How can I help people have a selfless discussion about a needed change?
July 24, 2020 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I need to facilitate a conversation about some organizational changes with people who have a. been through a lot of change and b. are showing signs of status anxiety. I could use ideas about framing techniques, guided exercises, and anything else that can help frame discussions and work around our common problems instead of a scarcity-driven, protective, siloed mentality.

To offer a little more detail, we're a small organization (140 people) with a leader, several senior managers and two to four managers per each of them. We have spent a few years struggling with strict functional management structures and can see, due to resource constraints and complex interdependencies, that we need to be thinking in more matrixed terms. In other words, instead of defining those senior leaders around their functional remits, we need to focus them on delivering across functions with teams composed of people who may or may not be in their management lines.

The senior managers are struggling with this: Matrixed initiatives provoke land-grabs and attempts to grow management spans. Every initiative is assessed in terms of figuring out how to claim it so it can be used to rationalize peeling people out of another senior manager's span. Matrixing itself is being used as a way to try to lay claim to people instead of developing autonomous teams.

We need to have an organizational conversation, but the last time we tried, two of the senior managers went off in a corner and came up with a plan that left them each feeling like they had enough people to feel secure instead of assessing organizational need. It turned into such a huge distraction that one of them simply did a quiet reorg that left the rest of the organization wary of introducing even more change to correct it. Currently, they can both see that a change is coming but their trust in each other has diminished to the point they can't even manage another self-serving carveup.

Yes, there is a leadership problem at the top: A lack of direction and directness, and a dearth of direct feedback that would put people on notice that their behavior is noted and not appreciated. I've been asked to help with this because most of the players trust me, and my own remit is safely apart from the other senior managers. I've led a few contentious sessions and exercises on different topics in the past and have a record of getting people to a good place. The seniority of the people involved and the nature of the challenge make this a new scenario for me.

So, I'm not asking for assessments of the impossibility or unfairness of the mission. I'm asking for useful techniques, prompts, exercises, language, and framing that will help these people work together to solve our organizational problem despite their selfishness.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
These people need a shared vision. Work on defining the larger goal and the company impact if said goal is not met. (Y’all can’t land grab if the company doesn’t exist!)

Also I loooove the SCARF model for calming down peoples lizard brains. Identifying a persons emotional concerns and saying a few words to calm their (unconscious) emotional driver eases a LOT of tension.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:56 PM on July 24, 2020 [10 favorites]

If you have an ineffective leader who hasn't bought into the premise or isn't willing to put some teeth into it, and senior managers who are going to do end runs around anything that siphons power from them, then I think some of the only things that have the potential to change things at an organizational scale are:
- Work with the leader and senior managers directly to understand their motivations. Why are they here, what do they care about? Why shouldn't they try to accrue power and people? Why should they change? What's the worst case, really, of not changing? What would compel them to change? You say "We can see that we need to...." but go on to describe behaviors where "we" is a misnomer.
- Send the senior leaders out to a bunch of other organizations to get exposed to and to assess a variety of business models. What do they learn? What does it allow them to see about their own org? What would they want to do better, do less of, change, eliminate? Do the same with a group of non-leaders. Share the learnings with everyone anonymously and in a "flat" way so people can hear and consider them neutrally.
- Get buy-in from the senior managers to individually assess and coach their leadership styles on the side. Everyone should know this work is happening. Without it, you'll lose whatever credibility you have with the players who trust you, and still be danced around by the senior managers.
- Figure out what the leader is committed to professionally, and what s/he is avoiding. Is it having a nice office where everyone gets along? Is it profit? Is it social benefit? Is it cutting edge ideas? What is it, and how is the way s/he is acting supporting that or getting in the way of achieving that?
- Have the whole org do a cultural self-assessment. What does it reveal? What's the attitude toward failure, collaboration, meaning, success? Is there strategy? Are there shared goals, commitments? Is there in fact scarcity (of people, of power, of pay, of value, of work, etc.)? Because a lot of times there really is, and asking those with power to give it away is a bit of a fairy-tale unless there's a more appealing model to take its place. Conversely, what is the real upside of a matrixed model? Has this been reality tested, piloted, etc.? Could it be, so everyone could experience what the actual gain would be?
- To do any of this and stay effective and retain the trust of all, you need to have no attachment to the outcome. It may be that a silo'd approach really works for a number of reasons. You need to be in a place where you can acknowledge that and continue to work on what needs work. You need to be ready to "switch sides" and tell co-workers why not moving to a matrixed approach makes sense for a lot of reasons. (Human reasons are reasons!) If you have an endpoint already in mind, then your role is internal persuader rather than facilitator, and everyone will feel it.

I spent years as an independent change management and business process management consultant, and I'll be honest: the client you describe is one where I would have either told the members of the leadership team that they're not an organization willing to do uncomfortable work to improve their organization, and to call me when they're ready; or I would have taken on the engagement predicting a low level, but very long and dependable, income stream for me because they want to keep the general workforce muffled by "improvement efforts."
posted by cocoagirl at 1:20 PM on July 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think you need a phased approach. Here is how I would handle this, as an organizational development and change management consultant:

Do an assessment, at all levels, of what is going on organizationally. For me, this would involve meeting with every major group, again, at all levels, and possibly do a survey or one-on-one interviews. Basically, you want to identify what is working well, what is working less well, where you want to go organizationally, and what they are committed to do to make that happen. This really needs to get out all of the dysfunction as much as possible, so the leadership would need to buy into it and not criticize or interfere.

Compile the data, especially focusing on the last two questions. Use those to draft a Strategic Plan, that includes a Mission, Vision, and Values statements, as well as Strategic Goals for each major department. Allow revision time for some back-and-forth discussions. It's especially important that every major organizational initiative has its roots in the Mission, Vision and Values. If it doesn't, you may need to do some revisiting.

Work plans, priorities, budgeting, and staffing should be based on the Strategic Goals, so it's really important that everyone knows that.

DM me if you have any questions about the methodology. Good luck!
posted by dancing_angel at 9:23 PM on July 24, 2020

PS So as not to abuse the edit window, I just want to explain a little more about this methodology. It doesn't really encourage people to be selfless, as you asked - but it does allow them to acknowledge what's going well, get out their frustrations about what is going less well, and then to get excited about where the organization needs to go and be invested in the organizational commitments needed.

When I have used this process, I have seen people get very excited about having facilitators and leadership ASK them their opinion about things. The most successful time I've done this, it was with a community that had been through the wringer. They were very used to a top-down, hierarchical leadership going off, writing a plan, and throwing it *at* them. Whenever possible, I also tried to use original wording from some of the focus groups in the plan. I had people coming up to me, even years later, saying how touched they were that their opinions were solicited and that their words were actually in the plan. The shift was palpable.

Of course, though, leadership has to be 100% invested in this, and, a lot of the time, they just aren't.
posted by dancing_angel at 9:29 PM on July 24, 2020

I really like the answers from cocoagirl and dancing_angel. I hope the following adds to their wise words...

Another thought: aligning around multidisciplinary value streams, where revenue from operational activity is aligned with improving products and services in that space. Working with people who are different than you and for things that matter, that easily creates vision for your colleagues to buy into and outcomes that leaders show are (or aren't) happening. You can even carve up the apparent prestige of the value streams to please the people who get responsibility for them.

Specialist line management can continue between people different value streams, too.
posted by k3ninho at 10:56 AM on July 25, 2020

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