What happens next?
Every year in New Zealand a handful of organisations complete and submit performance excellence ('quality') award applications. A few more work through internal or partial submissions that never leave the premises. And lots do some sort of internal review, strategy exercise or improvement activity – even if it's just a pre-audit spruce-up of the ISO documentation. That's a lot of activity, and some of it is quite expensive.

Then what happens? Be honest now – if your organisation did some of that stuff last year, did it make much difference to what happens where you are? Has anything really changed? It's my guess that a lot of you are shuffling the feet and looking a bit sheepish right now.

Thoroughgoing reviews that take a searching look at what happens in the touchy parts of an organisation often hurt a bit, don't they? Noses get put out of joint. If quality is about truth – the truth about your processes, standards, results, strategic position, competitive prospects, whatever – then like the truth, it's likely to hurt.

It's a relief to put the whole thing behind you, isn't it? Let's just get on with the business. Too much to do to worry about that stuff. Interesting, helped a bit, didn't think much of the feedback (who do they think they are anyway!?); now lets get back to the real world.

Sound like you? You're not on your own. So stop for a minute and answer this question. Why did you do it? If it was just about doing the exercise, then it's understandable that you file and forget it once it's all over.

But if you got into it to gain some improvement, or even to help find the areas for improvement, then what happens next is where the real gold hides. Don't file that feedback report. Leave it on your desk. Run a highlighter over the most uncomfortable 'areas for improvement'. Now take a deep breath, because what happens next is really important.

Start to ask some questions. Not critical, 'we've got a problem' questions, but what the Organisational Development people call appreciative questions. The background to this is an academic subject called Social Constructionism, and a rapidly emerging specialisation known as Appreciative Inquiry (Ai). The core assumptions of Ai are that in every organisation there are lots of things that go well. Asking the right questions moves you in the direction of the answers, especially if the answers include the things that work best.

According to one of its advocates, Ai is “An exciting new paradigm for human development and social innovation. By asking positive questions, we can generate new images of the future – images evoked by the best of the past and present. These powerful images – of ourselves, our organizations and the world – can inspire action and innovation.”

Get everyone asking questions. Suggest that your team leaders nominate two or three people to hold quick stand-up meetings and ask everyone what works best. What are the things they feel most proud about. If they woke up tomorrow and this was an ideal workplace, what would it be like. If their product or service was the best possible, what would it be like?

Start writing down the ideas. Follow where they take you. Now, you're getting real returns – lots of positive, constructive, winning possibilities. And here's the really great things about an appreciative inquiry – it's practically free, it can be as subversive as it needs to be (the boss doesn't need to know) and your people will love you for it.

If that sounds a bit flaky (and, to be frank, some Ai does sound distinctly flaky) than take some time to chase up the background theory and read a few of the case studies. Start at http://www.appreciative-inquiry.org. I'm betting Ai is a subject you'll hear more about in the next few months and years.

Now, about this year's quality award …

Monday, January 15, 2001

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