A Recipe for Using Participation to Change Culture

Creating Organizational Change with the Right People, Right Environment, and Right Processes

Oh, feedback and participation—many leaders have a love-hate relationship with it. Even though leaders know it’s important, it can seem messy and never-ending. The most effective leaders know that although getting feedback and participation requires more work, better-quality decisions and increased support result when stakeholders engage. But how can it be less painful and less chaotic?

I led a team hired by a large regional healthcare system to facilitate a new learning strategy throughout their organization. Healthcare organizations have an incredible number of stakeholders, whom we included in the process. These include all types of employees, from doctors to cleaning staff. Stakeholders also include chaplains, patients, and extended care network stakeholders. Senior leaders can’t understand the intimate needs of all of these groups without directly seeking input from these folks.

To build a healthcare system in which learning supported organizational strategy, the CEO and chief learning officer (CLO) committed to widespread participation. They wanted anyone who might have insights to help influence what learning would look like in their system.

Edward Hess, in his provocative book Learn or Die, outlines a basic formula for building an organization that’s continually growing and evolving:

High-Performing Learning Organization = Right People +
Right Environment +
Right Processes

Our process followed the model by fostering a culture of growth among employees at all levels of the organization. Leaders engaged employees in a way that showed humility and used deliberate and inclusive processes to make the organization better.

Right People:
Getting Needed Folks in the Room

In short, the “right people” in this process included everyone. Each employee in the organization had the opportunity to engage in some way. Participation included over 100 people in three days of visioning summits and hundreds more who sat for an interview by a visioning team member or filled out a survey. We wanted each arm of the organization, each type of employee, and each perspective to have a place in shaping the process. In fact, some participants were stakeholders who would only indirectly be affected by this initiative, such as patients and donors. The leaders had faith that this radical inclusivity would give us more insightful results.

Right Environment:
Engaging Employees with Humility and Curiosity

The initiative arose from the CEO’s goal of having a world-class culture in which learning and systemwide strategy had “perfect alignment.” The CEO and CLO both knew the right method for achieving that couldn’t come from senior leadership. They approached this initiative from a place of humility by providing a clear vision and hiring our team to design a structure process. However, they didn’t dictate the terms or outcomes of the process. The extreme humility they displayed in this process was one of the strongest examples I’ve seen while working with and in many organizations.

The process deliberately set out to minimize status differences and involve folks from a variety of position types, locations, and levels of the hierarchy. We carefully placed folks in work teams to minimize the risk of employees in the same reporting hierarchy being on a team together.

We fostered a playful atmosphere so that extreme ideas became the norm, especially during idea-generation sessions. Creating a different type of organizational space, especially in a risk-averse sector, provided a key departure point that allowed folks to think about learning and growth in a different way from how they might approach their daily work.

Right Processes:
Designing Deliberate Structures to Build Energy and an Eye on Action

A structured process gave employees comfort and purposeful design to allow them to operate in a way that was likely different from how they operated in their day-to-day work. We used a modified version of a process outlined by James Ludema and his colleagues for facilitating large-group change that builds on organizational strengths. We heard examples of the strength-based approach taking hold outside of this process because of what folks experienced during the process we facilitated.

Another valuable and simple resource for building purposeful processes and structures is Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless’s book on “liberating structures,” which is designed to unleash a culture of innovation in organizations. These structures provide simple activities and processes for achieving common goals like discovering solutions and noticing patterns together.

The processes built excitement and energy to counter prevailing senses that meetings are unengaging, filled with talk and a lack of action. From the beginning of the process, we sent repeated messages that everything was pointing toward eventual development and launch of action teams. This messaging provided a sense that the work would produce tangible results.

About the Author

Rod Githens, Ph.D.


Rod specializes in innovation, design, and strategy through his consulting work and as a professor at University of the Pacific. He helps leaders get results through using innovation and creativity processes, strategy development and strategic planning, group facilitation and action planning, and program and initiative development. More


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