Learning How to do the Impossible

The field of positive organizational scholarship was born at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School. It has spawned much research on how to create organizations where people flourish and exceed expectations.

Six years ago a new chief people officer, Amy Byron-Oilar determined to apply some of the research by building a positive work community. A year later, a new dean arrived. Amy and the dean agreed that the principles of positive organizing should be applied inside the school.

In 2015 Amy showed me a slide depicting the initiatives that were launched. The process started with two efforts in 2011 and the number increased every year. The diagram seemed to capture a systematic process. Yet Amy pointed out that the process was not so systematic. What emerged was not the result of a master plan. Amy told me, what was done in subsequent years “could not be imagined in the previous years.” The process was emergent. New actions gave rise to other new actions.

Amy said, “I wanted a plan. I tried to write one… over and over. That’s what we’re taught. Figure out where you are. Determine where you need to be. Chart your path. Execute and, voila, success! It was part of my personal journey to let that thinking go.”

In Amy’s first year staff dissatisfaction was high. So in 2011, at the suggestion of the Dean, she established a staff involvement group with representatives from all areas of the school. This eventually gave rise in 2012 to a community learning group inspired by faculty research on the importance of learning in creating positive cultures. Mini-conferences explored best practices and resulted in lists of “tips, tricks and new great stuff.” Quality of all staff meetings was improved. A staff lounge was created. A popular past practice called Green Clean was reinstituted.

In 2013 faculty and staff members worked with an outside organization to create a future vision. This seemingly small act turned out to be important. It legitimized creating a positive future and it empowered people. Suddenly it was legitimate to create new initiatives.

Some people were certified in teaching a program on crucial conversations and over 150 members of the staff have been trained to date. There had always been complaints about staff experiencing a lack of respect from faculty. In one discussion it was proposed that maybe the solution was for staff to increase their own respect for faculty. This led to a classroom observation program where staff could sit in on classes and see both faculty and students at their best. A comprehensive on-boarding process was also created to expose new employees to every aspect of life in the school.

In 2014 there was a campus wide effort towards “shared services” that would greatly impact the staff of the business school. In preparing, many staff members were interviewed and it became clear that they did not feel connected to each other or to the school. This led to a networking effort including bi-monthly community building exercises. A selection boot camp was instituted and was run by staff to help other staff hire people more likely to contribute to the positive vision. An annual health rally was put in place and the performance appraisal tool was redesigned to foster positive knowledge, skills and abilities.

In 2015 specific new modules were developed for the on-boarding process. Every other month a staff member was selected and profiled to the entire school. In instituting the new shared services program many people were suddenly sharing workspaces and this turned out to be as likely to generate conflict as it did cooperation. A program was put in place to help people experience the latter.

A video was created capturing what it means to create and live in a positive community. A related program on knowledge and practice sharing emerged. Faculty members published a new, edited book on developing positive leadership and individual faculty authors were invited to teach various chapters to the staff. Staff were recruited to help share the positive vision with new staff by sharing their own positive stories and experiences. Finally, the vision contained many statements such as: “Operate with the positive end in mind;” “See the good in others;” and so on. An effort was initiated to turn these statements into an assessment tool so people could analyze themselves individually or collectively and explore avenues to improvement.

As Amy finished her exploration she returned to the notion of emergence. She said, “Someone recently suggested that we create a video about the faculty like the one we did about the staff.  Two years ago it would have been impossible to have that idea. Every time we do something, it creates new possibilities. The process keeps expanding”

I asked Amy about the impact on Amy. She said, “Early on I attended an executive education course on positive leadership given by our faculty. One of them taught me to ask, ‘What would you do if you had two percent more courage?’ Over and over I have asked that question because building a positive work community requires courage. The impact on me has been very real. I am amazed, my thinking has expanded immeasurably. I can do things now that would have been impossible at the start.”

I was struck by the truth of the last statement. Amy committed herself to do something no one had ever done, create a positive work community inside a business school. Doing it required the courage of to lead and nurture an emergent process. Because she did it, Amy now knows how to do what was not previously possible.

 

Reflection

How does emergence contrast with the notion of planning and control?

What did it mean for her to let go of her old way of thinking?

How could we use this document to create a more positive organization?

 

 

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