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Appreciating change

To be quite candid, I did not know what I was in for when I signed up for the graduate certification in Organization Design program at Royal Roads University. Nevertheless, I opened my mind, did the work, and now I can safely say studying at RRU was indeed a “life changing” experience. I am now a proud OD practitioner with a Graduate Certificate in Organization Design and Development from Royal Roads University.

I rekindled my interest in how organizations work last year while on a nine-month assignment at Vancouver Island University filling in for a leader who was on leave. During that time I grappled with the usual things administrators face: changing technologies, shrinking budgets, increasing demands. I took a week-long change management course, which turned out to be a catalyst for a turning point in my career.

One thing I have learned, often with shocking clarity, time and again, is that people are resilient, and the more solid and trusting their relationships with their team and their coworkers, the more they can leverage their resiliency into effective and productive organizational change.
I wanted my leadership and change management skills to be intentional, consistent, and grounded in theory and practice.

I was intrigued by the RRU program, but I was expecting more “traditional” management/business program. During my first residency, I realized Organization Design (or OD) is much richer and more complex than I first imagined. I consider myself fortunate to have, in essence, stumbled upon this area of practice.

At first, I thought this “touchy-feely” stuff would be a waste of my time, to be quite honest. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. OD, expertly implemented, is good for morale, it fosters productivity, it enhances the bottom line.

It works.

Foundational to OD is what SFU professor and author Gervase Bush calls “the secret sauce”: a dialogic, rather than a diagnostic, mindset that uses methods like Appreciative Inquiry to tap into the strengths of people and groups.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to human systems: strategic planning, “change management,” community engagement, organization design, leadership, business, etc. It focuses on strengths rather than deficiencies. Appreciative Inquiry seeks out what works well and avoids dwelling on what’s wrong; it’s comprised of “interactions designed to bring out the best in people so that they can imagine a preferred future together that is more hopeful, boundless, and inherently good .. about socially constructing a shared future … through the questions asked” (from the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook).

The field of OD is based on the premise that the command-and-control management model that focuses on problems to be solved is a holdover from an industrial past. In a complex, creative, knowledge-based economy where change is a given, leadership in a resilient, healthy organization means being in continual relationship-building mode. It means increasing the capacity of the entire organization to engage in continuous learning, adaptation, engagement, and innovation. It means choosing leadership qualities like emotional intelligence, honesty, openness, trust, and empowerment rather than directive, hierarchical, task-oriented, and transactional management styles.

In the communications profession, we’ve realized for a long time that “broadcast” (one-to-many) methods don’t work anymore. Effective communication is many-to-many; it’s a dialogue. It’s widely distributed and it can’t be tightly controlled any more. So too is leadership and organization development.

I didn’t realize until I put it onto practice for myself that to consistently ask, per Appreciative Inquiry, “Where is the good here?” is the most productive question anyone in a leadership position could ask. In my latest leadership position, I deliberately and consciously switched from a “diagnostic” to a “dialogic” mindset and immediately saw how taking an appreciative, strengths-based approach raised morale, and thus could enhance organizational health and effectiveness. People have an enormous resilience and capacity for change; when they resist, it is an opportunity to listen to the reasons why and engage in charting a new course together.

In many ways, my taking the Organization Design program was an extension of the question that sparked my interest in sociology and politics twenty years ago: people spend their lives working and have a thirst for meaning. What can we do to make their working life more meaningful? How can we enlist the wisdom of our stakeholders: clients, employees, vendors, rivals, community – to weather the changes we need to make to thrive in an uncertain time?

Very few of us who are chosen for management positions deliberately hone our leadership skills, or are prepared to shepherd our departments through an ever-changing landscape. We get promoted because of our technical expertise. That’s important, but in the 21st century it’s not enough. OD shows how everyone, regardless of job title or position, can be encouraged to take a leading role in their organization, and can be aligned to organizational goals and purpose.

I am excited for the journey ahead – and I’m available for more assignments to use design thinking to help create a culture of learning and change in your organization.

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