Transcending “Normal”: Learning to Access the Power of Positive Organizing

November 28, 2012

By: Robert E. Quinn


Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

Highly functioning organizations are different from other organizations. They engage in a process called positive organizing. Positive organizing transcends normal assumptions. To understand it, internalize it, and practice it, people need someone who can elevate their feelings, thoughts, and actions so that they can collaborate in new ways. Here is a story that illustrates what positive organizing is, how it is facilitated, and how it can be taught.

The Transformative Process

Last week, Ryan Quinn and I were doing a session for a large group of organizational development practitioners. Ryan put up a slide that presented a mini case study:

Kurt Wright was a consultant for a company working on a $100 million, 60-month software development project for the government. There were 400 engineers working on the project. Thirty-eight months had already passed, and the project was 18 months behind schedule. A clause in the contract stated that if the project were 18 months behind at the 48-month milestone, the company would suffer a $30 million penalty. Managers and employees were frightened about losing $30 million because of the impact it would have on their company, their unit, and their jobs. Stress was beginning to escalate. (This story is paraphrased from Kurt Wright’s Breaking the Rules: Removing the Obstacles to Effortless High Performance (Boise, ID: CPM Publishing, 1998).

Ryan asked our group to suggest strategies on how to change this situation. The participants made many suggestions. Ryan then shared what Wright actually did.

Wright began asking people in the hallways and in meetings, “What will it take to finish this project a week early?” Early on, this question angered many people. He was summoned into managers’ offices and told that he was losing his credibility and would get himself in trouble if he did not stop. He listened politely, went back into the halls, and kept asking the same question. Wright finished his work in six weeks, using only $90,000 of his $150,000 budget. The project was completed on time (in 60 months), $15 million under budget. If you include the $30 million that the company did not lose at the 48-month mark, Wright’s simple question was worth $45,060,000.

Ryan remarked that this story seemed like a Disney movie. Many skeptical heads were nodding. Ryan then suggested they work a little harder, dig a little deeper by thinking beyond their own normal assumptions.

Why Were People So Angry?

At this point, Ryan took an interesting turn. He focused on the anger, the most negative emotion in the case study, and asked the group why posing the question caused that emotion. After a pause, insightful answers began to flow. As you read the list, try to imagine the underlying dynamics that were starting to occur in the room.

  • -They were busy and feeling stressed.  Wright’s question was a disruption to their narrow, problem-solving focus. It was a source of more stress.
  •  -Engineers are always behind schedule. This negative organizational state was probably within their comfort zone.  The question was threatening because it invited them to step outside it. They would rather live in the stress of a failing company because they are used to it. They do not know how to behave in a way that keeps a company on schedule. It would require change.
  • -They live in a technical world. They believed they were paying Wright to provide technical answers to their problems. He was wasting their time with an abstract question. They were too busy to waste time like that.
  • -They were all sensing failure and were pursuing their self-interests. They were forming silos and tacitly preparing self-protective arguments to shift blame. By posing the question, Wright was asking them to contemplate the collective good. But no one was oriented toward the collective good. They were all governed by their own self-interest.
  • -Wright was a consultant. Having a consultant was a sign that the company’s leaders did not know how to lead change in their own organization. Wright was thus an implicit symbol of their shame and hopelessness. Because of such assumptions, people love to hate consultants, and if a consultant does something out of the ordinary, they will informally self-organize to “kill” the consultant. Their anger was the start of the assassination process.
  • -The question posed accountability. It suggested they were responsible. When disempowered people face accountability, they get angry. Most people are disempowered. They live in a reactive state.

As the audience provided these answers, something subtle was happening. They were changing as a group. How were they changing?

Beneath the Surface

The audience was no longer thinking superficially. It was uncovering realities that commonly occur in organizations but that are often not open to discussion.

Participating in this conversation altered the audience members. In generating their answers, they produced a meaningful output. They were productive. They told the simple truth about dynamics that are usually covered up. They were authentic. They had just identified with a group of people they did not know. They were other-focused.

Finally, they had learned together in real time. By listening to each other and responding they co-created new knowledge and an insightful understanding that was shared across the room.

This more productive, authentic, empathic, and adaptive audience was operating with increased collective intelligence and was in the process of positive organizing. Each person was part of a highly functioning, emergent whole and was having experiences he or she could not have individually.

As a part of this highly functioning whole, each person was having more positive feelings and thoughts. Each was more committed to the overall educational process that was taking place. In this condition of increased positivity, they were more open and ready to explore why Wright’s strategy worked.

When Ryan asked about Wright’s strategy, they began to share more insights:

  • -If Wright had told them what to do, they would have resisted. In asking a question Wright, was moving them from knowing to inquiry. He was also disturbing their comfort zone, inviting them outside their current assumptions. It made them uneasy. They wanted him to stop.
  • -In asking the question, Wright was not acting like a manager of engineers. He was acting like a leader of people. His question was a question of higher purpose. The question suggested a better collective future. To ask people to imagine such a future is to suggest an image worthy of sacrifice. He was inviting them into the sacred space where new things can happen.
  • -By proceeding in the face of their anger, Wright was showing a level of commitment they did not expect. By modeling vision and courage, he was demonstrating a belief in their potential.  Such virtuous effort can become a magnet that draws the latent virtue out of the people. Wright was embodying the collective good, and it was an invitation to collective commitment.
  • -In posing a question rather than a solution, he was avoiding the hierarchical, expert role. He was inviting them into a social relationship in which he would be their equal in learning their way into the future. Here again, he was honoring their agency, and he was allowing them the private space to think for themselves.
  • -In posing the question, he was demonstrating a belief in the process of self-organization and co-creation. He did not have to design and control the creation of a new organization. It would emerge spontaneously as each actor pursued the group’s shared purpose. In pursuing the common good, they would, without hierarchical direction, co-create a new and better system.

These were inspired answers not available to the group a few minutes before. Ryan was acting as a transformational teacher. He was facilitating a change in the state of the group. By moving the group into the process of co-creation, the people were better able to make sense of the positive organizing process Wright stimulated.

Take on a Challenge

This discussion suggests that there are normal assumptions made by most teachers/leaders. And those assumptions do not necessarily lead to the co-creation of knowledge. It also suggests that there is an alternative set of assumptions—call them “positive assumptions”—made by teachers/leaders who want to bring people to positive organizing.

What normal assumptions have you been making about a workplace challenge? What positive assumptions could you substitute? How could you act from them? What becomes possible?

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