It is quite easy to say that leadership and strategic direction should come from the senior management team rather than from grass roots operational staff. It is a status quo ingrained into our culture all the way back to our first experiences as young children and is reinforced by stories in the media about individual performance and excellence. Unfortunately, this gives assent to two main stumbling blocks; firstly the assumption that the leadership team have the answers to all of the organisation’s ills and secondly by default, that operational staff are unable to make good strategic decisions. One local authority’s adult social care team turned all of these assumptions on their heads.
I began working with the organisation on an efficiency project, asking questions that pin pointed saving in the delivery of services. It soon became clear that this direction was not going to produce any tangible results. I requested that the group be cut free from any requirement for tangible measurable aims but rather be allowed to discuss what they felt critical at the time. My sponsors agreed and the work continued.
Staff started to form themselves into action research groups based around their own professions (Social Worker, Care Support Worker, Administrator, Occupational Therapist, etc) and developed questions around service improvement. What was interesting was the realisation that in order to change one’s work environment, the first port of call for change is at the level of self and the lived experience. This was not simply a philosophical question without any sense of practicality, but a deep questioning around what gives vitality to, for example, a Social Worker or Occupational Therapist on a bleak Tuesday morning in February, when life seems dull and at its worst. What fundamentally made them enthusiastic on such a day?
The breakthrough in finding this lost inner light came when groups began to reminisce about why they joined their various professions or roles and what they should be doing in these positions. The outcome from these ‘action reminiscence groups’ was an ideal care pathway that had its feet firmly placed in practicality.
There is an approach that is firmly located in story telling to share meaning called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI is powerful because of the focus on the power of stories being the foundation of cultures in organisations. If these stories are studied closely, they form belief systems and are quickly shared becoming folklore. Positive stories provide positive foundations and negative one’s, the reverse. This approach also takes people in the organisation much farther than simply fixing what is broken. It produces whole new ways of working based on the best experiences of the past and this was my experience with this local authority; a quantum movement to a new set of values and beliefs. At its inception, this was immensely fragile and at risk of being destroyed at any moment, either from within the group or from as yet unknown external forces; perhaps a stray word from a senior manager and negative comment from inside the group.
Diagram to show generative change vs fixing processes
In an AI approach, the question is fateful. It is the questions that are asked that set the course of the conversations. This meant that I had to move right away from what was broken in the current situation whilst remaining with the good things that were happening now. What an incredible balancing act that proved to be. I think that the group and I fell off a few times but managed to climb back on to our high wire act before we dived into a spiral of “Aint life bad” monologs.
What kind of things did we discuss?
Initially the discussions were focused around how disempowered the group was, and how badly things were run. When ever the subject of making individual changes was broached, the response that returned was a rather smug smile and an “ahh we can’t possibly do that, it’s not our job. That’s why we have management”. There was a point when I, as the discussion leader, felt exasperated by these fatalistic responses and allowed a personal emotional response to the group. There are a number of different schools of thought around allowing this to happen and I’d pondered over this for a number of weeks. Eventually, I decided that if I was to make a positive contribution to the group dialogue, I would need to express myself. Self expression in this way had a strange effect on a number of levels. Firstly, I felt that it actually drew me into the group much more than could have been possible as merely a facilitator sitting and observing from the outside. Being angry was my entry pass into the group’s central core of understanding. We were now ‘all’ angry. We ‘all’ understood each other. Secondly, it stopped the discussion revolving around the same subjects and opinions. I was asked a question which in summary translates as “OK, now you’re as angry as us, what can we do?”
An Appreciative Inquiry approach starts with a positive topic, but this topic isn’t always obvious to the group, and for the group leadership to simply think one up would be disingenuous to the spirit of enquiry. If I had given out a question, this would have positioned me as someone who was in a position of knowledge and thus, the group would be in a position without knowledge by default. For the enquiry to progress, the group would need to find a positive question as a collective.
The group started with “what do we like about our jobs?” This is a seemingly simple question that threw up complex thoughts and discussions around the personal satisfaction gained from seeing a citizen freed from the dependency of state run services. It provoked a rush of happiness and sadness mixed together. ‘A happy sadness’. Stories started to be told around the group of experiences without a spirit of positive stories or negative ones. Every stories was positive because it was part of the job cut loose from the shackles of what ever system had lead them to feel disempowered in the first place.
“The discovery phase invites participants to reflect on the best of the past with respect to a chosen strategic topic” (Barrett & Fry; Appreciative Inquiry)
Most of the literature on AI focus’s on a 4 / 5 day approach working with each of the following topics. This works very well in many situations apart from those where the group is starting from a position of low morale. My view is that the group needed to get to a position where an affirmative topic for discussion is applicable and chosen by the group.
Once the group was free to discuss something positive that happened in the past without too many negative caveats, there was an opportunity to discuss what might be in the future. For this group, the future of their service was located very much in past experiences rather than in developing new processes and systems. There was no ‘blue sky’ thinking, simply a returning home to what gave them vitality and energy as individuals.
There were also some difficult discussions to be had as well born of a simmering distrust between the various disciplines. A new group had been created called ‘Community Support Workers’ who spanned the normal narrowly defined activities of the social workers and occupational therapists. The CSWs were recruited from a mixture of backgrounds, from shop workers to ex-nurses, and their diversity was their strength. Hierarchy had no place here and this threatened the more traditional professions. This was something that could not be addressed deeply enough by a senior team protocol; it needed to be thrashed out by those who live the experience every day.
Had I known where the workshop was going to end up, I could have planned an appreciative inquiry text book style. Fortunately, the approach is flexible enough to adapt as situations present themselves, as in this piece of work.
What happened in the end?
This group of social care professionals had a myriad of central initiatives floating around as well as day to day delivery of services. Personalisation was one of the main focuses at the time and its development was high on the senior team’s agenda.
The group found that by refocusing their service delivery on the very motivations that attracted them into their various professions in the first place, Personalisation of the entire service was a natural by-product. This was a good result for service users and for government policy.
At a local level, there was a sense that the first of the tough conversations had been had, and that this would open the floodgates to many more in the service of working together. In this area of the public sector, I notice that it is seen as good form for everything to be ‘in the service of the service user’. This is a noble gesture, but at times, ‘in the service of ones self and well being’ is a quicker way to a greater good.
My approach to this was in no way an Appreciative Inquiry in the way I’d experienced it with David Cooperider at the Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, but it does illustrate a level of deep complexity in having conversations around difficult subjects can lead to a number of approaches being relevant at different times in an intervention.