The Positive Organization Generator

At the end of the book, there is a tool that I call The Positive Organization Generator.  I believe it can empower each individual who uses it to make real change in their organization.  The following story from the book describes how the tool works, and one of the first groups to use it.

I met with the top 200 people of a large corporation. Their industry was turning upside down, and they were facing a rapidly evolving external world. They had spent the previous day conceptualizing their strategic future, and now they wanted me to help them think about their culture and how to insure the implementation of their new strategy.

I opened by telling them I believed that, within two hours, we could actually initiate culture change in their company. I said this with complete confidence; they, of course, “knew” that it was impossible. An outsider cannot initiate culture change—especially not in two hours.

In the first hour, we had an unusually honest discussion about leadership and the nature of organizational change. We explored the fact that instead of moving toward an ever more positive culture where people sacrifice for the common good, most organizations maintain conventional cultures full of self-interested people. The people continually splinter, and the organization moves toward a slow death.

I asked the participants to reflect on the strategy work they did the day before, take everything they heard in the discussion of their future, and reduce it to three to five bullet points specifying what was going to be demanded of their particular unit. This took two minutes.

Next, we looked at the Positive Organization Generator, the tool you will find in the appendix. Using the first part of the tool, they had some time to diagnose the current culture of their unit and to specify what their desired culture looks like.

Finally, we looked at a list of 100 positive practices from other companies. I explained the following:

  • This is a list of 100 practices. The organizations claim that these positive practices changed their culture for the better. We do not know if the claims are true, but it does not matter. Our objective is not to adopt or imitate the practices. Instead, you will use the practices as inspiration for the creation of your own, new practices.
  • The first step is for you to examine the 100 practices and identify the ones that most interest you.
  • Now, focusing only on the practices of most interest, ask this crucial question, “How can I reinvent this practice?” Reinvent means to recreate, reconceive, redesign, or refashion. You are not to adopt the practice, you are to reinvent it.
  • In reinventing the most interesting practices, the objective is to create new practices that meet three criteria.
    • <BSL>First, the practice is reinvented to your unique situation.
    • Second, the reinvention process is real; you feel genuinely excited about the prospect of implementing the practice.
    • Third, it is a practice you can implement without asking permission.

With these instructions, they went to work. When they finished the effort, I asked them to share their new practices with each other. As I walked by one table, one of the participants uttered an interesting statement. He exclaimed:

“We really can make change!”

As I later debriefed the larger group, I cited that comment and asked if anyone else shared his feeling. Many hands went up. These were the leaders of the company, and yet they were surprised to learn that they could make change. I suggested that in doing the exercise we were moving from assumptions of constraint to assumptions of constraint and possibility.

One man raised his hand. He could hardly contain himself as he described a new way to positively engage both customers and suppliers. Others wrote down his idea. We followed this with more sharing. When we reflected on what was actually happening in the room, the participants said:

  • We are coming up with ideas that will turn our individual areas more positive.
  • We are creating ideas that we really believe in.
  • We are getting ideas from each other.

I asked how many believed they would actually go back to their own units and do something. All the hands went up. I asked them what would happen if each one only implemented half of their ideas. Someone responded, “That is a lot of positive change.”

They all believed that an organization is a hierarchy of authority and that change happens from the top down. Yet, I was suggesting that an organization is also a network of relationships and that change can be an emergent process that flows from the bottom up. It can happen without any centralized coordinating mechanism. It can emerge from the enactment of new practices.


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