This is a grassroots guerrilla tactic change programme. It is low risk and offers high reward. It is not a quick fix, but engagement leading to performance improvement occurs across the organisation and is sustainable over the long term. Also, once the approach is rolled out, it can be repeated cyclically as a foundation to continuous improvement activity in the future.
As with all assignment approaches, it is easy to look directly at the symptoms rather than at causation. Typical symptoms are inadequate performance and lower productivity. The cause of this is rooted deeply in employee engagement towards operational improvement activities; therefore, an alternative approach will be required to sustain new initiatives long term.
Engagement is defined as both a process and an outcome. An engaged workforce is one that feels truly part of the organisations business goals and plans. Engagement is the act of building communal ownership and accountability.
Employee engagement around continuous improvement is not a nebulous approach but rather can be measured through the sustained improvements in working practices leading to better asset performance. It is a continual cycle that should be constantly repeated to ensure sustained performance.
Here, we are setting out activity for engaging staff in improving their performance using an Appreciative Inquiry approach.
An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry
David Cooperrider, Suresh Srivesta and Frank Barrett developed the original concept of Appreciative Inquiry at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland Ohio.
It is a strength-based approach designed to create energy, innovation and pro-activity. The approach makes the assumption that whatever you want to develop, there will already be the seed of the right behaviour, the right attitude, and right experience happening somewhere and at some time in the organisation. So, rather than eliminate the occasions of ‘getting it wrong’, businesses should work together to find, understand, learn from and expand the occasions of ‘getting it right’.
Performance Improvement through Staff Engagement using Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that asks staff to enquire into situations during which performance improvement was achieved. Questions are asked as to the enablers of that performance, highlighted and understood as a foundation for future operations.
This approach differs from the traditional root cause analysis in that it does not focus on what is wrong or has failed but on the occasions things surpassed expectation. Appreciative Inquiry also avoids falling into the realms of future visioning or blue-sky thinking. The enquiry is firmly set in what is possible and achievable by looking at personal experiences.
An appreciative inquiry can either be undertaken as a structured conference / summit style event across the organisation or as more informal smaller group activity over a period of weeks and months. For most companies, slow guerrilla tactics of collecting best practice stories and having smaller group meetings has worked very well. The conversations take the delegates around a number of iterations of; Discovery, Dreaming, Design and Destiny based on a substantive topic choice.
The end result is a set of activities that fundamentally change the organisation’s way of working and develop an engaged workforce capable of carrying out sustained cycles of continuous improvement and innovation. There is often a desire to continue around the cycle periodically to reinvigorate organisational performance and ensure everyone has a chance to participate first hand.
Key Topics when Planning and Appreciative Inquiry Intervention
Choosing a substantive topic
The first step is to choose a topic on which to focus. This should be of strategic importance to the organisation and be a key strategic objective.
The topic should also be capacity building in that it describes what the business wants more of, generating a call for action. Often within an Appreciative Inquiry, the act of crafting the substantive topic is the first stage everyone gets involved in.
Deciding on the balance between the informal and formal design possibilities
Informal approaches focus attention on working locally with the dynamics of everyday life. They include collecting best practice narrative and trying local improvement experiments. This approach is not confined to single functional areas and can spread across silos through informal conversations, for example, the functions of maintenance offshore and production planning on shore.
Formal approaches take people out of their working environments into special events. These are ideal when there is enough momentum to put on summits or workshops communicating a cultural imperative to do things differently on a larger scale.
Selecting participants for the enquiry
It is important to get as diverse a group as possible together to carry out the interviews with other staff during the Discovery phase. It is best not to pick on the ‘usual suspects’. Choose employees in different geographical locations, different levels of hierarchy, males, females, young, old, new starters, old hands and especially people who do not normally get involved.
Many companies are quite concerned about involving suppliers and customers as this might be construed as ‘hanging out your dirty washing’, but the positive nature of the interviews and the diverse nature of suppliers involved make it almost inevitable.
Stimulated by the best in other industries and organisation
During the Discovery phase, some companies like to include those visiting the site on the list of interviewees. This broadens the ‘gene pool’ of best practice narratives planting the seeds of innovation and inspiration.
This isn’t simply like a traditional best practice analysis, which tends to orientate towards finding things to copy. This is about finding stories that inspire within the organisation and lead to sustainable innovation.
The role of Leadership
Senior leaders and managers are often asked to play one of two roles; either strongly directing or facilitating and observational.
Within an Appreciative Inquiry approach, it is important leaders and managers develop a third way of engaging – one that allows them to fully join in and express their ideas (without being directive or overpowering) and to listen activity (without going into facilitator mode).
Supporting empowered initiatives that emerge during and after the intervention.
There will need to be a substantial effort employed as projects are taken forward during the Design and Destiny phases. Most of the resulting projects will have a business case as a foundation; however, there will need to be some prioritisation especially as budgets are always finite.
The Appreciative Inquiry Framework
Those involved then use the following framework to discuss their experiences of workplace excellence, to illustrate what the future should look like, to plan, and finally execute through specific assignments.
The Discovery phase invites participants to reflect on the best of the past with respect to the chosen strategic topic. During this phase, more and more people interview each other using questions that help them tell real stories of success and enquire into high point experiences. Strengths are uncovered and accomplishments are acknowledged and spread across the organisation. Today’s interviewees become tomorrow’s interviewers.
Elements of this Phase
- Discussions about the very best from the past.
- Structured interviews in pairs that focus on what each individual did to make the situation successful.
- Probing deeply into the underlying success factors.
- Have a ‘whole system’ approach
- Working in small groups to understand the common ‘core success’ factors from each of the interviews.
- Understand how these common ‘core success’ factors articulate the human system.
The Dream phase invites participants to use the knowledge and excitement from the Discovery phase to imagine what operational life could be in the future. The essence of this phase is to stretch what is currently possible by building on the best of the past. This is not generating a vision for the future but rather challenging current thinking. The management and leadership should be involved in this phase, as there are considerable risks invalidating conversations after the event. (i.e. the entire approach could be put at risk by having to explain to management and leaders what happened and why a next phase needs to take place. Managerial refusal by those not engaged in the process could have serious repercussions.)
Elements of this Phase
- Develop narratives as to what a future scenario looks like.
- Describe what is going on and for whom and why.
- Use various different media to show what the future looks like so as not to fall into ‘critical appraisal mode’.
- Be generative allowing one story to lead onto the next.
- Capture the agreed key themes of the story on a board or brown paper.
- After a number of rounds of storytelling, vote for the themes that should be pursued in greater depth.
The Design phase is the most potent in creating long-term differences in the organisational. In this phase, the organisation starts to translate some of the ideas embedded in the Dreams phase into changes in the infrastructure, processes and systems. Things start to get quite specific from now on.
Elements of this Phase
- Identifying particular policies, processes, structures, systems or physical conditions and re-describing them to align with the Dream phase.
- Use a variety of models or media to do this e.g. McKinsey’s 7S, process mapping, story boarding or narratives.
- Participants are invited to turn the ideas from the Dream phase into actionable packages of work.
- Describe what business cases, projects and activities need to be developed
- Describe the organisation that will be required to ensure that the Dream is fulfilled
Self organised teams and the change projects are initiated.
Elements of this Phase
- Self-organisation of project groups takes place.
- Define specific actions for small project groups.
- Decide how to expand this activity to those not lucky enough to be directly involved.
- Define and deliver a Stakeholder Engagement processes.
- How can learning be expanded and perpetuated throughout the organisation?
- Be creative; use brown-papers, story telling, multi-media, social media or whatever seems applicable to the group.
- Some ideas fall away as projects in the formal sense as they are marked as low priority, but may remain as changes in behaviour
- Some topics present themselves here for the first time so it is important to start with the Discovery process anew and continue the cycle once again.
This document is a description of how Appreciative Inquiry could address the issues of staff engagement highlighted at the beginning of the document. As I said at the beginning, it is a continual cyclical approach to staff engagement in continuous improvement. It engages the whole organisation at the same time whilst maintaining a grassroots approach. It is something that could adopt as a philosophy rather than a tool in order to sustain and build upon best practice. The approach has been successfully used in a variety of well know blue chip companies and organisations
- U.S Navy
- Rolls Royce
- GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)
Revealing the leadership secrets for a successful business
Lessons from high performing business leaders