I have been working with the Hungarian subsidiary of an Austrian logistics company for a year, supporting a change process in collaboration with our partner Elvira Kalmár.
The original customer request came with the information that the company was doing very well, that it had doubled its revenue in the last five years and that its headcount had also grown by 50%. However, middle management seemed to have become very comfortable. The managing director wanted to take the company forward by introducing and establishing large-group methods that he knew from the parent company. But why is middle management not leading? We started with the hypothesis that the different dynamics of the rapidly growing organisation were clashing. We interpreted the lack of leadership by middle management as a structural problem.
In order to mobilise energy and get middle management on board, we suggested using the appreciative inquiry method. The key idea behind appreciative inquiry (AI) is that change succeeds best when as many resources as possible from within an organisation’s own system are used to drive it. AI therefore directs all attention to the capabilities, strengths and energies of the system concerned: instead of focusing on problems and shortcomings, potential solutions and resources are investigated and utilised. AI is both self-examination and a strong intervention. It encourages internal communication, enables lots of employees to get involved and results in them taking responsibility for the process. As consultants, we have found at many organisations that knowledge and insight are not enough to change everyday practices. The most powerful aspect of change of a practice is the practice itself.
The experience that change begins as soon as we start asking new questions proved true in this case, too. A working group was put together, made up of managers selected to ensure the greatest possible diversity. At a first workshop, they learned about the philosophy of the method, developed the interview guide and practised the interview situation.
Within eight weeks, the group had interviewed 127 out of a total of 440 colleagues. The interviewees were selected according to different criteria so that all important perspectives of the organisation were reflected: long-standing and new employees, ones from the office, the warehouse and all other sites were involved.
The interviews were met with a very a positive response from all those who took part. Even colleagues not included in the sample wanted to be interviewed. Employees who were visited during a nightshift for the interview saw this as an honour. The interviewed colleagues were very open, honest and interested in knowing what would happen next.
The interviewers viewed their own organisation through fresh eyes and saw themselves in a new role. Some of the managers, especially, were unaccustomed to just asking questions, and to approaching things with a questioning and curious view. Some said the interviews made them aware of their past prejudices. They reported how much they had learned through the conscious design of the interview situation, through preparing for the interviews and through experimenting with questions. ‘It was like a communications training exercise!’ one participant said. We consultants were impressed by the commitment to the organisation and the performance of the interviews. The very honest, open, sometimes self-critical responses gave the dialogue a special quality and revealed one of the organisation’s most important resources: the shared basis of trust. The working group of 14 managers that designed, organised, conducted, evaluated and presented the interviews became a nucleus of the desired change.
Conducted over eight weeks, largely among people who otherwise have little or no contact with one another, the 127 interviews unleashed a perceptible dynamic within the organisation. Framework conditions have been created within which the organisation can observe itself and discuss even those matters that appear self-evident. Even in the interview phase, hallway conversations and unusual & encouraging feedback showed that things were already changing.
When the evaluation workshop began, the members of the working group could not imagine how they would ever work through the huge amount of information and impressions collected. They worked in small groups to read, discuss and cluster the answers to the nine questions and then looked for the common threads in the stories together. In a creative and fun process, a presentation form suitable for the content was found. At the end of day two, the concept for the presentation of results had been agreed on, with clear roles and presentation details.
The high point of the first phase was the organisation’s first management conference, held over two days and attended by all 42 managers. The special event took place at a special venue, a beautiful property north-east of Budapest.
The results of the AI survey were presented, the conclusions were discussed and the next steps agreed. During the presentation, a spatial installation was created in the centre of the room that made all the content tangible. The managers who had not been involved prior to that point were very moved and surprised by the quality of the presentation, which was delivered using powerful metaphors. They also recognised how much energy and creativity the working group had put into the presentation. The strengths of the organisation such as stability, cohesion, trusting and an informal atmosphere & the promotion of learning and development were discussed in a focused way. Issues that had not previously been addressed were also open for discussion, such as the very operational management, lack of connection between the departments, lack of infrastructure, very informal rules and few agreed standards.
The managing director was very impressed by the presence of the working group, by their commitment and by the creative way in which they used the available space. He was surprised to find that all his expectations were exceeded. The subsequent conversations involved very intense joint reflection. Colleagues who had been at the company for more than 20 years worked with others who had only joined in the last few weeks.
The management team was able to use the conference to pause and take stock, to develop a shared picture of where the company is now and where it would like to be in future. Everyone in the room recognised their role in the success to date and their joint responsibility for the way ahead. They had also gotten back the old strong feeling of togetherness that some felt had been lost. They experienced the magic of the large group!
They were all aware of how quickly and how much the organisation had grown in recent years. But the structures and the formal rules had not grown with it. The way the company now needed to be managed had not been addressed until that point. New agreed standards and routines were needed, new communication forms with lots more feedback but without losing the strengths of the informality.
At the end of the second day, five subject areas had been identified for the new self-organised working groups to work on over the next few months. And it almost goes without saying that everyone present wanted to work on one of the topics. The original desire to shake up middle management and get them involved was fulfilled. The taxi driver who took us to the station after the event was eavesdropping on our debrief with Elvira. He asked what we do for a living because it was so exciting and such a pleasure to listen to us. With that unexpected feedback, we said our goodbyes, although we look forward to continuing the cooperation in future. Further updates to follow!!