people are problem solving based. These newer ways are more focused on innovating and what we call generativity. They're more focused on helping people come up with new ideas they want to act on. You could say that problem solving is an attempt to do that as well, but in one study I did we showed that when you put people in a problem-solving frame they're actually less innovative, less creative. In this study we showed that using an appreciative inquiry kind of technique generated more creativity and people's frames got larger, whereas under problem solving they got smaller. The whole process of analysis is to take things apart and then put them together, and the action of taking things apart reduces them. Generative methods aren't analysis, they're more synthesis.

Networked synthesis you might say.

Yes. How do we bring people together in a way that's going to stimulate and evoke new ways of thinking and new ideas? There are some basic formulas for that. And then at a cultural level, it is changing the conversations that typically happen in the organization.  That's what I think is similar about all Dialogic ODmethods. They're all ways of trying to change the conversation. You think of organizations as a flow of conversations, right? Wherever you step in there's a conversation that's been taking place about whatever this thing is that's gone on for months or years. So, you're in a flow of conversation. That conversation has contours to it, structures to it. What these methods do is change that conversation, and if they're successful it allows new conversations to take people in a different direction.

It seems like Dialogic OD and Liberating Structures are referring to some of the same things. Liberating Structures feels more like a menu, maybe a little simpler.

Well, liberating structures is not a methodology, it's a handbook of methodologies. Dialogic OD is an attempt to provide a theory of why they work (or don’t). I don't know if you’ve ever seen this, but I have this bibliography of dialogic OD methods—I think we're up to 40 now. Liberating structures is one of them, appreciative inquiry would be one.

What Bob [Marshak, Bushe’s co-author] and I have been arguing is that how these methods work, or the impact they have, depends on the mindset of the people using them much more than the technique itself. So, it's not the technique that creates the outcome. It's the mindset of the person using it. We identified what we called the dialogic OD mindset. Again, it's a way of thinking. It's a way of looking at the world. And so, if you look at the world this way and you take a tool like a liberating structure and you use it from this mindset it's going to have these kinds of effects. And that'll be different than if you use a tool like that but you're still operating out of the dominant mindset that's technical and mechanistic.

That gets directly to one of our questions. What advice do you have for people who are in a culture change process or a change initiative, where they've identified a group of people they think are really important to that process and they want to engage them?

I think this is absolutely essential. The generative change model says once you figure out what the issue or concern is, what the adaptive challenge is, the next crucial stage is to reframe that into a purpose that's important to the people you need to change.

We want to change a culture to something so different. Here's the group of people. These are the stakeholders who are going to have to change for this change to occur. Well, you're gonna have to frame that change in a way that's meaningful and important to them otherwise they're not going to engage. Any meaningful change has to get reframed in a way that matters, and that is one of the key  artistries of leadership, of generative leadership.

I’m studying the ability to figure out what people really care about and take what a leader is trying to change and fit those two things together in a way that captures theinterest and attention of stakeholders, makes them want to come to the conversation. I've written about the power of  generative images to produce change, and I think that's where the generative image is most powerful—at the front end of a change process where you're trying to identify what's the purpose. What are we trying to accomplish here?

It seems that there's a fair amount of skill that needs to be developed, and mindset, in order to facilitate this kind of work. But there are a lot of companies that will go through this kind of process that don't have an expert internal facilitator trained in these methods.

That's why we're developing a certification program to train practitioners on how to do this work through the Bushe-Marshak Institute for Dialogic OD.

Do you have any advice for companies that are trying to borrow from these ideas and implement them without that internal expertise, that can't wait for the certification/training program you are working on with Bob?

Well I think typically they'll need to hire an external who's going to coach the internal folks. Someone to coach the internal people that might be good facilitators, but they don't yet have a lot of complexity in how they think about things and how to structure things, or how to create a generative image. Someone to come in and coach them, and the leaders and help build that relationship. Help them design or architect a sequence of events they can go run. It’s described in The Dynamics of Generative Change, and in great detail in the Dialogic OD book    

It does seem like there's something very unique about the kind of mindset required to do this work. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)  is calling it vertical development. People have been writing about this for 30 or 40 years. The academic terms are ego development and constructivist developmental psychology.    The folks behind integral development are on the same path, Kegan and Lahey, spiral dynamics—it all comes from the same core stuff.

I measured the ego development level of professional organization development consultants once... I had a sample of 37. I used Jane Loevinger's Ego Development measure and 70 percent scored at post-conventional stages of ego development whereas in most samples of U.S. corporations about five percent of managers score at post-conventional stages. So that's a big piece of it. You've got to do the personal work.

You can understand one level higher but you can't really live it until you actually go through that transformation. So, the big question is how do we help leaders make that developmental jump? We know we're living in a world of increasing complexity and pretty much everyone agrees that this increased complexity requires higher stages of ego development. We know something about how that transition normally happens in adulthood if it happens at all. And usually it comes out of tragedy and stuff like that unfortunately.... something that disrupts them so much that they get whacked out of the stage they’re in. So how to do that in a corporate training environment?   I think my Clear Leadership course can do it for some people, but I haven’t actually collected the data to prove that.

There are people who think they've got some ideas about how to do that through coaching. It's a combination of measuring people, giving them feedback on where they are, giving them a road map. Coaching them on their ego development. So that may work. Certainly, good somatic psychotherapy and Jungian therapy – but people are usually past conventional stages by the time they are interested in that.. Part of it is also an interest in organization theory and social psychology and group process and all those things, and take that sort of frame and take it into the world of collective action. This is what organization development has always really been about. You know, this idea of how we engage key people in the change process right from the beginning. That's what OD has always been about. Change management is quite different.

And OD in North America lost a lot of luster and kind of got lost over the last 20 years. It's still there, but it’s harder to get good training in it, and dialogic OD may be helping to bring it back into prominence. But interestingly in Europe and Asia and Africa OD is ascendant. The World Economic Forum recently published the top 10 emerging jobs and one of them is OD Specialist!

How do you see design thinking as a methodology in this context? It's certainly grown in popularity and a lot of people are leveraging that as a process or an approach to engaging people in human centered design. What's the overlap that you see between your work and that field?

A whole lot. Dialogic OD  is an attempt at synthesis—an attempt to look at all these different things and say what's similar about them and when they work why are they working; what's really going on when they lead to change?. Design thinking is a generative method for engaging people in a bottom up, as opposed to a top down, change process. And when it gets used in a limited way to bring some people together and see if we can generate some good ideas it's missing the rest of what's going to be required to take those good ideas and  get them used in an organizational context that will actually lead to change. Often it’s used to come up with a better mousetrap. That's a very limited approach. When people want to use design thinking to come up with a better organization though, that's a dialogic OD approach. And if you're operating out of the dialogic mindset what you're paying attention to is narrative and emergence and how those interact with the forces that you're currently in, to harness that generative moment in the service of transformational change.

Much of i4cp’s work with Rob Cross has focused on the topic of collaborative overload, and the associated personal and organizational implications. Big change initiatives often have project teams associated with them, and many times the people most overloaded in a system are the ones that get asked to lead these teams. What advice do you have for leaders thinking about how to staff those critical project teams?

We don't ask people to lead a project team. In a generative change process, you don't ask people to do anything. You ask them what they want to do and they volunteer to do that. I gave a talk with Ron Fry (from Case Western Reserve) at a conference a number of years ago and he said "one of things that amazes me, is that every time we take an appreciative inquiry into an organization everybody's too busy and everybody's got too much work to do. But by the end of four days people are volunteering to take on a whole bunch of new stuff. It's incredible.”.

One of the qualities of generativity is that when something is generative it generates action. People want to act on it. One of the reasons it works is because you're not asking people to do anything. You're saying here's the issue, let's have a conversation about it. Let's create a conversation that's going to evoke new ideas. And then we ask, "what do you want to do? . Nobody is forcing you to do anything and if you try, nobody is holding you accountable for succeeding. We will build on success and learn from failure.”

So, people step up into the things they want to do. And that's why it's crucial that the focus of the change is around something they care about. For example, one group I’ve worked with has been trying to develop a safety culture for years. The way they've gone about doing this is they've looked at best practices in safety and mining and created a bunch of rules and procedures and put people through training, and people won't do it. Because they feel like following these safety rules and procedures just adds more work.

For instance, we need to move a box from here to there. And the guy goes and picks up the boxes without putting on gloves and the manager says, "Put on your gloves". And the guy says, "I don't need to put on gloves," so this is what they're running into. And they're pulling their hair out trying to create a safety culture. Well, they looked at it from a generative change point of view. And focusing on what these people care about and how you put that together with what you're trying to do and come up with a generative image and here's what he came up with. Easy safety. Now they can launch a series of conversations amongst the miners around how to get easy safety.  The miners come up with ideas, plans, processes that they are willing to do to create easy safety, because that's what they want.

It's almost too simple. When I finished writing The Dynamics of Generative Change I woke up in the middle of the night worried that this is too simple. It’s just  common sense. But it seems it’s not so common. The reviews from experienced consultants have been very satisfying.

Managers will say, “ we need to go study this and get best practices,” but here's the thing, over time as those miners implement easy safety and take more and more responsibility for their own safety and each other's safety and start to develop a culture where safety becomes a norm, they'll end up recreating lots of the best practices somebody could have come and told them to do three years ago. But that's not how you transform a culture. They won't change because you tell them what's good for them. They'll change because they act on what they believe to be is in their best interest, and their shared purpose. That is one thing I'll say about any of these sort of generative change processes—you've got to have a shared purpose, or it doesn't work.

That makes a lot of sense and especially in the scenario where a company has, through network analysis, identified a population of people who are particularly sticky in the network, influencers with a lot of incoming ties. You can convene that group of people in whatever way you want, but if you can't frame the change initiative in a way that inspires them and causes them to want to opt in then it doesn't really matter that you've identified them. You still have to connect with them in meaningful way.

Gervase, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts today, and for sharing the Generative Change model that will be featured in your forthcoming book.