Strengths, solutions and stories.

CHANGING ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE, ONE LIST AT A TIME

posted by Russell on 7 July 2016

It was Descartes who said ‘I list therefor I am’.

Well he might have said that if he had thought a little more deeply because creating a list is one of the simplest and most common forms of thinking.

To list is to be human. Do any other species construct lists? Surely we are alone in our ubiquitous, ever-present, ever-evolving array of lists – shopping lists, odd jobs, birthdays to remember, what to do in the garden, desired Christmas presents, who to invite to that party, bucket lists, 100 books to read before one dies, possible children’s names whilst pregnant – our desire for, and need for, lists is unquenchable.

And lists are simple. Apart from being able to write one’s own name, writing a list is the second most easiest form of writing. And if you can’t write, mental lists are available to everyone over 15 months of age. Has anyone never gone to sleep at night with a list (of sheep?) going around their head?

Because listing is something we all do probably every day throughout our lives it is easy to overlook their power and potential to change lives. Where would each of us be without our unique lists? Indeed it could be argued that our individual identities are in part defined by the uniqueness of our individualized constellation of lists.

So in a sense we are our lists! Our lists have made us who we are. And if this is correct, at least in part, then maybe being conscious of the nature of our lists and being able to change their content and their array has the tantalizing possibility that we can change ourselves – or change our families, our communities and our organisations!

The Diagnostic Statistical Manuals (currently DSM-5) is just a list. It is a list of mental illnesses as described (read ‘prescribed’) by the American Psychiatric Association. The first time I bumped into a DSM I thought it was biographical because I appeared on every second page. But trying to describe, diagnose, categorise and label complex human behavior is neither easy or simple.

It was Ludwig Wittgenstein who said ‘Whenever you label me you diminish me’. And affixing psychiatric labels on people many would argue diminishes people through stereotyping and discrimination. Does the DSM list of psychiatric labels, agreed to by a cohort of American (mostly white, middle aged [or older] males?) psychiatrists, with enthusiastic endorsement of the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, guarantee successful treatment of mental illness?

Perhaps the best thing that might be said about such an institutionally deified list is that the jury is still out. Certainly The DSM-5 has generated an extraordinary level of controversy and dispute since its release with Gary Greenberg’s ‘The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry’ (Scribe, NY. 2013) being just one antithesis amongst many.

Changing our lists has been a hallmark of third wave, or post-modern approaches to both counselling and community building. Narrative, solution-focused and strength-based approaches to counselling, therapy and human service practice have all consciously challenged the way language is used to describe human behavior. Language of course can contain surreptitious racism, ageism, patriarchy and many other forms of diminishment. These approaches simply examine our language (including our lists!) asking such questions as are the words and labels respectful, accurate, discriminatory, useful or disabling.

At community building and organizational change levels perspectives such as Asset Based Community Development and Appreciative Inquiry ask similar questions of such tools as needs analyses and SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).

If there is commonality across all these approaches it is the belief that describing and listing strengths is at least more important and efficacious than listing deficits and problems.

Strengths-based and solution focused approaches share a commonly used tool that I call ‘stretch listing’ although it was originally shared with me by Chris Iveson of BRIEF in London. It simply asks folk to list 30 (or 50 or 100) things they do well. ‘What are 30 things you do well as a parent?’ ‘What are 50 things you do well as a practitioner or supervisor or manager or…?’

Constructing such an extended list can be done by oneself but is particularly powerful when it is done through an ‘interview’, that is, having someone ask the opening question, prompt further answers by asking ‘what else?’, recording the answers and then reading them back.

It appears that doing this with someone else actually stimulates different regions in the brain than when it is done individually. And being ‘gifted’ with a written record also is significant.

And the intriguing thing about a ‘stretched’ list is the possible significance of what comes to mind further down the list. Are these strengths we have forgotten or repressed, or are they the underground ‘foundations’ that other strengths build on?

Some years ago in a workshop having introduced the stretch listing activity one of the participants put her hand up and asked if she could share her husband’s story. His name was Pete and having lost his job he spiraled down into sadness and apparent loss of any self-esteem. This wasn’t the man this woman had married and knew he had many strengths. She said, ‘One day I thought blow it if he can’t hear all the positives I see in him he can read them! So I wrote out a list of his strengths, took it to the local copy centre, had it laminated and stuck it on our fridge. So every time he went to the fridge there was no escaping from what I admired in him. I called it “Pete’s List” – and it helped enormously’.

But a useful list doesn’t have to be that long. One simple idea to change the conversational culture in families (or teams) is known as BWF or Best, Worst, Funniest. In families it might be going around the tea table with each person telling 3 stories: the best thing that happened today, the worst and the funniest. For younger children the activity can be called Roses, Thorns and Banana Peels. Same thing and it can be an invaluable way of starting meetings, to check in with how folk are travelling.

So what can be done with the simple art of list creation to bring about organizational culture change?

Sadly the answer might disappoint those who long for a cosmology that includes obscure, ‘professional’ language. As Albert Einstein once said: ‘Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler.’ Cultural change doesn’t have to be overly complex, doesn’t have to depend on specialized language, flow charts, PowerPoint or imported ‘experts”.

As the Founder and former Director of St Luke’s Innovative Resources I had the pleasure of writing, designing or publishing over 60 ‘conversation- building’ card sets like the well-known Strength Cards. Each one of these ‘tools’ was based on a list – a list of key concepts, of questions, of single words or even a list of images. The popularity of these tools, over some 25 years, across many cultures and in many countries, testifies to the power of embedded lists that invite folk to talk about their own experience, in their own words if the context is safe.

All these ‘seriously optimistic’ tools focus on strengths, not deficits. All are highly interpretable. None are didactic. All rely on storytelling. All can be picked up and enjoyed by almost anyone if they are invited to tell their own unique story.

All have been used to change organizational cultures.

As well as these well-known card sets we have also published posters as reminders of ‘good practice’ and an array of simple, disposable write on sheets that provide a visual message of an important thought or issue. These are not the checklists so loved by assessors of ‘Performance Quality’ rather once again they are just story-telling prompts.

Lists and story-telling share an easy, natural affinity. Throughout 2015 I was privileged to be able to co-facilitate a series of conversations about practice issues in our child and family teams at St Luke’s. Team members were simply asked at the start of the year to share their perceptions of the key issues they wanted to talk about in their team. It was a little like Open Space but rolled out sequentially, one practice discussion each month for 2 hours.

Of the entire list of suggestions 8 were chosen and hence the activity was simply called ‘The Top 8’.

Each month the entire team, which was located over several sites, was divided into groups of around 8 to 10 participants, given a list of some initial potential questions and encouraged to let the conversation go in whatever way participants wanted. A blog was set up and each group in each session was encouraged to feed back their learning and comments.

Not only was the 2 hours each month highly anticipated but it clearly helped develop a richer understanding of how notions of ‘good practice’ were understood and embedded across the whole team.

Cultural change through list building is minimalist, simple and easy. But it can be profound.