Leveraging Your Learning Power

We spoke to an educational dream-team about best practices in facilitating learning – and harnessing new knowledge to help overcome an organization’s most pressing challenges. Sharing their views are Allyson Thomson of the Ontario Ministry of Finance; her executive sponsor Assistant Deputy Minister Marion Crane; and Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott.

Allyson Thompson, Senior Divisional Project Manager, Transition Project Office, Ontario Ministry of Finance in Oshawa.(Queen’s IRC Certificate in Organization Development; candidate for Queen’s IRC Master Certificate in Organizational Effectiveness.)

I’ve never run into barriers to applying new knowledge when I return to work. One reason is the Ministry involves staff in developing their learning plans with managers – so when I meet with my manager we identify learning opportunities that are of benefit to me and to the organization as part of that process.

Another is that I am so well-supported. I’m in a temporary role as Senior Divisional Project Manager of the Transition Project Office, working with a team of project managers and analysts to coordinate a major restructuring initiative within the Tax Revenue Division. Recently, my Assistant Deputy Minister, several key directors from the division, me, and Brenda Barker all met to talk about what kind of learning was of most use to me, to the division, and to the organization. This demonstrates the value the leaders of this division place on learning.

As part of my OD training at Queen’s IRC my practicum is to develop a cultural transformation strategy. This is necessary for my learning, and for the division. The ADM looked at it as a strategic investment, and provided time, support and money.

So it is not like sending someone on a one-off course and hoping they pick something up. The divisional leadership team did a really thoughtful and strategic review of organizational requirements, divisional requirements, and my personal development, and brought key stakeholders together to discuss it. That really clears the way for learning – and its application on the job.

Executive Sponsor Marion Crane, Assistant Deputy Minister, Tax Revenue Department, Ontario Ministry of Finance, Oshawa

The number one thing is to make the time to connect with the individual before and after a program. Allyson’s project impacts a whole division, and involves a huge cultural change. She emailed me to tell me about the Queen’s learning opportunity, and asked, ‘Can we setup a time to discuss this?’

I’m always glad when people follow up. It allows me to do something I am supportive of, which is to ensure the person has the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. When Allyson followed up with me about this opportunity, I scheduled a meeting with her, along with key directors in the division, to discuss how the learning could be applied – to the benefit of Allyson, and also the Tax Revenue Division.

To ensure knowledge gets transferred, the organization has to value learning in the first place. This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t the reality in all organizations.

Also, there’s a difference between management support – such as paying for a course – and active support, where you show that you know what the person is trying to do and demonstrate your intention to assist them.

When the person follows up it provides an opportunity to be actively supportive. Leaders want to be more supportive, but there is just so much time in a day. I think the onus has to be on the employee to make senior management aware of what he or she needs.

When Allyson’s project is finished, we will likely have her interviewed for the Divisional newsletter to share her learning with the 2,800 people in our division.

We have pockets of excellence in which there is an expectation that someone who goes for courses will present findings to learning team members. I encourage this, as you can’t send everyone on the educational program.”

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Brenda Barker Scott

The formula for best-practices learner support is three-fold. Number one, you need committed and enlightened leadership – leadership that sees education as an investment and leadership that enables learners to apply their new knowledge back at the workplace.

Then you need a learner who is ready, able and motivated to do the work.

The third element is a relevant business challenge for applying the learning. It’s got to be a challenge worthy of attention and not a make-work project.

When you have these three elements in place, committed leadership, a motivated learner and a real business challenge, then you have the conditions for real results.

We saw this with the example of the Ontario Ministry of Finance. It was time for Allyson to do her Consulting Skills practicum as part of her Queen’s Organization Effectiveness Master Certificate.

Marion called the senior leadership team together to get their ideas and agreement on the real business opportunity that Allyson might tackle with her practicum. And Allyson was a highly motivated learner – she sought out the program in the first place and approached Marion about it.

As well, Allyson had IRC’s support during her practicum, as we guide people through the process that we teach. So there’s always a coach a tour end to bounce ideas off of, both about content, and process.

Quite simply, it’s about tasking learners with real-life, high-leverage business challenges and then supporting and enabling them along the way. This is why people who come to our Master level programs will now be required to meet with their executive sponsor, identify an organizational challenge, and create an agreement before the program about how learning will be applied. Ideally, learners will meet with their sponsor upon their return to discuss the plan for applying knowledge.

As adults, we learn by doing. The more that we can apply new concepts and skills to meaningful work, the deeper our learning will be. For example, you can read books about tennis, or take lessons, but until you play the game you can’t reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and how you will adjust for the next time. Which is another benefit for learners who have a faculty member or in-house coach to work with: it gives them a person to help them reflect on what they learned and how they can apply it in future.

The Magic of Diagnosis – Part 2

In part one, Brenda discussed how diagnosis enables change leaders to uncover what is really going on – and how that knowledge yields both the best solutions and the energy for change. In part two of her article, she elaborates on how diagnosis actually works to mobilize change, and how to make an accurate diagnosis.

To read Part 1 of this article click here

I’ve emphasized the importance of staying in the deep diagnosis phase in order to mobilize change. But how does this actually work? A useful formula for explaining how energy arises out of engagement and learning is the formula DxVxF>R, offered by Kathy Dannemiller and colleagues. It is built on the notion that resistance is a normal and natural human response to change and that to move forward, people must have a deep appreciation for the why, what, and how of the change – or D,V and F – which they describe as follows:

“Our version states that for change to occur, the product of dissatisfaction with the present situation (D), a vision of what is possible (V), and first steps to reach the vision (F) must be greater than resistance to change (R). If any element is missing, the product will be zero. Since we all resist change to some extent, if the product is zero we will not overcome resistance and no change will occur. In other words, if people are able to absorb new information, they will see the world differently (paradigm shift) and, once their paradigm shifts, their behaviour will change as a result.”

What is the best way to create DxVxF? There is no substitute for engaging people in critical conversations with colleagues, customers, suppliers and experts to explore and identify the many reasons for change, the desired possibilities for the future and the paths to getting there. Building a critical mass of support through DxVxF creates leverage. It is a strategy that enables change agents to join with people, to make them all smart about why change, to what and how.

One of most compelling insights I’ve had is that if you spend time creating D and V, you will create the spark for working at warp speed when you reach F – or implementation. That’s because you’ll have a group of people who know what to do, as they have knowledge embedded in their DNA. The magic of taking your time at the front end is that the back end will then roll forward quickly. That’s why a brilliant diagnosis made by a select few may be a waste of time if it does not resonate with the people who need to make it happen. In many ways, change is all about learning, and doing the diagnosis is a critical step. You need to think carefully about who needs to be engaged in real learning for the change to succeed.

The simple truth is that when we have the courage to embrace the big questions, and stay in a place of uncertainty and confusion, we are creating the basis for sound decisions and speedy implementation. All team members, including change leaders, need to move through these stages, passing through denial and confusion and working through the uncertainty to eventually reach renewal, where the wind is once again under their wings.

The Magic of Diagnosis – Part 1

At its core, facilitating organizational change is about energizing the right people to design and execute smart strategies. As sociologist Philip Selznik says: “Strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy.” Read on for part one of an article that details how diagnosis lights that flame.

A few years ago, under the direction of a new plant manager, the HR manager of a huge Canadian company approached us to complete a whole systems operational assessment and develop a set of recommendations for improvement. We advised an alternative approach, suggesting that I would facilitate the work of a steering team who would guide this critical work and create the action plan. While the HR manager was intrigued with the approach, she declined, saying she had no time, that the new plant manager wanted the recommendations yesterday. Sound familiar?

We gave her the names of several consulting firms and the assessment was duly completed. Two years later she called us back and informed us that thousands of dollars later and with the consulting report in their hands, none of the recommendations had been implemented. I asked why, and her answer confirmed a deep truth about enabling change; in essence she said that because the senior managers and critical others were not involved with the diagnosis, they did not support or agree with their commendations. They had a strategy with no resources committed to making it happen.

We think experts are a very valuable source of information and encourage change teams to hear from different experts to educate, inform, and stretch their thinking. But what’s important is that they integrate information with their own. No outside expert can possibly know what is right for an organization.

Why do we as change leaders always want to jump past diagnosis and move right into strategy? Could it be that, as leaders, we are squeamishly uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity? We need to rush to action, any action, because action means leadership? Or is that we simply do not appreciate that change is about learning, and if the right people are not involved in a discovery process that enables them to learn together, they will not be ready to facilitate collective actions?

Rushing into action has two main downsides. One is the high likelihood of an exercise in futility, just like the example described above. If we get our diagnosis wrong, by default our plan will solve the wrong issue. Let’s say for example, that the problem your team is confronting is that your organization’s strategy is not being operationalized. You might jump to the conclusion that your leaders are the problem; they aren’t competent enough to do what it takes. But when you make assumptions like this, you are likely to find yourself having déjà vu: no matter how often you coach or replace the offenders, the problem will recur again and again if you’re addressing the wrong cause.

The other problem with plunging reactively into action is that it shuts things down before the creativity that is in the system can be revealed. This may seem counterintuitive but by spending time in understanding the why behind issues, the what and how become much clearer. Quite simply, the more you diagnose and expand your perception of what is, the more you expand the possibilities for action.

Take the case of a team we worked with that was in the exploratory, diagnostic stage of an organizational design effort. The steering team members couldn’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing the answer, and felt the need to create something. So they sat down one evening and designed their organization based on what they knew so far.

Months later, we compared their early attempt to the one created after a proper diagnosis. It was very instructive. The first exercise yielded something along the lines of what had existed and wasn’t working. The next iteration, however, was a total departure from the traditional hierarchical structure, based on networks and relationships – just what the organization needed.

This is a perfect illustration of our need to hold on tight to structures and answers and get there quickly – and of how this limit sour ability to allow creative solutions to arise from a deep sense of purpose.

In contrast, taking time in the diagnosis phase lets you uncover what is going on – and that knowledge yields both the best solutions, and just as important, the energy for change. Deep diagnosis ensures that people will be committed to solving big issues and doing whatever it takes to make change happen. Having a solid appreciation and understanding of what is naturally enables people to make good decisions about what can be.

To read Part 2 of this article click here

A Blueprint for Optimal OD

It is a simple truth that people have an organic connection to the space in which they live and work. No matter how hard a host may try to steer his or her guests to the formal living room, everyone eventually ends up in the kitchen, and as they do, the real party begins. The kitchen is where the action is, and whether we are at a house party or our workplace, we all need to be within our own centre of action. Because people live and work in what is created, we at the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre have adopted the concept of organizational architecture to define the art and practice of “organization development.” Architecture encourages us to think about how form follows function, and how function follows form.

Organization development is the art and practice of designing organizations that give people the edge in creating and implementing winning strategies; through relationships, structures and process, leadership, and learning.

With continuous change in our external environment driving continuous change within, organizations built on the principles of scientific management—with steep hierarchies, centralized authority, transactional leadership, and narrowly defined jobs—are hopelessly outdated. Their rigid structures and boundaries act as barriers that limit the types of interaction and learning that need to occur to create and implement great strategy. People cannot find the kitchen, so to speak; the master chef is disconnected from his or her guests, and they from each other.

Does your organization’s architecture enhance the way people work together, or does it create barriers that block people from communicating, partnering, learning, leading, or following? The role of the OD professional is to help clients ask and answer these important questions. Just like the architect begins with a clear understanding of the client’s functional requirements, the OD practitioner begins with the organization’s North Star, its strategy. Next, architects provide a high-level blueprint to define how each room will interact with the whole. Similarly, the OD practitioner works with the client group to identify the key strategic capabilities required and then to design useful structures, systems, roles, and relationships. Each element impacts the whole. When the elements are aligned, great spaces are born.

What are the tools of the OD trade? The OD practitioner’s work is guided by a set of powerful questions designed to discover the needs of the users. The toolkit includes a theory map or diagnostic lens that guides the practitioner’s questions, an action research consulting process for partnering with the client group, and a battery of powerful techniques to create suitable interventions. Depending on the type of intervention planned, outcomes could include increased productivity, improved communications, redefined internal partnerships, realigned systems to support strategy, or enhanced leadership effectiveness.

This work is accomplished with the following principles:

Collaboration: OD practitioners partner with the client to generate data, analyze the data, and develop workable solutions.

Group as the main unit of change: Activities focus on group development and function rather than on individual development.

Systems thinking: Much attention is paid to how stakeholders of the planned change are involved and consulted. Both horizontal and vertical collaboration for exploring possibilities and creating preferred futures are emphasized.

Multiple paths: OD uses a variety of methodologies designed to help the organization develop. The emphasis is on variety; there is no one best way to intervene.

Action research methodology: Practitioners partner with clients to collect and analyze data and create interventions to accomplish the client’s goals. Data are collected through interviews, focus groups, surveys, observations, review of historical material, and other methods. The data are then analyzed and presented to the client group so that a shared diagnosis can be generated. Interventions are developed in cooperation with the client.

Intervention expertise: The practitioner as facilitator designs activities in collaboration with the client to improve organizational functioning, such as team building, partnering, conflict handling, and coaching.

Diagnostic framework: The practitioner is aided by a theory map of how effective organizations work. This map provides a starting place for diagnosis and helps the practitioner be mindful of the entire system.

What does this mean for HR professionals? To continue to add real value, HR practitioners must sharpen their pencils and become architects. We do this by understanding the concepts and learning the skills involved in designing organizations to leverage inherent strengths, not stifle them. Focus on the organization’s people and processes. View it as a series of interrelated systems (or rooms). Develop consulting guidelines using the action learning process. And employ change processes that involve all stakeholders to build real commitment.

Build an inviting home away from home, and see innovation flourish.

Resistance is Futile: Making Change Simply Irresistible

Have you ever woken up in the morning with a brilliant idea, one that solves a problem that’s preoccupied you for months? Perhaps you can’t quite believe the elegance of the solution, and you decide to sleep on it for one more night. The next morning, excited, convinced that your answer is sound, you go to the office, round up your team, and share your inspiration. Before humbly taking your bow amid their applause, you glance up at your colleagues. They are staring at you, in profound silence, all wearing the blankest of blank looks.

What you are now looking at despairingly is the face of resistance. You can recognize it when nothing happens. Its effect is to hobble change.

For many of us, our first reaction would be to argue, convince, debate, try to bring people around to our way of thinking—or even to get annoyed, frustrated, and defensive. If we at the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre had a dollar for every time we heard a leader tell resisters to get on board the train or be left at the station, we would be rich. But forcing resisters to change is the least effective way for gaining commitment. Prescribing and commanding does not make people more willing to act. It usually makes them dig in their heels deeper.

So how do you look resistance straight in the eye and convince it to switch over to your side? Involving people in a meaningful way is the best way to entice people to change. Expect resistance, plan for it, and realize that you need to work with your stakeholders from the outset. The job of change leadership is to analyze key groups in the organization and their readiness to change, and to develop strategies to help build a critical mass of supporters.

Blurting out our great idea to the team and expecting people to be onside is simply not the way to overcome their resistance. It is like a husband coming home and telling his wife, “Guess what? I bought an amazing car today and you are just going to love it.” It is a given that with any decision, whether involving individuals or organizations, anyone who thinks they know best and doesn’t involve others who will be affected is most likely not going to meet with a positive response. People are not going to be with you—which is the basic definition of resistance.

So slow down. You have to build support, not expect it. Be methodical. Create a plan for mobilizing commitment. It makes sense to begin your planning process by considering the issues and needs of your stakeholders. If key groups are not honoured and involved along the way, resistance is almost inevitable. Ask yourself:

  • Who are the key groups with a stake in the change?
  • What are their interests in the change?
  • What issues will they have?
  • How are they likely to react to the change?
  • Is their buy-in required? If so, what type of involvement is appropriate?
  • How might I secure it?
  • Who needs to be on board and how can I involve them so that they enrich the plan?

Next, think through how to initiate conversations amongst them to discuss them about the why, what, and how of change. Knowing why the organization needs to change, where the organization is going, how the organization is going to get there and how they can participate will overcome most people’s resistance. That’s because participation is the biggest factor in mobilizing commitment. By creating a forum to share, listen, and learn from one another, you will all gain valuable perspectives from key stakeholders and foster a common understanding that will support your change process. This is the key to replacing resistance with resolve, planning with results, and fear with excitement.

At this point, you would be well-prepared to share your brilliant new discovery with your team, involving them from the very start. Remember, change is different these days. In our complex work environments, the new leadership model is to inspire the answers, not to give them. Today no one leader can single-handedly have the whole answer, providing the vision, knowledge of the external environment, the best strategy and a plan to implement it. What’s important in managing change is creating commitment for where you are going and how, and ensuring that your key stakeholders enrich, as opposed to resist, your vision for change.

Brenda Barker is a Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre Facilitator who teaches change management.

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