TAWN PARENT Commentary: Is your company wasting its talents?

Keywords Health Care
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Organizational development isn’t usually my bag, but when I heard people using words like uplifting, inspiring, astonishing, cool, infectious and dynamite to describe an up-and-coming method, I decided to check it out.

The method is appreciative inquiry, which is billed as a way of transforming organizations by trying to build on what’s right instead of analyzing what’s wrong.

“You motivate people more through engaging in what’s positive,” said Ruth Purcell-Jones, president of Trustee Leadership Development Inc., a local organization that helps not-forprofits with governance. She has used AI with a number of groups. “Whatever you focus on, grows. So if you focus attention on the problem, all you’re going to see is problems.”

AI was developed in the 1980s by David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. It has caught on with companies ranging from manufacturers to accounting firms to restaurants. Organizations that have used it successfully include the BBC, DuPont, the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Girl Scouts of America.

The strategy is used to merge staffs of combined companies, cut down on turnover, tap into new markets, and even to reduce hospital-acquired infections.

AI is the fastest-growing trend in organizational development, said John Steinbach, a Fort Wayne consultant who has been using the method since 1999. Problem-solving is great for machines, but doesn’t work so well for people, Steinbach said. “You can find an isolated root cause in a mechanical problem. It’s not there in people,” he said. “Only rarely can you say, ‘Here’s the root cause of our teamwork problem.’ It’s a pattern of processes.” One of the key advantages of AI is how you feel afterward, he said. In other types of strategic planning, participants often feel so exhausted by the end that they never want to look at the plan again. AI tends to leave people feeling energized, he said. Often, a starting point is asking employees to recall when they have felt most proud of their organization. “When they talk about those stories, they glimpse the possibility of what they can be,” Steinbach said.

Through AI, employees are asked to tap into effective strategies they have used in the past and how those might be applied to current challenges. If a team is floundering, members are asked to describe specifically what it’s like when things are working well-what is happening with leadership and communication? Talking about successes tends to bring people closer and make them more willing to find solutions together, Steinbach said.

Thomas Inui, associate dean for health care research at the IU School of Medicine, thought AI sounded Pollyannaish at first. But now, after three years of uncovering the school’s hidden strengths through AI, he’s a believer.

“Culture change in organizations takes off because hearts catch fire, not because a better strategic plan mandates reorganization,” he wrote in a medical journal last summer.

AI works in part because it moves from the bottom up, practitioners say. Front-line employees are asked to help envision a better future, instead of having a new world order crammed down their throats. People love success. When they realize they have found a better way, they’re excited about change, Inui said.

Among the ways AI has helped the med school is by improving student satisfaction levels, as measured by annual anonymous surveys. In three years, the satisfaction level went from well below the national average to far above the national average, Inui said.

The medical school is winning grants to keep spreading the AI message, is presenting its results at national meetings, and is getting plenty of recognition for it. Last summer, seven medical schools sent representatives here to see AI’s impact at the med school firsthand.

For three years, seniors have taken the initiative to write AI stories about their experiences, compile them into booklets, and give them to the next class.

Inui said AI is the best tool he has come across in his many years of organizational development. Bottom line: It’s more fun to foster good work than to stamp out bad work, he said.

AI’s approach has value even for those of us who aren’t in the habit of hiring consultants. When I think about my own job, it’s easy to come up with a list of gripes. But, in keeping with the Thanksgiving spirit, maybe I should give appreciation a try.

What about you? Could you flip your own job negatives and unleash some positive power in your workplace?

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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