Widen the Circle of Involvement

Our local taxi service takes me to and from the airport. A few years ago the company installed a new computerized dispatching system along with new credit card terminals. On paper, it looked great: faster dispatch, improved cash flow, quicker and more accurate credit card processing. Drivers, customers, and the company would benefit.

The problem was it just didn’t work. Drivers couldn’t contact dispatchers; credit card processing was a disaster. Drivers kept their old manual imprint machines at the ready. Whenever it came time to pay my fare, I heard, “If they had only asked us, we would have told them and saved all this BS.” Lost productivity; frustrated, angry employees; disgruntled customers–this is the cost of not widening the circle.

Whenever you introduce change, you can be sure of one thing: there will be unintended consequences, such as drivers dispatched to the wrong places and credit card terminals that don’t work as promised. You need everyone to pitch in and to make the new system work, not the moans and groans from friendly taxi drivers. Had the drivers been involved from the outset, they would have spotted potential problems and pitfalls. And because they owned the solution, they would have worked hard to implement it. What would you rather do: implement someone else’s plan or implement a plan that you helped create?


People Support Change When They’ve Helped Create It

In their classic 1948 article, “Overcoming Resistance to Change,” Coch and French describe the impact of involving people in changes that affect them. Coch and French conducted experiments on the effect of involving employees in changing work procedures in a manufacturing organization. High-involvement groups, in which employees were involved from the beginning, not only outperformed the no-participation groups but also increased productivity, while the no-participation groups’ productivity dropped and grievances and quits increased. The high-involvement groups also outperformed groups allowed to choose between predetermined outcomes. Today these results seem intuitively obvious, yet we often ignore the lessons learned from this landmark study. The earlier people are involved in the change process, the better.

Coch and French are not alone in reaching this conclusion.

Renowned social scientist Eric Trist said, “No one can force change on anyone else. It has to be experienced. Unless we invent ways where paradigm shifts can be experienced by large numbers of people, then change will remain a myth” (Weisbord and Janoff 2000, 22). Marvin Weisbord, who coined the phrase “getting the whole system in the room,” further developed this concept. What he meant was involving all the various stakeholders of an issue in the deliberations about it. For example, in dealing with complex educational issues, this means including schoolchildren, parents, teachers, and local business and community leaders. In creating organizational futures, this means including employees at all levels, customers, suppliers, and community representatives (Weisbord 1987, 273)


We’re Your Leaders–We Know What’s Best

Douglas McGregor supports this point of view in his classic work on Theory X and Theory Y. McGregor (1960) states that the ability to create solutions to organizational problems is widely distributed throughout the organization. It is not the sole province of an elite few nor is it the province of the best and the brightest nor does it reside in the hierarchy. Rather, this capacity belongs to the entire organization. Involving the whole system to address systemic issues is at the heart of the new change management.

In The Intelligence Advantage, Michael D. McMaster talks about a leadership mind-set that works against widening the circle: “We become attached to our beliefs that we are leaders because we have titles . . . These attachments prevent us from showing the way by going first and they support the kind of thinking in which others need to change and we are fine; or these attachments deceive us into believing that we can create all the required change on our own. The worst outcome of this attachment is that we think we are able to know what to change and how to change it without including the rest of the system” (McMaster 1996, 77).


We’re Your Leaders–Help Us Plan the Change

In a situation quite similar to the one that Detroit Edison faced, a manufacturing organization had been working for over three years to redesign its workforce, with little to show for the effort. A highly engaged union-management steering committee led the change, but few other employees were involved. Recognizing that market factors could put the company out of business if the needed changes were not made quickly, the leaders decided to engage the organization in creating a new workforce design.

They used the Conference Model process to engage the whole organization through a series of three three-day conferences (250 people per conference) and then conducted smaller “walkthrus” for those unable to attend the conferences. Through the conferences and walkthrus, everyone had input into the new organization. In a few short months, the change process had moved from apathy to interest and from a few supporters to a critical mass of people who cared about the outcomes. Coincidentally, as this process unfolded, productivity began to increase and employees began to set new production records, even before they implemented any of the improvements they identified during the conference process.


What Are Walkthrus?

Walkthrus are a powerful way to widen the circle. Even if you involve a thousand people in your change process, if your organization has tens of thousands, you need to find a way to reach them. Walkthrus are one- to two-hour meetings or workshops for people who were unable to attend the actual conferences. Participants receive information about what is happening and then give feedback on the conference results. These sessions are highly experiential and critical to your success (Axelrod and Axelrod 1999).


Why Are Walkthrus So Powerful?

We have seen over and over that walkthrus generate interest. When we first created the Conference Model, we thought all the power was in the large group conference. Now, after twenty years’ experience, we are convinced the real power comes from combining large group interventions with the walkthru process. In one organization, nearly 500 people volunteered to attend a conference after the first walkthrus–an increase of 177 percent over the first conference. In another organization, 250 people in a 10,000-person organization were directly involved in the change process. The rest participated in walkthrus. An organizational survey asked, “Did you feel like you could contribute to the change process?” Eighty-five percent of the people surveyed said yes.

While nothing beats face-to-face conversations, social media provide a new platform for walkthrus. Organizations are using social media to make information readily available and keep the conversation going. People are using social media on their own to spread the word about what they like and don’t like about current changes.


How to Increase Ownership While Reducing Resistance

·      Involve the many in the change process from the very beginning.

·      Provide opportunities for direct involvement through orientations, town-hall meetings, walkthrus, feedback sessions, social media, and large group conferences.

·      Make sure that leaders at all levels of the organization are included in the process from the very beginning.


When you are thinking about whom to include, don’t say, “They won’t come.” We were working on a project to improve access to services for addicts. The question came up, “Should we include judges from the court system?” The response was “They can’t come. Their dockets are full.” But someone said, “Let’s ask them anyway and let them tell us.” Judges did participate, along with police officers, teachers, counseling professionals, health-care providers, and people in recovery and their families. At the end of the process, a judge said, “As a result of participating, I’ve learned that I’ve been sentencing people in a way that works against recovery. I’ll be sentencing people differently from here on out.”


Increasing Innovation, Adaptation and Learning

The old belief that organizations are linear, cause-and-effect-driven systems existing in static environments is outdated. Monetary crises halfway around the globe can cause shock waves in businesses across the United States and vice versa. We now measure the product life cycle in the computer industry in months instead of years, as organizations deal with constantly changing technology and fickle consumers. Worldwide health care is in constant flux as health-care professionals, hospitals, and patients and their families struggle to deal with a world of mind-boggling technological advances, changing patient expectations, and escalating costs.

Organizations are constantly seeking ways to adapt in order to survive in an increasingly turbulent environment. Moreover, organizations have to deal with multiple change initiatives simultaneously. It is common for an organization to be introducing new information systems, improving processes, and redesigning organizational structures while attempting to transform itself from a hierarchical silo-based organization to a cooperative team-based organization.

In Harnessing Complexity, Robert Axelrod—noted political scientist, game theoretician, and creator of the tit-for-tat theory (and my cousin)—and coauthor Michael Cohen explain that in a complex adaptive system, everyone’s strategies influence the context in which everyone else is acting. “A system is complex when there are strong interactions among its elements, so that current events heavily influence the probabilities of many kinds of later events” (Axelrod and Cohen 2000, 7).

Axelrod and Cohen state that you harness complexity when you stop asking the typical cause-and-effect questions and begin asking a new set of questions, such as “What . . . agents [people or groups of people] and strategies are involved, and what interventions might create new combinations or destroy old ones?” (Axelrod and Cohen 2000, 20).


How to Ensure Innovation

Most people imagine innovation as the work of a lone scientist making a breakthrough discovery. That scenario is rare. Innovation occurs through exposure to new and different ideas. Working with people who are similar to yourself only reinforces your beliefs. Moreover, it turns out that even the most dedicated scientist who came up with a brilliant idea was not alone after all. He or she probably had thousands of conversations and shared experiments with others before coming up with the breakthrough concept.

Axelrod and Cohen (2000) explain that without variety, innovation and adaptation are unlikely. You can introduce variety into a system by providing opportunities for people who have varying points of view and strategies for dealing with issues to interact. Through these encounters, new ways of working emerge and the system eventually adopts them. Without this type of interaction–which can come only from widening the circle of involvement–innovation is not possible.

Everyone’s concept of what is possible expands when people at all levels of the organization and important outside stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and community officials are included. Discussing issues with those who are part of the same system but who have different perspectives sows the seeds of innovation. When change emanates from a single source (as with a top-down management style) or from like-minded people (such as groups of senior executives), the variety necessary for innovative thought is blocked.

Two Examples of Innovation Action

Here are two brief examples of innovation, one from our Collaborative Loops process and the other from our Design Conference.


Innovating with Collaborative Loops

In the Collaborative Loops process, dissimilar project teams come together to create their own change process using the four engagement principles. Variety is inherent when people no longer work alone. Teams gain clarity on their purpose, outcomes, and change strategy by receiving feedback from other teams in the room (Holman, Devane, and Cady 2007).

The Child Health Initiative team at Fraser Health Authority in British Columbia originally wanted to establish a central place where they could provide services such as immunization, vision and hearing testing, and counseling. To the team, this meant constructing a building that would cost millions of dollars. However, their thinking changed based on feedback from other teams in their Collaborative Loop: a mobile van that cost $150,000 could provide child health services. This van could take health services out into the community.

The team let go of the building idea when feedback from other teams in their Collaborative Loop indicated the building would probably go unused most of the time and parents would have difficulty bringing their children to a central place. With the help of the other teams in the room, the Child Health Initiative team developed the mobile van idea. Instead of spending millions, they spent thousands.


Innovating with the Design Conference

Here is how we introduce variety when redesigning processes and organizations. The Design Conference starts out by asking participants to design an organization based on a single criterion. We call this “single-concept thinking.” Then new groups are formed to analyze the previously developed designs in terms of their positive, negative, and interesting aspects. They share their findings with the larger group to make the results of their analyses available to everyone.

Then participants join a third group to create a new design that uses the best of all the ideas and meets all of the criteria for the new organization. Notice how we are continually adding variety by having people meet in different groups as we also increase the discussion depth. Again, teams analyze design proposals and share the results with the total community. Groups adjust their designs, and the total community goes through a multiple-voting process to determine the final design.

To ensure that good ideas are not lost, we introduce a Treasure Hunt process: having chosen a final design, the participants identify features from the designs not chosen that they want to see included in the final design. This process makes sure good ideas are incorporated. In the end, everyone can see how his or her idea contributed to the final product (Axelrod and Axelrod 1999).


How to Ensure Adaptation

Adaptation refers to the ability of an organization to respond to rapidly changing conditions in its environment. Adaptation occurs when the various parts of the system come in contact with each other and either duplicate successful strategies or develop new strategies because of their interaction.

If you were to look at cases of terrorists who somehow managed to get onto planes, you would invariably see that information about them was somewhere in the system but was not shared in a timely enough manner. When we widen the circle of involvement, we create connections between people and ideas. These connections enable the rapid spread of information and allow the organization to respond to rapidly changing conditions. When interaction and communication funnel through silo command-and-control structures, adaptive processes die. Terrorists slip through when silos prevent information sharing.

A chemical products company recognized the power of information sharing when it involved customers and employees from all the components of the organization in creating a new product-development process. Because of their successful interactions in developing the new process, scientists from the lab, production people, and salespeople now routinely meet with customers to understand their needs and create new products. The organization is now able to adapt rapidly to shifts in customer requirements because both the scientists in the lab and the manufacturing people are fully engaged in product development. Previously, people believed that the only ones who had enough social skills to meet with customers were the sales force!


How to Ensure Learning

Since Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline (1990) came out, much has been made of “the learning organization.” Learning occurs when there is constant inquiry about what is working and not working so the system can adapt to a constantly changing environment.

Learning is crucial to an organization’s survival. What I mean by learning is not individual learning but the ability of the whole system to learn from its experiences and then use that learning to adapt to its environment. First developed by Jerry and Monique Sternin, the Positive Deviance (PD) process is a grand example of learning in action. The PD process helps a community identify and spread its own best practices. Positive Deviance reflects the belief that every system contains people doing the right thing. In this process, instead of experts telling people what the best practices are, people dialogue with each other to understand what is working and what keeps them from doing what they know works. They share successful strategies and decide together which ones they want to adopt (Positive Deviance Initiative n.d.).


Positive Deviance: A Great Process with a Terrible Name

“Deviants” in this case are not terrible people. Any organization or community contains people whose uncommon behaviors and practices have allowed them to find solutions to problems affecting everyone. These people work in the same situation and have the same access to resources as people who are not succeeding, yet they are successful. These folks are Positive Deviants. The Positive Deviance process seeks to identify successful people and their strategies. Then it goes on to create collaborative practices that enable everyone to create their own practices that work in their unique situations. Having people invent practices that work for them avoids the “not invented here” syndrome that often prevents the spread of best practices.

The Positive Deviance process consists of four Ds:

1.     Define the problem and what a successful outcome would look like.

2.     Determine through discovery and action dialogues if people in the system are already successful.

3.     Discover the uncommon practices that successful people use by continuing the discovery and action dialogues.

4.     Design a process that enables others in the organization or community to access and practice the new behaviors (ibid.).


Our colleagues at the Plexus Institute used the Positive Deviance process to reduce staph infections in hospitals. Aggregate data from three hospitals reporting data for intensive care PD pilot units documented a drop in hospital-acquired MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections of 26 to 62 percent at participating hospitals (Plexus Institute 2009).


Creating a Critical Mass of People Makes Idea Adoption More Likely

Widening the circle creates a critical mass. Sociologists define “critical mass” as that group of people necessary for a whole population to adopt an idea. A critical mass can range between 10 and 30 percent of a population. As a society, for example, we have gone from everyone having an ashtray in the home to outlawing smoking in public places. Before such a cultural shift could happen, a critical mass of the population had to come to believe that smoking was hazardous to everyone’s health. This critical mass then influenced the rest of the population to adopt the new direction.

When you widen the circle instead of having a few champions, you end up with hundreds of champions. The change process moves forward with a life of its own, and leading change stops being a lonely activity.


How to Create a Critical Mass of People

Creating a critical mass is about moving from the few to the many. Here are some guidelines about whom to include in a change process:

·      Information.Include people who have specific information needed to create effective solutions. For example, include those who have specific knowledge about the introduction of a new information system.

·      Impact.Choose people who will feel a direct or indirect impact from possible changes. For example, in a school system, include students in the process; in a business, include employees from the various units and functions.

·      Authority.Choose people who have the authority to implement potential changes. For example, include the leader or leaders who must ultimately approve the recommended changes.

·      Responsibility.Invite those who have responsibility for the outcomes of the changes. For example, include the supervisors and middle managers who will have operational responsibility for the proposed changes.

·      Opposition.Invite those likely to be opposed to the new course of action. For example, include those who could lose their jobs as a result of the proposed changes.

·      Volunteering.Don’t handpick everyone who participates. People will think you are stacking the deck with those who will agree with you. Open up the process to volunteers.


Widen the Circle of Involvement to Generate Systemic Learning

If you want systemic learning to happen, widening the circle of involvement is essential for two reasons. First, involving more people increases the opportunities to learn from others’ experiences. Second, involving more people enhances the probability that learning will occur throughout the system.


Mercy Healthcare Widens Its Circle of Involvement

At Mercy Healthcare in Sacramento, California, my colleagues and I used the following approach to support learning as we implemented a new organizational design created using the Conference Model process. The problem facing us was that five hospitals needed to implement systemic and local changes. Some changes affected the whole organization and required concurrent implementation across the system, and other changes applied only to a specific hospital.

To facilitate learning, we created an implementation-planning group. This group included key people from all of the systems and hospitals involved. We had a rotating membership so that the units or systems that were undergoing the implementation process had the most members, and those who had either already implemented the changes or were about to implement the changes had fewer members. This process allowed learning to flow from those who had gone before to those who were next.

We used large group processes extensively during the implementation process to adapt the redesign template to local conditions and to share experiences. The rotating membership of the planning group and the extensive use of large group conferences allowed groups to share learning as the implementation process proceeded. This in turn allowed the organization to adjust the implementation process to conditions that could not have been foreseen when the process began. Instead of sticking to a rigid plan, the organization adapted its plan as learning occurred during implementation. Improving patient access and flow throughout the Mercy Healthcare system could not have occurred without widening the circle of involvement.


Why Predicting Every Step of a Change Process Is Doomed

Change processes that lay out a clear path are seductive in that they promise a step-by-step approach with clear outcomes and results. They appeal to the common human need for predictability, order, and structure. However, when change processes do not build in mechanisms for self-correction and learning, they are doomed to failure because they do not provide for adaptation as the process unfolds. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best when he described the planning process necessary for a military campaign. He said you must develop detailed plans for conducting the campaign and then be prepared to abandon them at a moment’s notice.


An Air Force Base Widens Its Circle of Involvement

An air force base was in the midst of a major supply-chain improvement process. In spite of the fact that a consulting firm had sought the input of many people in the organization through committees and focus groups, deep pockets of resistance still existed. Project leaders needed something more. They had planned to release the project in stages, and for the major releases of the project they held large group sessions based on the four engagement principles. People met to learn what was going to happen, identify potential pitfalls, and identify solutions. Large groups included government contractors, air force and navy personnel, and union officials, as well as the consultants who were working on the project. The results were astounding. In the words of the lead consultant, “During our large group session we identified and developed solutions for all the issues where I thought the project was vulnerable. I wish we had had this kind of involvement from the very beginning. The whole process would have been a whole lot easier.”


Manufacturing Plant Widens Its Circle of Involvement–and Achieves Unanticipated Goals

A manufacturing plant in North Carolina was creating a team-based organization using the new change management. When it came time to decide whom to invite, the process planners included people from all levels and departments, customers, suppliers, and local community members. Because the plant was a major employer in the community, the planners also decided to include the president of the local chamber of commerce, bankers, state and local politicians, and a local environmentalist.

Inviting the environmentalist was the most worrisome for the planners. They perceived her as a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker. To create a vision for their work at the beginning of the conference, they asked those present to share why they decided to participate. When the environmentalist’s turn came, she spoke eloquently about the local river. She talked about how everyone used the river for recreation. People swam, fished, and had barbeques on the riverbanks. If you lived in the town, you loved and used the river. Yet the river was in danger. Pollution worsened daily. Pretty soon, you would be able to walk across the river. The people most contributing to this danger? Well, they were right there sitting in the room.

The stakeholders in the room were also mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Suddenly, all of them realized what the river meant to them. They decided there and then that cleaning up the river would become a major part of the change initiative. They included being environmentally responsible in their vision for creating a team-based organization. But it didn’t end there. Our activist rabble-rouser was not a single-issue person. As the work to create a team-based organization proceeded, she contributed ideas about how to improve teamwork within the plant and between the plant and the town.

Without the environmentalist’s participation, pollution would have increased and the process of creating a team-based organization would have lost a major contributor.


Key Points

·      People support what they have a hand in creating. Eric Trist said, “Unless we invent ways for large numbers of people to experience paradigm shifts, then change will remain a myth” (Weisbord and Janoff 2000, 22).

·      The belief that you can create all the vital changes by yourself is a barrier to widening the circle.

·      Widening the circle produces many champions.

·      New ideas grow when people with different points of view interact.

·      Learning occurs when you continually inquire about what is working and what is not working.

·      Widening the circle accelerates the ability to respond to turbulent environments.


Questions for Reflection

·      Who else needs to be included? Whose voice is required?

·      How will you introduce variety into your change process?

·      What are you doing to support organizational learning?

·      What innovative ways can you develop to widen the circle of involvement?

·      How wide should your circle be?


Richard Axelrod is a founder of and principal in the Axelrod Group, Inc., a consulting firm that pioneered the use of employee involvement to effect large-scale organizational change. He now brings more than 35 years of consulting and teaching experience to this work.

Dick is a faculty member in Columbia University’s Principles and Practices in Organization Development program and the University of Chicago’s Leadership Arts program.  He authored Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way We Change Organizations and coauthored You Don’t Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done, which the New York Times called “the best of the current crop of books on this subject.” Visit the Axelrod Group, Inc. at www.axelrodgroup.com.

Excerpted from Terms of Engagement: New Ways of Leading and Changing Organizations, Copyright @ 2011 by Richard H. Axelrod. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.  www.bkconnection.com or 800-929-2929.



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