Shaping the Space — part 8

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An intervention is intended to target is what we call the “space” or environment that a group of participants happens to be in.

This space is not a physical space, however.

It is more of a mental/social/emotional space that exists around the individuals. It is more clear when they are physically together, but it exists even when they are apart.

Before an intervention starts, a team or group of participants is operating inside of a particular space, most of which they are generating sub-consciously.

The overall intervention is meant to shift the space not once but several times in the course of a meeting, event or interaction of some kind.

The end-result is defined by the Outcome – described in an earlier post.

Defining the intervention is a matter of figuring out the actions that will shift the space from the starting point, through several intermediate states, until the final Outcome is achieved.

For example, the most common space that all groups of Caribbean people start in when they don’t know each other is a space of “Who are you, and who are they, and do you know who I am?”

Once this question is addressed, the most common subsequent space is “Why are we here?”

This is often followed by “What role will I play?” which in turn leads into “What is the agenda and the time requirement?”

Once these are squared away, along with any other logistics, the next space is “What is the first step?”

At this point, the actions vary according to the Outcome wanted from the intervention.

P.S. I did a search for prior posts in this blog on the topic, and found one that I wrote on my wedding day 2 years ago. In that post I wrote about how my wife and I used an Outcome-based approach to design our wedding day.

The Outcomes of an Intervention — part 7

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(This article is the 7th in a free-wheeling series of ideas around Interventions as practiced by Framework Consulting. Click here to browse the series.)

Once the need for an intervention has been established, the first and perhaps most important step is to design what we call the Outcome.

This activity follow the principle of what Stephen Covey calls “Beginning with the End in Mind.”

In other words, when the intervention is complete what will the end result of all it look like and feel like? What frame of mind will the participants be in? What will they have experienced? What emotions will they be feeling? What will they have learned?

The purpose of an intervention is to cause a shift, or a change in the environment surrounding a group of people. It usually includes a critical call to action to make progress in some new direction.

An easy intervention might be one that involves creating a new set of goals for a well-functioning team.

A more difficult one might be to spur a team to resolve a problem that seems insurmountable, and the team-members have been avoiding.

But they all start with a stated Outcome.

An example, in the case of the easy intervention, might include the following lines:
“The goals created tap into every single member’s commitments”

In the case of the more difficult one it might be:
“The conversation is open and free, and allows all the upsets of the past to be addressed.”

Usually a full Outcome runs 3-5 sentences, addressing different aspects of the final result.

These Outcomes are the bedrock of the design, as they are used to inform the different actions that are taken at different points. This includes what is said, what is done, what information is shared, what exercises are done — everything down to how the facilitators are dressed is tailored to produce the outcome intended.

It operates as the guiding light for the entire exercise.

Defining the Outcomes takes a certain degree of rigorous thinking, as design team members share their views on what is usually a complex situation with no clear cut definitions.

Tough People Problems – part 6

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Recently, I did a powerful exercise in defining what Robert Middleton, of InfoGuru fame, calls an AudioLogo.

An AudioLogo is a one line description that a business-owner uses in response to the question “What do you do for a living?” The InfoGuru’s short course in defining the best format to use as the response is nothing short of brilliant, and unique.

The result of defining my AudioLogo was that I did some rethinking of my own stock answer to the question, which used to be “I am a management consultant, in the area of strategy and HR.”

As of this month, I am now saying “I help executvies solve really tough people problems that impact their bottom-line.”

Part of this rethinking had me focus on the question of what I do when I design High-Stake Interventions, which happens to be my company’s tag-line.

What separates a High-Stakes Intervention from other possible approaches that can be used to improve a company have mostly to do with the magnitude of difference that is generated. Here is a direct comparison in some specific areas, pulled from my experience working with executives and their teams:

Training
Routine training is delivered off the shelf, meaning that the content is delivered in an inflexible format for a general kind of audience. High-Stakes Interventions, however, are customized for
specific needs pulling from any schools of thought — starting from the ground up with an understanding of the Outcome that is being accomplished. Obviously, this takes more time. The actual design process begins when the designers face the fact that nothing that has been developed will make the difference that it needed.

Coaching
Routine life-coaching involves working with individuals in a long-term relationship, with goals that keep changing as the coachee evolves. High-Stakes coaching tends to be quite blunt and to the point, and relies less on the relationship, than it does on a shared commitment to serve the company’s best interests (usually articulated as a bottom-line concern). It follows no set formula, and involves the willingness to be fired for “speaking truth to power” as some put it. The number of conversations tends to be low, and as little as one or two.

Politics
High-Stakes Interventions always have a political aspect to them, as the intervenors understand that they are engaging the various power interests in the company. New bridges are built as old ones are deliberately forsaken, all in order to improve the odds that the intervention succeeds. Company politics is seen as merely the necessary interplay of powerful people in a company, and an inescapable part of the structure of corporations.

Routine projects either try to ignore the politics behind the scenes, or blame it for all sorts of evils. The team members therefore themselves as victims of the company’s politics, and unable to contribute in anything more than a superficial way.

These are just three ways that I can see clearly at the moment, and while I won’t go into them in meeting someone for the first time, they have helped me look for the kind of work that fits my interests, and my company’s intererst, like a glove.

What Do Interventions Consist Of? — part 5

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This is an impossible question to answer.

The most successful interventions are those that are designed on the spur of the moment, when it seems that it is impossible to proceed without a formal-looking design.

This is not to say that planning has no place in designing interventions.

Far from it, well-made plans are a kind of rehearsal for a flow of events that is most likely to happen, even when it is understood that the planned flow of events is unlikely to happen.

For example, I might plan a wonderful holiday in Tobago for the September time-frame, only to run into the worst tropical depression the island has seen in ten years. The rain might completely disrupt the plans I had to lay out on the beach, in my swimsuit, covered in sunscreen. That may well have been the most likely course of action, but given the actual events, have nothing to do with what I actually end up doing.

At that moment, it would be a mistake for me to lament the lack of sunshine for more than a second.

Instead, the planning I did should free me up in the moment. Once the rain starts, I need to give up my prior plans and make new ones, based on what is happening in the moment.

Very often, business leaders get so attached to their plans that they try to execute them without regard for what is happening in front of them. Or, when faced with obstacles, they play the victim, bemoaning the fates for what has fallen upon them.

Plans are simply not made to be followed (unless they are.) In every other case, they are intended to free up our minds to respond to what is happening in the moment, and once they prove obsolete, they MUST be discarded wholeheartedly.

Interventions are best conducted when the mind is free and supple, able to respond to what is happening in the moment. They can be likened to guerrilla warfare, jiu jitsu or the kind of unstructured play that has a mood-altering effect, but no overt strategy. Guerrilla warfare is flexible, adaptable and free-flowing, as is jiu jitsu, in which one’s response is determined by one’s opponents actions.

Successful interventions require a certain kind of responsiveness, due to the ever-changing nature of the organizational situation.

For example, on a smaller level, part of a manager’s job is to intervene in the performance and behaviour of his/her subordinates.

They might spend hours planning what to say, only to realize in the moment that they must abandon their strategy in order to engage the employee wherever they might be.

This is difficult do on a person to person basis.

It is even harder to do when the intervention is undertakes as a group, and devilishly challenging to undertake when the whole organization must be taken to a different level, and the tools of intervention are needed.

What skills are needed to compose a successful intervention? How does one get trained to conduct them successfully?

The skilled practitioner operates like a trauma surgeon in some ways — skilled at very many disciplines, but not wedded to any single approach. If a piece of string will do the job, then that what is what is used. Moving quickly to capture opportunities (such as the trauma patient’s “Golden Hour”) the surgeon cares only about the outcome, and less about the means.

The practitioner of interventions may have a wide base of training, but they fade into the background when the problem presents itself and solutions are provided just as they are needed.

In fact, this is the only way that solutions can be derived.

The problem that is first recognized in the company might be solved (usually only in part) by the first intervention. However, that first intervention inevitably has some unlikely effects, only some of which are wanted.

In short, the intervention changes the state of the organization, and this new situation must be dealt with on its own terms, regardless of how fancy or detailed the plans that were made might be.

Interventions, therefore, take a strong stomach as by their very nature they throw up surprises and shocks that change how the organization is understood. Just-in-time design becomes the order of the day, not because of a lack of foresight, but due to the success of each intervention that is designed to cause a state change. The state change produces a resulting state in which a new set of designed actions is required just to stay on top of the effects that have been spurred.

This is why it is impossible to say what interventions consist of exactly, beyond trite components such as “listening” and “speaking.” This is also why they require a certain kind of courage, and willingness to fail, trusting that individual failures might only mean that the original plan was too limited to account for the scope of changes intended.

There is a single skill that the skilled practitioner cannot do well without, however. He/she must be willing at all times to accept that which is, or as Byron Katie puts it in his book of the same name: “Love What Is.”

The skill to fully accept a current situation, current facts or current reality are perhaps the most important, and the single ability that differentiates the expert from the novice.

As Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, puts it:

The opportunity that is concealed within every crisis does not manifest until all the facts of any given situation are acknowledged and fully accepted. As long as you deny them, as long as you try to escape from them or wish that things were different, the window of opportunity does not open up, and you remain trapped inside that situation, which will remain the same or deteriorate further.

Values Interventions part 4

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Now and then we are called in to work on a company’s values, and our most important advice (that most have not heard before) has little to do with the actual values themselves.

I had reason to revisit my thinking on the topic (originally done with Amie Devero) after I received the following email from Trisha Dagg (trishadagg@internode.on.net), a consultant with a firm called Blueprints. She said:

I first came across your consulting company when I read an article by Amie Devero … entitled: Corporate Values, Stimulus for the Bottom Line. She had outlined some traits or strategies that a values-based company possesses, including values that drive behavior. I am doing some research on values enactment in organizations and I am currently looking to find out about tools/methods that organizations are using to train in values and align behaviors with corporate values. There is not a lot of literature on the topic – many organizations say they live their values but it is hard to find out the “how”. I have come across a few methods such as: values specific codes of conduct, values-based interviewing and performance appraisals, and a few tools such as role-playing and card games to help align values and behaviors. I was hoping you could tell me if you have done any interventions that are specifically geared to aligning values and behaviors. What sorts of tools you used, how did you measure results?, etc.

My response to her was simple — firms that are living their values are the ones spending the most time questioning where these same values are missing, and what must be done to fill the gap.

By contrast, beware the company that spends most of its time boasting about how “value-driven” it is.

In this context, the actual values themselves do not really matter, as they offer a mere starting point. When they are chosen, or developed, the one or two days that is spent developing the list represent less than 20 hours or so of focused group effort. During this time, people’s understanding of what they want for the organization begins to align, and they begin to move towards a common language that expresses this end state.

However, this is just a warm-up activity.

The practice that the company must undertake involves a continual examination, deliberation and closing of the gap. This practice is what mastering values is all about.

As the company practices, it gets better in a few critical areas:

  1. The employees deepen their joint understanding of what they really want, and learn better ways to articulate it clearly. “Integrity” for example, a very popular value appearing on many corporations’ values list, might very well mean something very different for any pair of employees.
  2. The company becomes more skillful at noticing the gap. It is likely that specific gaps that exist will be noticed by only a handful at first. Over time, they will hopefully be able to enlist others in seeing what they see, but the process in moving from individual inspiration to group understanding is a perilous and risky one.

    Arguably, there were employees at Enron who saw trouble brewing and were willing to say so, but the company’s culture would not allow their protests to develop along the pathway from realization to action.

  3. The company develops multiple ways of closing the gap. When a critical mass of people noticing that the gap exists develops, then taking action to close the gap is the natural outcome.


These three capabilities are what we call “living the values.” It involves a continual shedding of the idea that “we have arrived” and encourages the natural evolution of values, which are merely an intangible set of agreed upon ideals. Given that values are merely an element of language, then only further talking and listening (i.e. conversation) will produce the shedding and evolving that is required to be “living” the values.

This takes courage.

For some, it means taking the risk of being fired, as they flirt with that invisible line beyond which “everyone” agrees no-one should go. Usually, it is just easier to go with the flow, give up any heartfelt belief in the values, and retreat into resignation and cynicism. That is the easy path.

The road less travelled, however, is the one that every company needs its employees to be willing to take. Companies need employees who are willing to believe, and are open to taking risks on behalf of their beliefs.

If enough of these employees existed at either Enron or Arthur Anderson, we would instead be talking about the corporate leadership that they provide in living their values. However, it would not be because their magic list of values is superior to anyone else’s.

Instead, we would know about the courage that their people have to take risks for what they believe in, and the great job each company does in encouraging this vital character trait.

Values interventions, therefore, have more to do with encouraging employees to believe, be courageous and take risks. That is the critical missing element and the one that interventions need to focus on more than anything else. There is no single prescription for how to build this element as each company is different, and the activities to be undertaken range from individual coaching to large group sessions.

The most successful interventions are self-generating as they produce individuals who continually push the company’s limits on what can be questioned, including the question of whether or not there should even be a “magic list of values.” At that point, the actual values do not even matter. It is the way of living that counts.

What Exactly is An Intervention? part 3

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Strangely enough, “intervention” was not a word I would ever use in my work, until a client repeatedly told me that he wanted me to perform what he called “an intervention.”

Now, here in the Caribbean we do not have the psychological language in our daily conversations that exists in North America. In the therapeutic world, an intervention is something performed by the friends of someone who is an addict of some kind, in the hopes that their combined efforts can help to cause an immediate, positive choice that saves the person’s life from destruction. They might hire an expert to help them to perform the intervention, and collectively say things to the addict that they had either never said before, or said together, or said without demanding an immediate choice.

While that is a bit dramatic for the my company’s purposes, it is not that far off in terms of the general idea. High stakes interventions are designed to save companies from the path they are currently on, and the results they are likely to manifest if nothing changes.

The following definition of an intervention from wikipedia seems quite appropriate:

In Organizational Development (OD), another sense of the word intervention is the activity of the OD consultant within the client’s context. In a formal OD process, an OD consultant gains entry to the organization, establishes a contract with the client, diagnoses the current functioning of the system, and recommends specific actions to improve things.

A few years ago, just before developing my strategic plan it occurred to me that the work I enjoyed the most, and wanted my company to focus on were the interventions that had the highest stakes. In other words, they had the potential for the highest impact, but also were the ones that were risky due to how much was at stake. Usually, those close to the problem had tried everything they knew to try.

It definitely was not cookie-cutter kind of work.

As a child I remember reading an article by someone called Red Adair, who was not your ordinary fireman. Instead, he focused exclusively on the toughest kinds of fires there were to put out — those fuelled by the oil from wells or rigs. They required specialized training, tools and methods that Red himself pioneered and invented, before making them available to the world.

Every kid grows up wanting to be a fireman!

While I have never put out a physical fire, I enjoy the challenge of solving really, really tough people problems that impact a company’s bottom line. It brings out some of the same qualities that Red Adair must use to put out these difficult blazes.

Anyone who is interested in high-stake interventions must have a willingness to take risks, in order to make a tangible difference. Learning how to be effective in the face of a risky environment requires certain personal qualities, and organizational qualities and a certain level ofu preparation.

One kind of preparation is to develop the kind of muscles required for self-reflection, because as I noted in part 2, interventions often start (and end) with a discovery of the part that we play in the genesis or continuation of the problem.

So, today, thanks to this client of mine, I now provide interventions, and through this blog help others to do the same.

The Design of High Stake Interventions – part 2

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There is a courage that interventions require that most would not recognize, as it has nothing to do with the inner strength required to take public actions.

Instead, the harder work to do when considering an intervention is internal — some might say it is psychological, or even spiritual.

As an intervenor in something that is not working, there is a place where you must get to where you own the fact that it (or something similar to it) is not working because of you. Whereas this may sound like self-blame, it actually has nothing to do with fault. It can be seen as strictly a matter of efficiency.

The best way to approach a problem, is to discover where, in fact, we are contributing to its continuance and where we perhaps helped to start it in the first place. The reason that this is the best way is not because the intervenor is less moral or more wicked than the rest of those involved.

Instead, it is just quicker and more efficient to work with oneself first, and to seek solutions within oneself, than it is to try to change people, systems or structures outside.

The courage that very few humans have, however, is to do this often enough and long enough to actually get the answers they need.

A senior team I worked with once asked itself — why aren’t our people more motivated? As they were about to spend money on a motivational program, it occurred to a team member (with our help) that maybe it had something to do with them not being motivated themselves.

Now, this may not appear as dramatic as I am making it out to be, but part of what it is to be human, is that we are able to hide considerable chunks of the truth from ourselves. Engaging in the design of High Stakes Interventions starts with a bit of Occam’s Razor — if there is a problem, start with an inquiry into what I have to do with its creation or continuance.

Even as an outsider to a company, I am actually able to ask myself when I am the intervenor, where I also am contributing to the problem, or have done so in the past. For example, on a recent project to develop customer service standards, I myself hate the idea of following standards.

It made me think harder about why. Well, I find standards constricting, especially when they have something to do with what someone else is using force to try to get me to do.

However, when I think about the end-experience I am trying to create in the world of the customer, and standards are seen as predetermined shortcuts, I become excited. It lead me to think about how to design my newsletter in an entirely different way — starting with the experience I wanted my readers to have.

Then, creating standards for myself was easy — even the kinds that no-one would ever notice. It gave me an insight into how to talk about standards with Caribbean employees, who are particularly resistant to even the appearance of force.

The best intervenors I have worked with are the ones who are the most disciplined in this method of self-inquiry, and are also the most courageous.

The Design of High Stake Interventions – part 1

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(NB if you are coming here from FirstCuts Issue 4: Transforming an Airline, you may add comments to the article here.)

While our firm’s tag-line is High-Stake Interventions, that line is much more than a marketing gimmick.

It is used by us in several important ways, some of which I am going to expand on in this series of posts on interventions. They might not all be new ideas, but hopefully I will be able to put them together in some kind of summary that will assist anyone who comes to the Framework site in designing their own interventions.

In these blogs, I will just be “following the energy” to see what to focus on next, rather than attempting to do a formal outline, or even a mind-map, although those will have to come later if the summary is to make sense. In the meantime, I plan to just put down the ideas as they come to me.

We will see what happens, won’t we?

High Stake Interventions

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I’m in the process of writing a paper sharing some of the insights I’ve gained from participating in interventions in the Caribbean.

I thought I’d add some of the thoughts I’ve been having to this blog, even though I’m pretty sure that the audience remains an audience of One (i.e. me.)

Many Caribbean companies are marked by atmospheres of non-accountability. There are the few that do hold themselves responsible, but the majority don’t. A poll in the US showed that 60% of employees are doing just enough to get paid and not get fired. I put that number higher for Caribbean companies.

Why?

Work, as an experience, has defined who we are as a people, as the majority of our people came to the region to work either as slaves (against their will) or as indentured servants (sometimes against their will.)

Work therefore has particular social significance, as it is interrelated (experientially) with coercion. In other words, work was about coercion, force, violence, silence, rebellion, submissiveness and other feelings that all coexisted during that 300 year period. Is it a wonder that these old ways of being, and attitudes find themselves in today’s workplace?

Francis