Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

Tap the Agile Power of Your Relational Web

By Pamela Meyer, PhD with contributions from Nick Freiling, Director of PeopleFish

Over the past two years, we have collected and analyzed almost 1,000 Agility Shift Inventories (ASI) from people working in organizations large and small, across industries and nations. Each individual who takes the ASI receives a snapshot of their current agility capacity and opportunities, based on their answers. They also receive our complimentary Agility Shift Catalyst and Conversation Guide, that provides a series of reflective questions and action steps to help them begin to make their own individual agility shift.

While individuals are using their results to expand their own agility competence, capacity and confidence, we have been aggregating and analyzing the anonymized results looking for additional trends and actionable insights to help our clients reach their business goals.

Our Surprising/Not so Surprising Finding

One of the first things that caught our attention was how significant a role an individual’s Relational Web plays as a predictor of their overall agility. If you are new to the six dynamics of The Agility Shift, the Relational Web is your web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources that you need to be able to tap at a moment’s notice when things don’t go as planned or when a new opportunity emerges.

Understanding the Dynamics of Your Relational Web

The Relational Web is woven into each of the other five dynamics of agility and is at the center of the Agility Shift model, for a reason. All of my prior research and experience helping organizations become more agile and innovative showed a link between the size and diversity of the Relational Web to individuals, teams and the entire organization’s ability to be agile.

We were surprised and excited by additional correlations we found between an individual’s Relational Web and other agility-enhancing behaviors. For example, those who report intentionally making and building connections that expand their Relational Web are also significantly more likely to practice other key behaviors linked to overall agility. These include evaluating the diversity of relationships to ensure access to multiple perspectives, effectively making sense and meaning of what is happening when things don’t go as planned, and intentionally becoming aware of new resources in the environment.

The graphic below highlights some of these correlations. The graphs convert respondents’ level of agreement into numerical values in order to highlight and compare the differences in agreement between the color-coded segments of respondents.

These findings align with other recent research, such as the Google study of 180 of their teams, in which they found that the most successful teams had leaders with the largest and most diverse social networks (one aspect of the Relational Web). These leaders were also intentional about making and building their connections by doing things like regularly rotating who they ate lunch with.

We have long known of the importance of networking for career success. Our latest findings highlight the value of consistently and intentionally weaving a dynamic Relational Web for sustained agility.

So What? Turning Insight into Action

Whether you are a sole practitioner, individual contributor, or a leader with hundreds of reports there are things you can do to turn these latest insights into positive action:

Expand your awareness and access to available resources. Attend (or organize) meet and greets for new colleagues. Learn about emerging technologies or other relevant developments in your environment.

Build meaningful connections with other people. This goes beyond sending and accepting LinkedIn invites. It means understanding the value of building connections that are founded on more than their transactional or operational value.

Participate in informal networks and affinity groups. Whether in a focused Community of Practice or simply a community, you can connect and build relationships and share resources with others who share your passion for continuous growth and learning.

Review your on-boarding experience with the RW in mind—does it help people discover who does what, become familiar with available resources, build relationships?

Seek and provide opportunities to expand your/your employees Relational Web and organize/participate in:

  • Volunteer projects
  • Job shadowing/mentoring programs
  • Recreational activities
  • Off-sites
  • Industry, vendor or practice-area conferences
  • Lunch & Learns

In coming weeks, I will share more actionable insights from our research. In the meantime, I invite you to inventory your own agility capacity by setting aside a few minutes to take the complimentary Agility Shift Inventory.

We have also developed a Team version of the ASI designed to give your entire team or department actionable insights for building on their strengths to improve agility and overall business results. Our clients find this resource particularly valuable to jumpstart agility, or to help their team lay the foundation for success whether they are adopting agile project management methodology, or simply wanting to improve overall success. Click here to learn more about the Team ASI, or contact us here.

How Fit is Your Business? Part 4: Speed & Mobility

How Fit is Your Business? Part 4: Speed & Mobility

Many day-to-day business responsibilities and operations are routine. In order to be prepared for the unexpected, we must constantly scan the environment for new opportunities and challenges.  Responsiveness, Competitiveness and, Innovation are key components of an organizations Speed and Mobility.

How Fit is Your Business?Are you and your workforce able to move quickly with the needs of the market?

 

Flexibility is not one in the same with speed and mobility as discussed earlier, physical flexibility enables broader access to your strengths. Therefore, you need to be flexible in order to move. You also have to be ready which is where speed and mobility enter.

Readiness is the Capacity for Speed and Mobility

Military troops are ready when they can be quickly mobilized to respond to an emergent need. Similarly, your workforce is ready when it can rapidly mobilize to respond to a new opportunity, a shift in the market, or even a crisis.

In The Agility Shift, I describe the events that revealed a significant gap between competitors Nokia and Ericsson’s ability to mobilize. A fire in an Albuquerque, NM semiconductor plant caused a supply chain disruption for a crucial component on which both cell phone manufacturers depended. Nokia was ready to quickly mobilize in response to the crisis, while Ericsson was not, leading to significant losses and a drop in their market share. Sometimes it takes a crisis to prioritize agility. In recent years, Ericsson has done this across its enterprise with impressive results. The good news is that you and your business can benefit from the lessons learned by others and develop your readiness by attending to these critical areas:

  • Communication, Collaboration and Coordination
  • Surface Exposure
  • Decision Speed
  • Time to Market

Four Ways to Improve Your Speed and Mobility

Improve Communication, Collaboration and Coordination. Speed and mobility require competence, as well as systems and processes for what I have identified as the three Cs of agility: 

communication, collaboration and coordination.

Often cited for its agility, fashion retailer Zara is able to respond to changing trends and customer tastes at a regional and even store level. With an integrated supply chain and innovative systems and processes to monitor sales and feedback, Zara is able to get new fashions from

 concept to retail racks in a matter of weeks. Are you making optimal use of your existing systems and processes to maximize the three Cs?  

Increase Your Surface Exposure.  One of your first priorities to improve speed and mobility is to increase what researchers Christopher Worley and Edward Lawler call “surface exposure.” (2010). Surface exposure is the degree to which members of your organization are exposed to feedback and new developments in the marketplace. Zara has developed sophisticated channels and practices for just this purpose. Another of my clients uses Slack to monitor social media and other feedback channels in real time and immediately discuss them across product development, marketing, and customer service. In these examples it is not enough to monitor the information; your team must have the commitment and capability to digest and rapidly respond. How can you increase your surface exposure and responsiveness to the feedback it provides?

Improve Decision Speed.  Agile systems and processes have little value if the ideas and input they channel get lost in a maze of confusion and enervation. Numerous studies have linked fast decision speed with organizational performance and growth. Agile organizations empower their employees to make decisions on the spot, especially when they directly affect business results. Don’t let your fear of losing control deter you from improving decision speed. Rather, use it as motivation to clarify decision rights throughout your team or organization. This recent HBR article on decision making provides an excellent guide. Are your employees empowered to quickly make decisions that can impact business results?

Improve Time to Market.  You will have a hard time sustaining your results if your competitors beat you to the market with new products and services. A study by Salesforce.com found that developers using agile methodologies improved their time to market by 61%. Rather than adopt all of the elements of agile methodologies, especially if you are not in the software business,  you can significantly improve your timing by shifting your mindset and business practices with many lessons learned from agile pioneers. I distill and translate many of these lessons for wider application in The Agility Shift.

What business practices, systems, and processes do you have in place to increase your speed and mobility in response to shifts in your market?

How Fit Is Your Business Part 3: Balance

How Fit is Your Business? Part 3: Balance

In Part 2 of this series, we discovered that in business, FLEXIBILITY provides the ability to use core strengths to adapt and respond effectively to both challenges and opportunities. BALANCE, the focus of Part 3 of my “How Fit is Your Business?” series, plays a key role in identifying and leveraging those opportunities.

 Does your organization have access to a diverse network of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources to respond to opportunities and challenges as they arise?

With the Winter Olympics upon us, I am appreciating more than ever how balance is necessary for success in all competitive sports. Just watch Mikeala Shiffrin dance through a slalom course, or Nathan Chen leap into another quadruple jump on ice, landing perfectly on one foot, and you will see what I mean. You would be hard-pressed to name a sport where balance was not a key success factor.

Dynamic Balance in Action

Author, Practicing Dynamic Balance

We understand balance, in physical terms, as not just the ability to maintain equilibrium and focus, but to regain balance during the countless times it will be disrupted. For me, as a Masters Alpine Racer, slalom offers the greatest opportunity to practice this aspect of balance. It is the most technical of the alpine events, as the gates are set the closest together, requiring high-speed shifts in direction and balance. The event is sometimes referred to as “a series of linked recoveries”.  The skiers that excel are not necessarily those who never lose their balance, but those that master the art of recovering it.

What Does Balance Look Like in Your Organization?

By using the fitness metaphor, we can move beyond purely metric-based approaches to balance, such as Balanced Scorecard, the strategic and performance management system, and inspire fresh thinking and practices.

In this post, I highlight three key aspects of organizational balance.

  • Stability: Identifying gaps in your Relational Web
  • Reflection: Identifying Growth Opportunities
  • Quality of Life: Making Time for Work, Play and Rest

Stability: Identifying Gaps in your Relational Web

One of the keys to sustained business success is implementing management practices, systems, and processes that balance Flexibility and Stability. Both are essential, though many leaders mistake stability for control when, in fact, stability is dynamic (just watch one of the Olympic mogul competitions to see what I mean).

Rather than being static, balance is the ability to make countless adjustments and adaptations while maintaining focus on a clear vision or goal.

One of the most effective ways to ensure the capacity to make those adjustments while making forward progress is to weave a robust Relational Web. Like the spider web that inspires it, your Relational Web has the capacity to expand and strengthen as conditions require. It consists of your web of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources that you need to be able to tap at a moment’s notice when things don’t go as planned or when a new opportunity emerges.

While your web is more than your social network, it includes it, and for good reason. A recent study of 180 teams at Google found that the most productive had leaders with the largest and most diverse social networks. How did they build those networks? One notable strategy was to consistently rotate their lunch partners.

Too often, we stay within our comfort zone socially, or tend to stay within familiar experiences. Comfort is wonderful in reinforcing and confirming our value, but it does little to expose us to new knowledge, perspectives or resources.

Learn How to Identify Gaps in Your Relational Web

Identify the gaps in your Relational Web to ensure that you have the balance to be effective when things don’t go as planned. Take a few minutes to consider if you have ready resources for when you need to:

  • Create a solution for, or resolve an unfamiliar customer issue
  • Learn a new technology
  • Make sense of a complex situation (business, interpersonal, political/governmental, other)
  • Deal with a difficult interpersonal/cross-cultural situation
  • Pursue a new idea or opportunity
  • Understand a change in business strategy
  • Change course in response to a market, regulatory or other external shift

Very likely, if you thought about specific people and resources you might tap for each occurrence, you discovered some gaps in your Relational Web, or found that the same names popped up more than once. Identifying the gaps in your Relational Web is the first step to expanding and strengthening it for more stability. You can find more ideas and strategies to do just this in The Agility Shift.

Reflection: Identifying Growth Opportunities

This series began with an invitation and guide to reflect on your organization’s Strengths. This practice is both energizing and Strength-building, as the reflection process itself can help amplify your assets and inspire leaders at all levels of your organization to

The Agility Shift Book

Training, no matter if we are working out, or planning the future of our organization, means pushing performance to the next level.

live into them more fully. Often, a renewed appreciation for your strengths as individual leaders, teams and as an organization as a whole is enough to inspire innovative solutions to previously vexing issues.

Strength reflections can also lead to the discovery of new growth opportunities. For example, as you reflect on recent successes and look ahead to your aspirations to the year ahead, consider:

  • What new strategic alliances or partnerships could help you reach your goals?
  • What new learning approaches or resources will be needed?
  • What new skills, knowledge and talent will you need to foster internally or externally?
  • What leadership qualities do you want to recognize and reinforce? How will you do that in a way that positively builds on your culture?

These are just a few reflections that can lead to generative ideas and action for more Balance in the year ahead. Athletes and businesses alike must regularly shift their development focus based on current needs and long-term goals. Expect this to be a dynamic process. For example, in any given time period you may need to shift your focus from strength to flexibility, or from endurance (the topic of Part Five in our series) or to balance, itself.

 

Quality of Life: Making Time for Work, Play and Rest

It’s not balanced if it’s not sustainable. As innovators, we are all biased towards action. This can be our blessing and our curse. Balance is as much about effective resting and playing, as it is about effective action.

I have written extensively about the need to create space (literal, social, psychological, emotional and metaphorical) for play in my book, From Workplace to Playspace. Playspace is the space for the play of new ideas, for people to play new roles, for improvised play and for more play in the system. It is not necessarily about the “funny hats and games” kind of play, though I admit to being a fan of spontaneous silliness in the right context. Playspace is essential for any agile system. If there is no room for play, there is no room for responding effectively to the unexpected because both require space to maneuver.

Play and playspace also provide an opportunity to rejuvenate, which we all need to stay in balance!

No System Can Sustain Itself Without Rest

There is no shortage of research cataloging the diminishing returns of overworking.  When we are regularly pushed beyond capacity, our minds, bodies, and spirits lose their ability to be effective, let alone to be creative and agile. Balance includes a healthy dose of rest to off-set all of that activity. The occasional all-hands-on-deck marathon in response to a crisis or opportunity is to be expected. If it becomes business as usual, expect to see a drop off in productivity and innovation, not to mention in the engagement and retention of your top talent.

It may be tempting to concentrate all of your organizational fitness strategy on activity because that is when it feels like things are really getting done (and who doesn’t love getting things done?!). However, sustainable success includes balancing all of that action with Rest and Play as part of your organizational fitness strategy.

In the next post of this series, I will explore the fourth “fit” business indicator: Speed and Mobility. 

How Fit is Your Business? Part 1 Strength

How Fit is Your Business? Part 1: Strength

Keeping Your Business “Fit” Will Keep Your Moves Agile!  

As you regroup and refocus on goals for the coming year, I will use fitness as both a metaphor and framework to help inspire some fresh thinking and approaches.

Illustrated by the “How Fit is Your Business?” graphic to the right, each of the next several posts will explore a new dimension of fitness: Strength, Flexibility, Balance, Speed and Mobility and Endurance.

Remember these are all necessary components of physical fitness and as you work toward your personal goals, consider giving your organizational fitness the same attention. Let’s start with Strength!

 

 

 

Strength: Do you know your strengths and consistently build on and leverage them?

As with personal fitness, organizational fitness begins with strength. The core muscles of a fit organization are:    

  • Vision, Mission, Values           

    Strength is just one of the five indicators that describe athletic, as well as workplace success. Click here for all five.

  • Core Competencies
  • Relevance

Just like the muscles in our body, our organizational strengths run throughout our entire system. Hence, strength doesn’t come to us just by purchasing a gym membership (if only it were so!), it comes from building a routine and continuous practice.

Strength alone, of course, does not amount to fitness; it must be developed along with the other aspects. If you have ever seen someone who only spends their time in the weight lifting section of the gym, you know what I mean. This is where the term muscle-bound comes from.

Focusing only on strength can literally bind your joints and inhibit your full range of motion. Strength and flexibility enhance each other. Stretching the muscles actually allows for access to the power of the whole length of the muscle fiber. Shorter muscles, would mean less strength and a smaller range of motion.  Simply focusing on flexibility without strength can lead to a total lack of stability.

Translate this to the capacity of individual leaders, teams and even entire organizations and the same is true: Only focusing on one or two core competencies (e.g. efficiency) without learning continuously to stay relevant to the changing needs and opportunities in the market limits your ultimate competitive strength.

Consequently, being overly responsive without attention to your core strengths can quickly lead to organizational instability.

If you have not already identified your strengths and core competencies, NOW is the perfect time.

 

The activity outlined below can be an individual reflection, or a more comprehensive growth opportunity for your team or entire organization. Start with an appreciative reflection on this past year and ask:

 

  •      When was I or were we at our best? (When were we best engaging our talent and having the biggest impact?)
  •      What was happening?
  •      What were we doing, thinking and feeling?
  •      How did we work together or tap our resources for the greatest impact?
  •      What contributed the most to our success?

Next, give yourself time to reflect on your answers and, if you are doing this as a team or organization, provide a chance for team members to interview their colleagues and compile their responses into themes.

Finally, with your strengths in hand, generate ideas for how you can be more intentional in developing and building on these strengths in the new year.

For example, if one of your strengths is cross-departmental collaboration and communication or working with strategic partners, how might you improve on this in 2018?

Agile Organizations Are Fit Organizations – How Fit is Your Business?

How Fit is Your Business?

Halloween, Thanksgiving, Holiday Parties, oh my! The fall and winter months are truly an indulgent time of year.

Really it’s no wonder that by New Year’s Eve “getting fit” is often the first thing on our minds!

As a result, many of us, make time to check in on personal health and well-being. I’ve found that it’s   effective to ask similar questions about our businesses and organizations.  You likely have  a vision, a mission, and proven values but is your organization truly fit for the year ahead?

Health and Fitness is the Key

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease” (2006).  Fitness is variously characterized as a healthy balance of strength, flexibility, balance (at least for most athletes), speed and/or mobility, and endurance.  It turns out, these same characteristics lead to fit organizations!

Many day-to-day business responsibilities and operations are routine, but in order to be prepared for the unexpected and unplanned, we must constantly scan the environment for new opportunities and challenges.  

Keeping Your Business “Fit” Will Keep

Your Moves Agile!  

Get Well. Stay Well.

The connection between individual and organizational health is more than a metaphor. All you need to do is think of a time when you let your own health and well-being practices slip. Perhaps you were in a stressful period of work, or recent travels disrupted your exercise routine and healthy eating habits.

While we might be able to ride out such a disruption for a short time, we all know that longer stretches can create bad habits and take a toll.  In the long term, attending to our health and fitness prevents illness, injury, and maintains mental and emotional health.

In other words, we might be able to maintain our performance over a short stretch—to meet a project deadline, respond to a crisis, or get through a significant disruption—but our capacity to perform long-term demands requires constant attention to our organizational fitness, just as does our personal health and fitness does.

The Common Denominator is Performance!

 

Over the next few weeks I will share more about how these five key indicators describe athletic, as well as workplace success and how, as we kick off a new year with positive intentions and new possibilities, you can attend to both. In previous posts, I refer to these as intentional practices.

From Personal Fitness to Organizational Fitness

In the graphic above I introduce a few ways each of the dimensions of physical fitness extend to organizational fitness.

Each of the fitness indicators are interrelated. If you have ever witnessed someone  spend all of their time in the weight lifting section of the gym, you know what I mean. This is actually where the term muscle-bound comes from.

Focusing only on strength can literally bind your joints and your ability to have a full range of motion. Consequently, strength and flexibility enhance each other. Stretching the muscles actually allows for access to the power of the whole length of the muscle fiber. Shorter muscles, mean less strength and a smaller range of motion. While only focusing on flexibility without strength can lead to a total lack of stability.

 

Translate this to the capacity of individual leaders, teams and even entire organizations and the same is true. Only focusing on one or two core competencies without continuously staying relevant to the changing needs and opportunities in the market limits your ultimate competitive strength. At the same time, being overly responsive to changes in the market without attention to your core strengths can quickly lead to organizational instability.

In the coming weeks, I will take a closer look at each of these dimensions of fitness and link them to more Make Shift Happen practices to help you improve your organizational fitness and reach your business goals.

 

 Let’s Make Shift Happen in 2018!

What will it cost you NOT to be AGILE in 2018?

What will it cost you NOT to be agile in 2018? Here’s what to do about it!

Welcome to the new year! Full of possibilities, new goals and initiatives. Speaking of new initiatives: in working with organizations, I am often asked to help make the business case for improved agility to ensure buy-in from leadership, the board and across the organization. The case is compelling and I’ve detailed it in my recent book and a number of previous articles, as well as in every keynote and workshop I give.

The case includes studies that show a strong relationship between organizational agility and sustained results (which, of course, is the ultimate metric for agile success). In my workshops, I regularly invite participants to identify their own industry or even role-specific ROI for agility. We start by asking: What will be improved if you or your team/organization were more agile?

 

Many respond with variations of examples I have already shared, such as increased market share and improved time to market. Others struggle to identify specific success indicators. When people struggle to identify what could be improved, I have found it often helps to flip the question and ask: 

 

What will it cost you NOT to be more agile?

 

Or what will you lose if your competitors are more agile than you in 2018? It may be helpful to answer this question in 1, 3, 5 and 10 year increments. While indicators like market share and time to market are still at risk, flipping the question might also unearth more costs.

Here are just a few candidates:

  • Brand relevance
  • Ability to attract and retain top talent
  • Customer satisfaction/loyalty
  • Overall competitiveness
  • Profitability

Depending on your industry, you will likely find that within a few years not becoming more agile is actually an existential threat . 

 

Determining the potential cost or benefit of becoming more agile in 2018 is more than an intellectual exercise. It is an opportunity to engage the passion and commitment necessary to sustain agile practices across the enterprise.

 

In the Harvard Business Review article that previewed his still influential book, Leading Change (1996), John P. Kotter identified not establishing a great enough sense of urgency as the number one reason change efforts fail. Unless your ability to be agile is elevated to an urgent strategic priority, your likelihood of success is minimal.

The good news is that for those that develop this sense of urgency, the success rate may be as high as 75% (Kotter, 2006). As you look ahead to all you want to create and accomplish in the new year, take time to engage your colleagues’ hearts and minds in the urgent need to develop organization-wide competence, capacity and confidence to execute your strategy with agility.

Kotter, J. (2006). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, Best of HBR, 2006 (1710), 1-10.

 

 

Need help becoming more agile in 2018?

Contact Pamela Meyer About Consulting

Through a wide range of consulting services, Meyer Creativity Associates, led by Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., will help you improve your organization’s results.

Intentional Agility – Don’t Leave Agility to Chance

In the past several years working with organizations that want to be more agile and innovative, I have noticed a common theme: Those that are successful don’t leave their agility to chance.  Agile leaders, teams and organizations intentionally and consistently maintain a mindset, behaviors and practices that enhance their capacity to respond effectively to unexpected challenges and opportunities.

I have outlined a number of these practices in past posts that focus on individual (http://pamela-meyer.com/be-more-agile-in-2016/) and team agility http://pamela-meyer.com/how-to-help-your-team-and-yourself-be-more-agile/ .

If You Are Not Challenging Yourself, You Are Not Changing

The best way to ensure you and your organization are maintaining and expanding your capacity for agility is echoed in the heading above. The slogan is regularly shouted out during the spin classes and boot camps I (sometimes reluctantly) take to maintain my own fitness and physical agility. The boot camp coaching, however, applies well beyond the gym.

The blessing and curse of the human (and by extension) organizational condition is that we tend to default to our comfort zones and routines. Even experiences that were once a stretch (such as a challenging workout) can become a comfortable routine over time. This is why learning agile leaders are constantly seeking out new stretch experiences and are always acquiring new skills and knowledge.

The bottom line is that sustained performance over time, the truest indicator of agility, takes regular, intentional practice.

You would not expect to become a contender in a tennis tournament, 5K race or even weekend softball league while reclining on your couch, any more than you can expect to compete in an ever-changing marketplace by resting on past successes.

Want to assess your current capacity for agility and discover the best place to put your time and resources?

Take the Agility Shift Inquiry: http://www.theagilityshift.com/

What intentional practices do you employ to maintain and expand your ability to respond to new opportunities and challenges?

The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107–1116.

What if you don’t have leadership buy-in to create playspace?

In these first few weeks since From Workplace to Playspace has been out I have had the pleasure of sharing some of its key concepts with a wide range of audiences, including creativity and innovation experts, MBA and training and development graduate students, managers and employees, and HR professionals. One of the most consistent questions I have received so far is “What if you don’t have leadership buy in to create playspace in your organization?”

My response to this comes in two, seemingly contradictory, parts:

1) We all can make choices and behave in ways that influence the quality of our conversations, collaborations and overall experience of engagement at work.

2) Significant organizational change requires the support and buy-in from leaders and key stakeholders.

The first part of the response is at the core of From Workplace to Playspace: we must all take responsibility for the quality of our own work experience and address the dimensions and dynamics that are within our span of influence. Because playspace is created in the present moment in the midst of conversations, collaborations, co-creations, learning and change we each can take responsibility for our own mindset and behavior in each specific context. For example, if I show up to a meeting with a mindset that this is a waste of my time, and no one ever has any fresh ideas or perspectives to share and I behave in ways that don’t encourage new thinking, I will very likely have exactly this experience. However, if I choose to shift my mindset to one in which I believe there is room for the play of new ideas and for people to play new roles and I take responsibility to share and provoke such new perspectives and capacities, there is a good chance I will have a different, more engaged experience. This is the essence of my playspace mantra: Give Permission & Take Responsibility. Anyone in the organization, at any level can put this into practice within their span of influence and create more playspace in the present moment.

The second part of my response to this question is also true. When large-scale, organization-wide change at the level of systems, process and culture are necessary, buy-in from organizational leaders and key stakeholders is essential. The people who have the biggest influence on whether or not a change initiative is successful, or a new mindset takes hold are employees’ immediate supervisors, managers and key-stakeholders. When people at all levels of the organization see their leaders changing their behavior and mindset, and willing to acknowledge that they themselves may at times have been one of the blocks to organizational innovating, learning and changing, then others are likely to change their mindset and behavior as well. In this way, organizational leaders also serve as permission-givers and responsibility-takers.

For more examples of how people at all levels of organizations are doing just this, read From Workplace to Playspace and return to playspace.biz in the coming weeks when we start posting brief videos of playspace success stories.