Change the Music, Change the Dance - How to Turn Organizations Positive


Robert E. Quinn

Robert E. Quinn’s life mission is to inspire positive change.  He does this as a faculty member, author, consultant and speaker.  He is a chaired professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and one of the co-founders of the Center for Positive Organizations.   As an author he has published 18 books.  His best-selling volume, Deep Change has been used across the world.  His book, The Best Teacher in You won the Ben Franklin Award designating it the best book in education for 2015.  The Harvard Business Review has selected his paper, Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership,” as one of their 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself.  As a consultant he has 35 years of experience and is best known for the competing values framework, a tool that has been used by tens of thousands of managers.  As a speaker he is recognized for drawing on research, opening minds to possibility, and arousing the desire to grow.  He is a fellow of the Academy of Management and the World Business Academy. 

Webinar Transcript

Female Voice: Robert E. Quinn's life mission is to inspire positive change. He does this as a faculty member, author, consultant, and speaker. He's a Chaired Professor at The University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, and one of the co-founders of the Center For Positive Organizations. As an author, he has published 18 books on leading positive organizations. His best selling volume, "Deep Change", has been used across the world. His book, "The Best Teacher In You", won the Ben Franklin Award, designating it as the best book in Education for 2015. The Harvard Business Review has selected his paper, "Moments of Greatness - Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership", as a classic and included it on their 10 must reads on managing yourself.

He is best known for the competing values framework, a tool that has been used by tens of thousands of managers. He is a fellow of the Academy of Management and the World Business Academy. Please welcome to Elevate 2015, Robert Quinn.

Robert: Hello. This is Robert Quinn, and I'm delighted to be with you today. Today I'd like to address the topic of turning organizations positive. The theme is change the music, change the dance. The overview that I'd like to present to you and follow today is I want to talk a little bit about the notion of consciousness. I want to share a quick story with you that will be a metaphor for our journey together, and then I'd like to talk about the positive organization, how leaders can become bilingual, and how they can turn their organizations positive.

The story occurs on an Indian Reservation. It's actually a story I heard a few months ago, and has stayed with me ever since. There's a doctor, an old man comes in to see him. The doctor asks, "What's wrong?" And the old man says, "Nothing." Finally the doctor gets frustrated and says, "If you don't tell me what's wrong I can't help you." The old man looks at him for a moment, and then says, "Do you dance?"

The doctor's perplexed. He thinks about it and realizes that this is a medicine man who uses music and dance to heal. He thinks again and says, "Can you teach me to dance?" The old man thinks about that for a moment and says, "I can teach you to dance, but you have to hear the music."

That particular image I think is very, very important. I think about it in terms of Yin and Yang. If you look at this particular diagram, there's the tree on one side of the Yin and Yang symbol. We can see the tree, we can talk about the tree, we pay much less attention to the root system because it's below the ground. In organizations we spend a lot of time focusing on the dance, and we pay almost no attention to the music.

What I'd like to do in the next few minutes is to tease out that metaphor in a way I hope you find to be very, very helpful as you think about turning organizations positive. Let me give you a little bit of background about where I'm coming from. Thirteen years ago my colleagues Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, and I started a new sub field called Positive Organizational Scholarship.

Our argument was that scholars could learn new and more exciting things if they introduced a bias into the questions they asked, if they stopped focusing on the middle of the curve, which I call the normal lens. That is we draw a random sample, we go out and study something, we come back and say here are the patterns, this is what is. And that provides a conventional objective picture of the world.

At the far right of the curve is the positive lens, and it asks a different question. What are human beings like at their very best? What are groups like when they're at their very best? What are organizations like when they're at their very best? When we ask that question we get different results. We get a picture of what things are like when they're excellent, and it's very, very exciting. To understand that I want to show you two dances. Here's the first dance.

It's a set of assumptions. People make utilitarian assumptions, they act with self interest, they minimize personal cost, engage in conflict, become alienated, fail to learn, react to constraints, comply with demands, prefer the status quo, fail to see opportunities, and compete for limited resources. Well what is that list? That list is the basic assumptions of social scientists. When social scientists go out and study organizations, which they've done hundreds of thousands of times, they come back with this description, people are self interested, resources are scarce, conflict is natural. Well those is the first assumptions of economics, of sociology, and so on.

We learn those long before we take those courses. We learn them at the knees of our parents, on the playground, and elementary school, through junior high, high school, college, and then into the corporation where they're reinforced again. We learn these assumptions, every manager understands them. If we believe in these assumptions and we manage something, it's very likely we will behave according to these assumptions, and what will we produce?

We will reproduce this list. This is a self reinforcing cycle. Organizations are conventional, they have these characteristics, and because we believe they have these characteristics we manage accordingly, and we reproduce conventional organizing. There's another dance. I've listed it here at the right side. People sacrifice for the common good. They show compassion and respect. They make spontaneous contributions, they build social networks, they live in high quality connections. They experiment, gather feedback, they learn. They expand their roles and craft their jobs, they take charge, express voice. They become generative, they envision possibilities, they expand the resource pool.

This is a much more attractive list. Some people look that list and they say, "Pollyanna, that's not real." Well the fact is the first list on the left is real. The list on the right is also real. When we look through the positive lens and go look at a great organization this is what we tend to find. What people really mean when they say Pollyanna, they don't say it this precisely, but what they're trying to express is, "I see the list on the left all the time. I see the list on the right very occasionally, it's rare. I may see it but not very often."

But the fact is that both lists are real, both of these dances occur. The huge question is, "How do I turn the dance on the left into the dance on the right?" The answer to that question is leadership. Leaders surface conflicts, transform conflicts, and they create collaboration. Managers don't, but leaders do. One way to think about this is the location of the music. I recently read a very stimulating academic paper on culture, it was a review of the research, and they produced something they call the Organizational Effectiveness Value Chain. They said leadership leads to organization, which leads to outcomes with people, and they put in these specifics.

First of all there are leader values which lead to leader behaviors. Those give rise to an organization culture, and then to a organization climate. Those give rise to employee engagement, and that gives rise to employee performance. Now the question is, in this value chain, where is the dance? Well the dance is out here. It's in employee performance. That's where we focus. Sally's not doing what she's suppose to be doing, we need to deal with that in the performance evaluation next week. We see the dance, we evaluate the dance, we tell people how to change the dance, and not much happens.

The question is where's the music? The music is down at the other end of the chain. It's not even in leadership behaviors, it's in leadership values. By that I don't mean a list of values, what I mean is the integration of behaviors with values. That is integrity, moral influence, and power. That's the music that drives the organization. That's something we very, very seldom ever think about. We spend our time at the other end of that chain.

With that in mind, I'd like to focus on material from the Positive Organization. In that book I argue that we have leaders who become bilingual, they understand both ends of the chain. There are many examples of real CEOs, for example, learning to do that. In that book I argue that there are five elements that come into play in the process of turning an organization. One is the clarification of purpose. The second is the generation of authentic conversation. Third is the ability to help people see possibility, to embrace the common good, and then finally to trust the emergent process.

I'm going to skip a slide or two in terms of time, because there's somethings I wanted to fully cover. I would argue that most executives, including CEOs, miss the music entirely. The music is heavily influenced by purpose and sense of purpose. In the book we show that many, many CEOs do not have a sense of organizational purpose, or know how to communicate organizational purpose. They work on the other end of the value chain. But purpose is something that needs to be discovered by a leader, not created, discovered. That means it already exists, but it's not articulated. It's to be found in the culture. It needs to be articulated, acted upon, continually clarified. And what we find is that most executives do not want to do this kind of work.

That means that most executives are not leading, they're not changing the culture, they're not changing themselves, and they're not changing the music that changes the organizational dance. With that in mind, let me give you a recent example that's unfolded in the last few months of the manifestation of those five elements, and share with you a living case study. The case study begins with my colleague, Kim Cameron. He received a phone call from some people in a school district that is in dire shape. They are bankrupt, they are now on their fourth emergency manager appointed by the governor, children on some subjects are at 4% of state standards.

The principals, the teachers are working under conditions with almost zero resources, and the list goes on, and on, and on. It's a truly grave situation, as about as bad as an organizational situation as can be imagined. With that in mind they called Kim and said, "Hey do you think this Positive Organization Scholarship stuff could help us?" Kim, the ultimate optimist said, "Oh, sure."

He contacted some of the rest of us, everybody was suddenly busy. No one wanted to go into that inner city situation and try to deal with the darkness that was there. I went basically because I felt someone needed to carry his body home. We got there on the first day, we're in a room with 90 principals. The emergency manager was meeting with them for the first time and gave a 10 minute talk. I thought it was quite a brilliant talk. When the talk was over the applause went like this. Kim leaned over and he said, "These people don't believe." I said, "Kim, no kidding."

Kim stood up and he began to teach the science of Positive Organization Scholarship. An amazing thing happened. These very, very experienced skeptical people, who have been burned many times, started to lean forward. They were paying attention to the message. Kim gave them a little exercise, and they started to make comments. As they made comments my eyes began to water. I call those truth tears. They're the kind of tears I have when I have a potent spiritual experience, and that's what happened when I watched that group at that moment.

I immediately knew these were people I wanted to be with. These were people of purpose, and these were people who could discern between authentic information and administrative noise, and that's all we needed. When it was my turn I stood up and I said to them, "I've come to you naked. I have no PowerPoint slides. I have no prepared presentation. I just have four questions I want to ask you." I gave them the four questions and asked them to meet in groups for a few minutes, and then we debriefed. The conversation was fairly spectacular. I was about to wrap up when one woman raised her hand, and she said, "I'm going to tell you like it is."

She began a long diatribe on how bad the city, the schools, what it was like to be abused, that the principal was a scapegoat. And as she went on, other people in the room were chanting, "Go sister, go sister." When she finished all eyes were on me, I looked at her and I said, "Why?" This was a bit of a shock. She looked backed and said, "Why what?" I said, "Why do you do it?"

She said, "Because that's what I signed up for." And I said, "No, that's not the answer." The room grew very tense. A man on the other side of the room thought for a moment and said, "The kids, we do it for the kids." All the heads nodded. I wrapped up around the notion of the kids, and the power of purpose. We were walking out the door and I ended up next to the same woman, she was still exercised, and she started in again. I said something about positive leadership and all of a sudden she stopped in her tracks. She had an epiphany. She looked at me and said, "Maybe that's it." I said, "What?"

She said, "Maybe I'm supposed to be the scapegoat." She said, "You know what? That's okay. If that's the price of saving these kids, I'm willing to do that. Her body physically changed. She threw her arms around me and then she walked away. A few days later we were in another room with the 90 top people in the district. Kim again shared very powerful research with them. I again held a dialogue, and in the dialogue one of the women raised her hand and said, "I feel like an abused wife and my husband's the school district."

All hands shoot up. Another woman said, "That's right. I know a lot of abused wives, and some of them stay for one reason, by staying they prevent the kids from being beaten more." She said, "That's why I stay at my school, so the kids won't get punished even more." Another woman immediately raised her hand and said, "That raises a very interesting question. Can people who've been abused for 10 years, that is the people in this room, can they participate in a transformation?"

Instead of shunning these questions off we encouraged more, and then we delved into them, and I asked them to answer them. And that lead to a more intense discussion, and the issue that started to crystallize was always, "Why would we trust the emergency manager?" We kept that question open, and kept going when one woman raised her hand and said, "We have no choice. We have to trust him." People said, "Why?" She said, "Because we can't lose another generation of kids."


A few minutes later he stood up and thanked them for the education that he'd received in the last two days, and then said, "I need you. I didn't realize this before, but I need the 90 of you to be the transformation team. I need you to process the ideas, to lead the ideas. How many of you would be willing to do that?" Ninety hands went up. Someone said, "Can we take a picture?" The slide you're looking at is that picture. A lot of smiling people who suddenly see hope.

Now, a few weeks later are the scores different on the tests in those classrooms? I don't think so. We've not fixed the system, but we've started a process that can allow the system to fix itself. It's a process in an organization that was very, very bleak and very, very dark. One woman stopped me and said, "You've done something I didn't think's possible." I said, "What's that?" She said, "You've created a collective process of forgiveness." I thought that was a pretty good description.

Now if you look at the five statements and think about this living case that I have just given you, creating a sense of purpose, nurturing authentic conversations, seeing possibility, embracing the common good, trusting emergent process. I would suggest that everyone of those five was manifest in that situation that I just described. I encourage you to think about those five elements. I believe that if we can make a difference in a system like that, if we can create hope, we can build trust and begin the unfolding of a process that has to go on for a long time, the same process can be started anywhere.

In closing, I'd like to invite you to my blog. Everyday I try to write a positive passage that acts like a parable that a person can read, and if they see the value in it they can send the parable to the people around them at work, and use it for the next meeting, or for a conversation on the computer. But the idea is if we change the conversation, we can change the culture. If we change the music, we can change the organization. I hope that some of you take a look at that and find some value in it. It's a great pleasure to be with you today. I hope that everyone of you can take away some new thoughts about how to turn your organization into a positive organization. Thank you very much.