Back in college, I was very involved in the student-run dance club on campus, not only as a dancer and choreographer, but as an officer in the club. My friends and I took our leadership roles very seriously, always looking for creative new opportunities to perform, ways to recruit new dancers, gimmicks to advertise our shows, offer more classes and club activities, and so on.
As passionate and dedicated as I was to the Colby Dancers, I remember dreading our weekly club meetings, and not because of the “boring” official business stuff (even at age 19 I had a deep appreciation for process and structure). The club officers would present our latest ideas about club events or improving our offerings, only to have the other members (who were good friends of ours!) point out a million reasons why our proposed changes wouldn’t work.
“I like that idea, but....”
Obviously, no one loves having their ideas shot down, but what actually bothered me was that no one would propose other, better ideas. We’d explain the rationale behind our ideas and the problems we were looking to improve, and ask for new suggestions, only to hear silence.
That was my first experience with the common group phenomenon I call the overeager nay-sayer.
I’m sure you’ve encountered this in your work: to facilitate a change, a few people (maybe the leadership team or a special working group) will propose ideas to solve a problem that is affecting a larger group. Often this problem is something that people have been complaining about for weeks or months. But once an idea is put forward, the nay-saying starts, the idea is tabled, and status quo is resumed. And no one is any better off.
“I really wish we could do something about ....”
I’ve since learned a great technique to introduce organizational change with minimal nay-saying: appreciate inquiry. The idea behind appreciate inquiry is that it’s much easier to get people on board for change and open to new ideas when you start the discussion with “what’s working well?” as opposed to “what’s not working?” You get people talking about what they like about the status quo, how the current method of doing things benefits them, and how you can expand on these positive aspects.
This strategy has two immediate benefits:
The group starts off in a good mood because you are talking about positive experiences and outcomes.
The earliest nuggets of ideas for improvement come from the group, and these organic, spontaneous suggestions are less threatening than proposed, fully formed ideas that came from an authority (whether real or perceived).
The great thing about appreciate inquiry is that often the conversation about what’s good indirectly highlights what’s not-so-good, since they are two sides of the same coin. Then you can get consensus on how and why change would help everyone, and you can start narrowing down the options and plan a course of action. I wish I knew about appreciative inquiry back in my college days. We could have danced our way to organizational change much more effectively.