Questioning Forward: Better Than When It Started

I’ve been sharing reflections on the different assumptions of a group evaluation method called Appreciative Inquiry. One assumption that seems especially obvious is that in a change process, outcomes should be useful. In my experience, when people slow down enough to engage their higher thinking capacities, they will take this into consideration. But unfortunately, people do not always take the time to ensure what they are changing is of genuine benefit to the group they are affecting.

I first began to notice this when I owned my first checking account in high school. I got an account with one bank who was soon bought by another bank. They changed names. Soon they were bought by another bank and changed names again. Initially, my concern was over all the waste of building expensive signs and printing thousands and thousands of items with the bank names that were suddenly garbage. Then they got a new bank president who wanted to show the bold new direction of the bank under his leadership. So of course, he convinced everyone it was time to change the name again. For me, none of these changes was ever anything other than pure confusion and inconvenience.

I’ve had similar experiences as a person lower on the pecking order when a new person was put in charge of a department where I was working while as a university student. The new person never bothered to have a single conversation with any of us at the ground level who actually worked in the settings affected. They immediately made numerous policy and procedure changes, having never even worked in one of these settings they were supervising. It created all sorts of tension and conflict and made most things worse.

If you’re going to implement a change that impacts people, the outcome of the change should be one that’s useful. Actually useful.

To make sure the changes you make will be of genuine benefit, listen a lot before you change anything. For ministers who are in new church settings, it’s wise to spend the first entire year simply getting to know the patterns and values of the congregation. What makes them tick? Even if the timeframe must be different, the principle must still be true in almost any setting. Have you listened to people at the ground level about what would actually make things better and more efficient for them? Have you tried getting people together from different areas to talk about how their areas could better overlap and provide support? Have you learned about what creates wasted time/energy? You should be able to summarize the views and feelings of people at the ground level of your group in such a way that they would nod their heads in agreement, that you “get” them. When you reach this point, you’ll have a decent grasp of what kind of change is helpful change.

It may be helpful to remember the three Ps of a satisfying change.

  1. Purpose. It’s best to begin with “why.” What are the reasons you’re thinking of making a change. Are they the real reasons? Are they sufficient reasons to make it worth disrupting the norm? What is the destination you are trying to reach? Failure is tolerable as long as people know for what it is that you are striving, and even more so if you are striving together. In a church setting, it can be helpful to remind people, “We don’t know if this is going to work or not, but we would much rather fail while giving God’s mission our very best than to sit around and do nothing for fear that we might not succeed. Action doesn’t guarantee we will succeed, but inaction guarantees that we won’t.”
  2. People. One of the three pillars of Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is Ethos. This is your personal character and how people think of you. This is the hardest type of persuasion to achieve, but when successful, the most successful. Your logic (Logos) is important. Your ability to appeal to people’s emotions (Pathos) is a powerful motivator. But nothing can win people to your side if they don’t trust you. Trust is something you earn. Your character is your most valuable asset. Whether you are leading a change effort as an individual or as a group, you would be foolish not to pay attention to the way people think about you. If they were to describe how they perceive your character, what concrete examples would they produce for how you are? Have you asked them? Even if a change is a good and healthy change, it makes an enormous difference to people who is leading the change.
  3. Process. People feel better about change when they understand what the process is. The more time you’ve spent listening to people about what works and how it works, the more likely you’ll be to develop a healthy process for transition. I don’t know its origin, but I’ve found the rule of five to be very important in group communication. If you are dealing with a large group of people, until you’ve communicated something to them five times, you haven’t communicated it at all. In a church setting, this could involve two different large announcements by two people, a mention in print, a mention in the email, social media, and perhaps even by mail. The people who do listen well should be fairly tired of hearing the news before you will have shared it enough. “Here’s what you can expect.” The same should happen again while the process is in place. “Here’s what is going on.” And even after things are implemented, it is good to give the occasional reminder that things are the way they are. “Here’s how we do this now.” People need a clear process so they can be part of it.

Change doesn’t have to be an ugly word. When change is genuinely useful to the people affected, they’ll have an easier time accepting it. For a change’s implementation to go well, it should begin with a noble purpose, it should be led by respected people, and it should have a deliberate, clear process.

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