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Participative management: does it really work?


“Get people involved, get them to participate”. This maxim is the fundamental precept of any change management initiative, because it is widely held that participation in a project fosters a sense of ownership. If you need to carry out a diagnosis of the current situation in order to identify the changes to implement, invite your teams to contribute as they will buy in much more quickly to the outcomes than if you had carried out the diagnosis without them.

If it is time to move on to the action plan, the solutions that your teams are expected to implement are much more likely to come to fruition if those same people have participated in the elaboration process.

The participative approach often ends in disappointment…

However, the history of organizational change initiatives is littered with stories of participative processes that have produced no tangible results whatsoever. Sound out the participants at the end of a “focus group” or a “collective intelligence workshop” and more often than not, you will find that they are satisfied (everyone has had a good time, a pleasant break from their routine and their day-to-day issues)… but also somewhat circumspect. Their scepticism is illustrated by a comment made to us by a factory operator at the end of a brainstorming session aimed at finding ideas to simplify processes within the context of a workshop reorganization program: “Let’s face it, all of this is just to sweeten the pill before we swallow it”.

What is the explanation for this, given that participative methods are now fully tried and tested and proficiently mastered by in-house facilitators and outside consultants alike?

First of all, because the participants are rarely totally sure about what is expected of them in a focus group meeting. They have probably been given a short briefing, delivered in a rush by their managers, who are themselves always short of time. Secondly, because once the meeting is over, the participants harbour doubts about the ability of their leaders to process so much information being fed back from the field. Indeed, how can they possibly manage to do so, given their busy schedule and a visible lack of availability? And yet, although it is important for staff to be allowed to express themselves, it is even more important for them to know that what they have said is taken into account by their leaders.

And that’s not all. Try also sounding out those people who take change-related decisions and who instigate participative processes. You will hear comments of the same kind. Take for example what this director of an audiovisual company for which a change management program was intended to facilitate a reorganization of its departments and services: “All these focus groups and seminars are very nice, very pleasant, but the bottom line is that they don’t really serve much purpose”. His point of view was that in his company, as elsewhere, the people at the grass roots who are invited to express themselves do not have all of the elements at their disposal to put forward proposals that are coherent with the company’s field of constraints. They do not have a wide enough scope of vision; the picture for them is incomplete.

… But a directive approach to change does not work either

Is the solution therefore to lean towards top-down change strategies (which are sometimes implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to the failure of a participative process)? Absolutely not! What exactly are company leaders seeking to achieve with such strategies? Two primary objectives in reality: first of all, to remain in control of the target (new corporate project, new work organization, new management charter, etc.) and secondly, to maintain control of the schedule. The top-down approach avoids any prevarication. In its most accomplished format, it delivers a “turnkey” solution, enabling change by way of “communication kits” or “deployment kits”. However, these objectives are never attained. Why not? Simply because top-down does not work. As Michel Crozier taught us over half a century ago, the act of decreeing change has never resulted in successful change. In reality, it leads to even more malfunctions and social tension.

The solution for successful change? Instigate meaningful dialogue between the decision-makers and the grass roots

So, what really does work?

Choosing between “directive” or “participative” is meaningless because those that have to make decisions and those that have to implement them need each other. What is however meaningful, what gets results, what helps to achieve a successful transformation, is a process that creates conditions that are conducive to interaction between the decision-makers and the people who are operational at grass roots level. It is up to the decision-makers to set the target and to define the changes that will be required to reach that target. These same decision-makers must also precisely explain to the field players, those who will be charged to implement the change, the contribution that they are looking for in order to help them to make enlightened decisions. It is then the turn of the field players to acknowledge receipt of this “order” and to propose solutions that are in line with their day-to-day realities. Last but not least, the decision-makers must feed back their reactions to these proposals. This final point is a sine qua non since it is the way in which the decision-makers will convey the meaning and purpose of the expected change. It is also a way of expressing confidence, trust and encouragement. So many factors that play a key role in engaging one’s teams, in inspiring confidence in the management team and in the changes that they are proposing.
So yes, long live participative management… so long as it is set within a clear framework, with precise rules that are communicated in advance to participants and followed up with feedback on the way in which the outcomes of their participation will be exploited. Once all of these conditions have been met, participative management can be considered as a means of maximizing buy-in to change and thus ensuring the best chances of success.

This article was originally published on the French “RH Info” web site


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