The best organization development practitioners are possibilists. “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist,” wrote Max Lerner, summing up how he saw himself. We believe in the infinite possibilities that working with human systems can bring into reality for the betterment of teams and organizations.
We when we first sit down with potential clients, we often hear a litany of difficulties and frustrations. They tell us about dysfunctional teams, unrelenting conflicts and other frustrating behaviors. Unable to resolve on these problems on their own, the only possibility left was to ask for help.
I have worked with organization leaders who wished me luck, saying, “You’ll never get those two to work together. They’ve got a personality conflict.” Or, “Marketing and manufacturing are at odds in any company. There’s nothing to do about that; it’s just the nature of the beast.”
Both are examples of beliefs that allow no possibility. Such beliefs are self-fulfilling prophecies. We put little or no effort toward what we do not believe is possible.
In many organizations, there are cultural myths that limit the sense of possibility. One organization had the myth that union employees couldn’t be fired. The culture documented that belief with the story that a union employee, caught red-handed stealing a tv, was given administrative leave with pay while the matter was being reviewed, then allowed to keep his job.
The best organization development practitioners are skilled at helping their clients see possibilities to which they’ve been blind — possibilities of solving problems, of improving productivity and engagement, of creating reality from visions.
Here are five approaches to creating the sense of possibility needed to get positive results for our human systems. All of them support the creation of possibility. They are:
- Creating a Vision
- Refuting Negative Belief Systems
- The Human Systems Perspective
- Support Systems
- Appreciative inquiry
Recreating The Client’s Vision
Visions are ideas of something successful, more potent, more exciting than what currently exists. When brought forth, they are stimulating and motivating. Unfortunately, visions can become obscured by daily tasks, and the excitement they inspire forgotten.
When a potential client shares with me their litany of pains and problems, I ask, “What could you and yours accomplish if we could end the pain and get rid of the problems you’ve described?” I keep that conversation going until I see the client feeling the excitement that comes from regaining their vision.
Resolving dysfunctions as part of working toward a vision is much more energizing than focusing on dysfunctions without a vision. Change projects that are vision driven rather than problem driven encounter less resistance and are more productive.
Refuting Negative Belief Systems
As an organization development practitioner, we are of little use to our clients if we do not offer a sense of possibility. We must stay true to our own sense of possibility that we can identify and help correct whatever dysfunctions we encounter. Our unwavering sense of possibility can be infectious on its own.
While consulting with the general manager of a small newspaper about accountability issues, I discovered an ongoing and acrimonious conflict. The news director was at odds with the sales manager over the latter’s requests of the former to not air negative stories about current or potential customers.
The general manager believed such conflicts were simply part of the news business and that there was nothing to do about them, particularly since the two in this case had conflicting personalities as well.
Given the air of tension throughout the station caused by the conflict, I suggested doing something about it. The GM paused, looked at me, and said, “Do you really think it’s possible to resolve that mess?” I said, “Sure, if you insist they work with me to do so.”
He did, and we succeeded. Without my belief in the possibility of a positive outcome, the general manager never would have gained enough of his own sense of possibility to move forward.
The Root Cause, Systems Perspective
A systems perspective allows for the discovery of root-cause issues that typically offer very different and more effective possibilities than the expedient and typical poorly informed solutions that clients offer.
The CEO of a marketing business wanted me to improve the management skills of his senior team. He had become frustrated with decreasing productivity.
I discovered through individual interviews that management training would have been useless since the cause of the productivity problem was the passive-aggressive relationship between the CEO and the COO with the rest of the organization taking sides or wanting to say out of the line of fire.
Helping the CEO and COO confront and resolve their issues resolved the productivity issues where management training wouldn’t have. It was cheaper too.
Exploring for root-cause systemic issues generates the sound and current data needed to identify efficacious possibilities the clients have not considered.
Many leaders are stuck in the belief that it is lonely at the top. Those leaders fail to take advantage of the fact that individuals operating independently will rarely come up with the creative and useful possibilities that a group can create.
I routinely suggest to lone-ranger leaders that they ask their teams to brainstorm possibilities for whatever is the presenting issue. This is another aspect of the systems perspective, but worthy of its own bullet.
Appreciative inquiry involves invoking and building on the positive experiences of a system’s past. As a system recalls those experiences, it also recreates for itself the sense of possibility that was a part of those positive experiences.
I have worked with more than one group that was rife with complaints having to do with team members spending too much time gossiping, blaming, backstabbing, and otherwise being unproductive. They believed such behaviors were simply part of the fundamental nature of groups.
I would ask them to tell me about a time when they operated smoothly and efficiently as a team. They speak of several situations: a crucial order at the last minute, a machine that caught fire, and other emergencies when everyone lent a willing hand and had a good time doing so.
This appreciative approach consistently reminds them of their ability to perform well together. This leads to identifying the behaviors they called on to perform so well and the possibility of intentionally using the same behaviors to resolve the current situation.
These five strategies are ways to think about helping clients create a sense of possibility that will help them and their teams move through whatever change processes they need with excitement and enthusiasm. As organization development practitioners, helping our clients create possibility will continue to build our reputations for facilitating successful change projects.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems,
is an organization development psychologist of 45 years of
experience with all kinds of people and organizations.
He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game.
Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.
Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour consultation at https://chumans.com.
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