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Activating Cultural Change with Appreciative Inquiry

Want answers for solving a systemic problem? Start by asking the right questions.

Unconscious bias against women in the workplace is hard to deny. In the US, women working full-time make on average 80 percent of what a man earns. Women are less likely to be promoted to executive leadership than men, despite research that shows inclusive boardrooms outperform male-dominated ones by 53 percent. And this bias against women even applies to how women perceive and treat other women. One study shows that while men are three times more likely to interrupt a woman speaking, when women interrupt, 87 percent of the time they do it’s to interrupt another woman.

As women, we understand some of these pressures firsthand. We know all too well how they can impact performance, productivity, and morale as they pervade throughout an organization. Still, while all of us, men and women alike, may have a grasp of our own personal histories and experiences, we also know we have a tremendous amount to learn from one another. To truly drive and sustain change in any system, we could benefit from listening a little better. 

Recently, we put this theory to the test as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival. We hosted two frog-led sessions focused on Org Activation, frog’s way of driving change within an organization from the inside out. In a session titled “Women Empowering Women: How to Provoke and Inspire Lasting Cultural Change,” our mission was simple: ask the right questions of one another to uncover opportunities for scalable solutions to inequalities in the workplace. We wanted to make activities directly relevant to each one of the session’s predominantly female attendees, so we could each walk away with a clear and personal commitment to change. This meant everyone needed a chance to share, and this included the men in the room who were welcomed in as an important part of the conversation. 

MEET ‘APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY’

The goal of the session was not to be overwhelmed by the large, systemic issues, but instead to focus on what small steps we can do within our everyday lives to support each other. We wanted to stay within the realm of what we can do as individuals to contribute to our own workplaces and communities. That’s why we deployed an empathetic, action-oriented method from behavioral science known as ‘Appreciative Inquiry.”

Appreciative Inquiry approaches change a bit differently than other techniques, primarily because it zooms in on what’s already working well. After all, to ‘appreciate’ something is to see its value. But there is also another meaning of the word, which refers to how something can become more valuable over time. The Appreciative Inquiry exercise gives individuals a chance to understand how success can actually beget more success and spread systems-wide.

We talk a lot about uncovering unmet needs in design thinking, usually to identify points of friction or conflict in a user’s journey. With Appreciative Inquiry, we upend traditional problem-solving by pursuing possibilities that first seek to support personal values and desires. This Appreciative Inquiry exercise consisted of four values-based questions:

 

 

ORGANIZATIONS ARE HUMAN

At their core, all organizations—from families to companies to governments—are made of human beings. Each has real emotions, stories and personal histories. Activating lasting cultural change means recognizing their unique needs and designing to continuously improve interactions.

During our work session, attendees paired off to interview one another through the Appreciative Inquiry exercise. Partners then interpreted each other’s answers to share within larger circles. Though incredibly nuanced, at the root of all of the answers was the value placed on a personal experience. They were recalled for their emotional impact, their surrounding environments and the community involved. Focusing on what contributed to these individual moments provides a framework for scaling understanding and empathy more broadly throughout an organization.

 

NOVELTY MUST BE FAMILIAR

If a plan for change is too abstract or not rooted in real-world experiences, it’s not likely to last. Instead, as humans, we make connections through familiar interactions and experiences that impact our emotional and physical wellbeing. When it comes to fighting unconscious bias, this becomes incredibly important because so much of what we understand about how the world works is dependent on what we’ve seen before.

Often we work with clients to assess the distance between where they are now and where they want to go. If that distance is vast or otherwise complex, innovation can be tricky and time-consuming to coordinate. Appreciative Inquiry is a qualitative exercise that is easy to boot up, allows for quick immersion into the world of those involved and offers immediate next steps for action.

Teams share learnings from the Org Activations session.

 

ALIGNMENT TAKES ACTIVATION

Appreciative Inquiry argues that it’s not enough to identify systemic problems, but to identify the human needs behind them. For lasting change, organizations must scope in time to co-create with stakeholders most impacted, to hear them say in their own voice, “Here’s what fixing this problem looks like.” Through the research and co-creation process, unique needs are heard, documented and therefore ready to measure.  

At the end of our session, each attendee committed to one goal—just one actionable change they could bring back to their lives and organizations that could eventually drive even more value. Confidence in the room came from the knowledge that big change sometimes starts small. Said one attendee, “I have to actively be the change. It only takes one. I can be that one.”

To find out how design can reveal organizational, operational and cultural barriers to success—and ways to solve for them—learn more about Org Activation at frog.

Mackenzie Millar

Mackenzie is a frog strategist, researcher and systems designer with a background in behavioral neuroscience. She specializes in product and service ecosystem innovation, from human-centered research to strategy development and organizational design. She’s consulted for clients from Fortune 10 companies to startups, and previously worked in investment banking and tech in SF, NYC and Hong Kong.

Linda Quarles

As Director, Org Activation at frog, Linda brings more than two decades of leading organizational transformations. Her previous experience at Microsoft, Owens Corning, BAE Systems and CIGNA allow her to bring compassion and empathy for leaders driving change in large, complex organizations. She holds a M.S. in Organization Development from Pepperdine University and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania.

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