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5 Tips for Creating Effective Organizational Change in a 21st Century VUCA World

How to approach change from an Appreciative Inquiry Perspective

In our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, fast, effective, sustainable change is the key to successful organizational adaptation, survival, re-invention and growth. Yet the change methodologies bequeathed to us from the revered psychologists of the twentieth century prove too slow, too linear, too cumbersome and too effortful to meet the challenge.

Appreciative Inquiry is one of a number of the whole system, co-creative, dialogic methodologies that provide alternative approaches to creating organizational change. However, a change in methodology demands a change in mindset. Below are five tips for how to approach change from an Appreciative Inquiry Perspective.

1. Involve everyone from the beginning

Appreciative Inquiry as an approach understands the organization to be a living human system: everyone plays their part in creating, sustaining and changing the system. For the system to change in a fast, effective and sustainable way everyone has to think and behave differently.

We need to give up our belief that we can dictate change of this nature from the top-down and to recognize instead that we need to grow it from the bottom-up. Involve everyone who is going to be affected by the change, is invested in the status quo, or has useful information or resources from the very start. For many used to the standard operating procedures for change, this will feel strange: we are used to small groups making the plans for larger groups. With these new approaches, large groups of people create aspiration, paths of possibility and a general direction of travel, then smaller groups make it happen.

2. Recognize that motivation starts in the imagination

People become motivated by visions of themselves in the future. Some visions for some people are formed so strongly so early that they draw them forward over obstacles and setbacks, pull out unknown reserves of tenacity and resilience over many years: think of all those sportspeople who dreamed from a young age of holding an Olympic Gold Medal.

When people are involved in creating visions of the future of the organization that are attractive, feasible and offer them things that are important to them such as achievement, security, challenge, social networks, human connection, autonomy or a myriad other things people can find attractive at work, then they will find that vision of the future motivating. They will find energy and resources that they didn’t know they to achieve that future.

3. Recognize that how we feel affects what we can do

When we feel great we can take on the world, when we feel defeated, overwhelmed, overlooked, undervalued, upset, discounted, forgotten, or mistreated we want only to withdraw. Change is disruptive; change can be brutal. If we don’t attend to people’s emotional state during change we inadvertently produce withdrawal, apathy, demoralization and demotivation.

The key emotions that we need to generate and foster during change are hope, optimism and efficacy. It is the belief that things can be better and that I can make a difference that produces pro-active, engaged behaviour. Appreciative Inquiry deliberately fosters the creation and re-creation of these emotional states during the change process.

4. Do leadership differently

In the old days, a leader was expected to lead from the front, to bear all the risk and responsibility for calling the future right, to have all the answers. If this ever was possible it certainly isn’t now: the world is too complex, too uncertain, too VUCA.

So, leaders must of necessity become agents of facilitation who facilitate the organization to find a way forward. Asking change-generating questions becomes more important than knowing answers; involvement is more productive than direction. The leader needs to give up the illusion of omnipotence and in return will be able to access the collective intelligence of the whole organization to grapple with the VUCA challenge.

5. Recognize change as a process, not an event

Once upon a time change was a highly disruptive event visited upon an organization at regular intervals, usually when a new broom arrived, rather like the ripping out and replacement of an old kitchen by new home-owners. There existed the fond belief than once the dust settled everyone could get back to normal.

We can no longer afford to think like this although many still do. We have to develop change-able skills. From this perspective people who notice problems are harbingers of a further necessary adaptation. Rather like the constant adaptive, future-oriented gear-changing, we practice while driving, so we aren’t caught out in the wrong gear if we suddenly have to accelerate or brake, so we need to constantly attend to things that need changing so we are in the best state possible to meet what the future may hold.

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