How About a Positive Change

July 18, 2017

If you’re like me as a business leader, then you are a great fixer. You see a problem and you fix it.  When I was a General Manager in a large corporate company, this is how I saw my role. To remove problems from the workplace, so the organisation could get on with business.


Then, quite by accident, I discovered an alternative view on change. One day whilst deep in the middle of fixing yet another problem, my CFO said to me “why do you always view the business from the negative side”. This really took me back. How could I, a captain of industry, view my business negatively. So, she then said, “instead of asking ‘what’s wrong?’ why don’t you begin asking ‘what’s right?’ with the business”.


It’s an interesting perspective, as it immediately brings Pareto’s 80/20 rule into view. You know, where 80% of the business comes from 20% of the customer base, and that 80% of your operational focus is spent looking at the 20% of things going wrong. That 20% of your staff are bringing in 80% of the business, but you spend 80% of your time working with another 20% of your workers, which causes 80% of your headaches.


The CFO had a great point. Why not focus on the positive, and make change there. Naturally, there is the school of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, however when you employ the positive model of change to a successful part of the business, a strange thing happens. Your business gets better.


Here’s the Change theory breakdown. The traditional application of change management uses a “fix the problem” mindset. Amongst others, Lewin’s and the Action based theory both begin with a problem/issue in the workplace. Through a process of ‘unfreezing’ the processes around the problem, it can then be assessed, poked, adjusted and modified into a better working state before ‘freezing’ it once more to become the new normal as a workplace procedure. These are great change management theories, however they are top down in approach, and require a problem before they can be applied.


The ‘Positive Model’ theory differs in that the opening premise is ‘the way things are done here is good, but is there a way we can do it better?’.  This is, very deliberately, an abstract question. It allows the view to shift to the entire part of the performing business, rather than zooming into one component of a non-performing aspect. This is a reformist or rebellious view of change, as you are trying to fix what ain’t broke. Often, when applying the Positive Model, a business doesn’t know where to start with the change. So, it can be quite freeing in a way, to try to find a better way of business.  


There are five stages to the model:


1.    Initiate the enquiry. Begin by asking the abstract question to those in the team. This, at the same time, acknowledges your staff but also challenges them to find a better way.


2.    Inquiry into Best Practice. By asking the question, it forces the workplace to start looking outwards for other agencies/businesses who may be completing the process better than themselves. Most of your staff will want to do a great job, and will already have completed some research into the process, either through self-analysis or review of a competitor’s work practice. If there are teams completing the same processes, conduct internal interviews/reviews or measurements of their actions. Start assembling the data into meaningful reports for review.


3.    Discover the Themes. Get your staff to look for patterns in the work processes. Once the similarities are identified, focus on the differences. Which teams are faster, use less process inputs, are slightly more cost effective? Alternatively, there may be one team that is lagging in activity behind the others, can they be improved? Can these incremental processes be applied across the entire business? By looking for the patterns in the workplace, your employees are taking ownership of their actions and behaviours, and they will begin to drive the changes into their own teams.


4.    Envision a Preferred Future. Challenge the status quo and describe a compelling future for the business. Get your teams to add to this collective picture. Be provocative as you build this story, as-after all- you are trying to extend and stretch the business capability.  


5.    Design and Deliver ways to create the Future.


This stage brings to life the changes identified by your staff. Through planning and activity, assessment and review; a change can be applied, tested and adjusted. Through a process of continual improvement, the team moves the process to the new normal.


By applying the Positive Model for change it does two things immediately,

1. it shifts your focus to the side of the business that is performing well, and

2. it recognises and acknowledges those employees who are currently doing a great job- and have been ignored because- they have been doing a great job. Seriously, how many people do you know who are doing a great job and yet are unrecognised for their efforts by their boss? (by the way, we have some great reward and recognition software programs that can help you here.)


However, the second stage of the theory delivers a more powerful result. By asking the question, your staff are challenged to look deeply into their work practices, and to look for ways of improvement. You are asking them to generate ideas, debate alternatives, and consider a better future. Often, those who work inside the business every day will already have part of a solution ready. It’s just they’ve never been asked before. By applying the Positive Model, it becomes a bottom up change project, and if it is owned by your staff, then the resistance to change falls away. With staff involvement, they will seek out best practice and deliver the themes for the change.  When I adopted this model into a part of the business, I was really surprised at the thirst for change coming from my staff. They had been wanting to do this for years, and they all had great ideas.


As a leader, if you want to try this theory, here’s a couple of tips for you to think about:


1.    Stay Open. Some of the ideas that your staff will come up with will be crazy. However, don’t crush their inspiration. Be gentle, explain why you can’t implement that particular idea, and ask them to come back with another. It’s important to stay open, as that brilliant idea will come, just give them the time.


2.    Communicate. This has to be single biggest enabler in any business change process. Make sure you communicate in an open, transparent manner. Ensure its a two-way communication flow. No point having a bottom up process if you can’t find a way for your staff to communicate upwards.


3.    Provide a Safe Space. For many staff, being given the chance to speak openly is unfamiliar and difficult. They aren’t used to voicing opinions, and will feel incredibly uncomfortable. Make sure you create an opinion safe space for them. Encourage them to speak their minds, and thank them for their candour.


4.    Deliver. If the staff want to try something, and they believe it’s going to work, give them the resources and let them try. If they foul up, that’s ok- celebrate the mistake, and get them to try again. But, make sure you deliver on the ideas. A wall of butchers paper and post it note ideas isn’t worth a dime, if you don’t deliver on them, or at least try.


5.    Empower your people. If your staff are your best asset, as so many managers will state then, let them be that. Empower them to have a go at trying to move their work from being a good thing to being a great thing. You may feel like you’re losing control, but in reality you are gaining trust and a stronger, more engaged workforce.


So, what are the issues with implementing the Positive Model? Ironically, as the model focusses the team on how to improve activity they do well, it can miss the problems in the process. There may be some very real issues that have been hidden inside a working process that will continue to lie ignored. If a problem is identified, then it pays to apply one of the more traditional Change theories.


However, time is the biggest issue with this change theory. Implementing the Positive model is a slow burning methodology. After all, you are reviewing and adjusting processes that already work well, so a quick solution is not needed in this case. If you are seeking a rapid change of activity, or a stepped action of improvements- then this method of change is not suitable to deploy in this case.


Change is the one true constant in our lives, and in the workplace if we aren’t prepared to change with the market conditions, then the competition will sail past our position. Depending on your need to change business processes will determine whether you elect to choose a traditional theory, or if you have the luxury of time, perhaps you may wish to consider the positive model. In truth,  good leaders can employ either style of change theory in their business, depending on the level of urgency they require for the business.


The Positive model is a great way to implement change into the parts of your organisation that are already good performers. It recognises the best workers on your team, it empowers and challenges them to make the things they do well even better. It can be a powerful team building exercise that establishes trust and communication from the bottom up, plus if their solutions work, your business will be demonstrably stronger. As always, we’d love to help you with your change plans, and can offer some great solutions to assist your business transition from good to great.

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