Change Is Good: E Is for Engagement

Change Is Good is a blog series in which Roger Kastner highlights the simplicity in the art of Organizational Change Management and strives to encourage readers to maximize Pareto’s Law when navigating through the complexity of human behavior.

Slalom Consulting Roger Kastner

A Consultant Manager with Slalom Consulting, Roger works with clients and other consultants in the delivery of Organizational Effectiveness and Project Leadership services and helps practitioners achieve greater success than previously possible.

A client recently asked me if I have anything in my bag of tricks that included criteria and guiding principles for determining which decision-making approach a leader should adopt, from autocratic (one person decides, no input) to consensus (everyone has a vote).

Although I had initial thoughts, I told my client that I would reach out to my network of Slalom consultants to see if something like this already existed, or if I could gather the right information to create something valuable for my client.

What ensued was a handful of stimulating conversations, interesting reads, and a healthy amount of dialogue, which produced a very useful set of criteria and decision tree. Although not all sources and conversations were in agreement, one thing that remained consistent was the belief that the more people you involve in the decision making, the corresponding increase in both the quality and the adoption of the decision.

This rang true to me. In my experience, the more that leaders engaged impacted individuals in the development and implementation of the solution, the quality of that solution increased and we experienced higher rates of acceptance and adoption.

It’s just that simple.

Value of Engagement
The concept of engagement directly increasing adoption rates is pretty easy to accept, as it speaks to fairness and providing more participants to have a say in the process. However, does more engagement really increase the quality of the solution?

At a recent TEDx event in Los Angeles, Lior Zoref successfully demonstrated the wisdom of crowds by bringing an ox onto stage and asking the crowd to submit their guess on the weight of the ox via text message. Of the 500 responses received, although the guesses ranged from 300 – 8,000lbs, the average of the guesses was 1,792lbs. Actual weight was 1,795lbs, a staggering 3lbs (or 0.2%) off.

For fun, we tried the same experiment at a Slalom Organizational Effectiveness practice meeting, although we used a picture of a Texas Longhorn (2 guesses of where the facilitator went to school, and the first one does not count). We had 14 submitted guesses, again with a large range in responses, but the average was less than 2% off. Obviously we did not have enough people, or enough UT alumni, at the meeting.

The more people involved, the better the decision.

Principles for Engagement
Dick Axelrod, in his book Terms of Engagement, makes the point that by engaging impacted individuals, you will increase the value of the solution while creating champions for change. Dick suggests that in comparison to the “old change management” approach where a few people make a decision and then attempt to get “buy-in,” the engagement approach derives the solutions from the impacted individuals and therefore there is no “buy-in” to attain. Of the people, by the people, for the people, right?

Because impacted individuals are more likely to embrace the solution they create rather than adopt someone else’s solution, the engagement approach creates champions for the change by engaging people in determining the solution for the change.

Axelrod’s Principles for Engagement outline a simple framework for how to engage individuals in the change:

  • Widen the Circle of Involvement—To the extent possible, get as many people engaged in the problem solving process by first having a leader provide the vision for the change, and then let individuals discuss and create solutions.
  • Connect People to Each Other—As isolated individuals, it is reasonable to assume that we will solve a problem that best suits our own needs. However, in organizations, we often need solutions that meet the needs of multiple audiences. In order to understand the needs of others’ and come to shared interests, you need to connect people to discover those common interests.
  • Create Communities of Action—Whereas a large group can better articulate a problem statement, quantify the value of a solution, and choose the best solution, the mechanics of problem-solving are best suited for a smaller group to vet and evaluate alternatives and then walk the larger group through the thinking behind a recommendation. Therefore, creating smaller communities to “do the work” and report back to the larger group is more efficient.
  • Promote Fairness—This goes to what we all learned at school from day one, the golden rule: do unto others as you would want done to you. In every decision, put yourself in the shoes of the impacted, and they will guide you well.

Degrees of Engagement
It is not always practical to engage all the impacted individuals in the development of a solution, and most people understand this. However, it is possible to create a system where everyone can have a voice in the process at some level, and then see how their input is used and how a decision was made. In other words, not everyone will get their way, but everyone will get a say.

This approach requires strong leadership. To successfully embrace engagement, the leader must:

  • Understand the engagement approach.
  • Be willing to trust the engagement process and outcomes.
  • Provide transparency throughout the process.
  • Be willing to “let go” and let the solutions come from those closer to the problem space.

Like most successful culture changes, it requires the leaders to change their behavior the most, and prior to asking others to participate in the change.

It’s just that simple.

Wrap it Up
When I first heard about the engagement approach, I was honestly skeptical. I immediately started thinking about how much time and effort it would take to “widen the circle” to engage individuals, to ask people about their concerns, to create solutions by consensus, plus the amount of upfront work it would take to get leaders to understand, trust, and support the approach. There’s no way this will work, right?

And then I had two thoughts. The first was a saying that a former coworker used to say after a failing project would go into rescue mode: “We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it twice.” She was talking about the amount of rework time and effort that teams go through to solve the short-sightedness of the planning phase and opting to not “do it right” out of concerns of time and cost.

My second thought was that if I were in a similar situation, my likelihood of accepting change would increase by being included in the development of the solution. “It’s only fair,” right?

And then I decided to trust the process and try it. My experience has been positive in both accounts; engaging impacted individuals in the development and implementation of the solution does create champions for change and improve the quality of the solution, it’s not just a lot of bull, or ox, in Lior’s case.

It’s just that simple.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

One Response to Change Is Good: E Is for Engagement

  1. Pingback: Change is Good: G is for the Golden Rule « The Slalom Blog

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