Can You Create A Positive Disruption?

How does your organization cope with change? Like it or not change is constant in our workplaces, but the disruption, instability, and uncertainty that often accompanies change can be unsettling. It can zap your energy, divert your attention, and sometimes leave you trying to desperately cling to the status quo or blaming others. But what if you could turn your upheavals into positive disruptions?

Change may sound threatening if stability, not growth is your goal. But researchers have consistently found that all living systems change, and disruptions that disturb the status quo are what you need to enable learning, adaption, creativity, resilience, and growth.

So how can you create positive disruptions?

My PhD research has found that the appreciative inquiry process is an effective way to help you bridge the gap from the chaos of disruption to creativity and growth. Based on the premise that you learn little about excellence by studying failure, appreciative inquiry is a strengths-based approach that uses a 4-D cycle to discover what’s working well, dream of what might be possible if you built upon these strengths, design pathways forward to move from where you are to where you want to be, and take actions to start realizing your destiny. Instead of fueling a downward spiral of fear, blame, and shame that can often be sparked by organizational change processes, this 4-D cycle helps to create a positive disruption by producing an upward spiral of confidence, curiosity, and hope that is grounded in the reality of the strengths your system has to build upon.

The 4-D cycle is often applied through an appreciative inquiry summit (AI Summit), to bring the whole system together – leaders, employees, customers and other stakeholders – to focus on opportunities for something better and more meaningful and have been used to:

  • Grow the United Nations Global Compact for sustainability from 1,500 to 8,000 of the world’s largest corporations – a 433 percent growth rate.
  • Deliver 40 percent per year earnings growth at mining corporation Fairmont Santrol by establishing a sustainability focus across the organization and earning them the award for the top corporate citizen in the United States.
  • Increase shares from $14 to $40 in just two years for couriers Roadway Express due to significant improvements in operating ratios and employee-driven improvements that translated into an additional $17 million in revenue and $7 million in annual profit.
  • Significantly reduce production cycle times to deliver more than $3 million in immediate saving at John Deere by decreasing apathy and improving trust across teams.
  • Deliver energy improvements across the state of Massachusetts that resulted in nearly $9 billion worth of benefits for residents and businesses.

However, research suggests that in order for your AI Summit to be effective you need to be asking generative questions – that help you see and feel things in different ways and compel you to want to act on these new ideas – and creating opportunities for people to self-organize and step up to take responsibility for what they care about enough to action. As appealing as this may sound generativity and self-organization can be a surprising, messy and bumpy process because it requires you to embrace uncertainty, be open to challenging questions and conversations and willing to follow people’s energy rather than mandating actions.

So how do you know if you’re ready for this the kind of positive disruption created by an AI Summit?

These three tips can help you maximize the benefits of an appreciative inquiry summit:

  • Check your readiness for change Researchers suggest that AI Summits are most effective when your systems current state is neither extremely dysfunctional nor consistently thriving. If your system is currently in a dysfunctional state your people are more likely to be defensive and focused on self-protection an AI Summit can be greeted with great suspicion and skepticism. And if you’re system is consistently thriving you may find an AI Summit creates minimal disruption as you are probably already working in generative, well connected ways that allow for self-organization. Instead, I’ve found that that AI Summits have the most impact when your organization’s current state lies somewhere between dysfunctional and extraordinary.
  • Do you have the courage for generativity – while being positive and strengths-based is important, they only get you so far. Being generative – able to see old things in new ways – is the key to creating transformational change. Consider if your system is willing to create generative connections by bringing together diverse voices across your system, around a generative topic and questions, and willing to support generative actions post-Summit.
  • Are you willing to support self-organization – will people have permission to take responsibility for the things that they care most about? To ensure self-organization works well for everyone, there needs to be a clear vision and agreed values that will guide people as they make choices that are good for them and good for the system.   You also need leaders who are comfortable with people taking self-organized actions, rather than leaders who take away their freedom and opportunity and put them back into command and control. Will your system support self-organization post-summit or will leaders unintentionally put the brakes on people’s willingness to take action and ownership?

 You can check your systems suitability for an AI Summit with these simple questions.

What can you do to move from where you are now to where you want to be?

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