robert styles (2)

PA: Thanks very much Robert for agreeing to do this interview. I'm interested in both the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Department of Finance work that you did. I understand that you did a similar thing in both cases so maybe you can refer to both these cases in response to the questions that I am going to ask you?

PA: So, let's get started. First up can you tell me a little bit about the needs that the two organisations had and why you thought prosocial would be a good solution?

RS: Well, in both cases the needs were two-fold – a combination of strategic and operational.

First, the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD). Ms Daryl Karp, the CEO, explained to me when we first met in 2014 that she wanted to work with her executive to increase the relevance of the institution. She was asking, “What could our mission be? Where should we focus our effort in order to provide a meaningful experience for our visitors? How could we catalyse a transformative and reflective conversation about the meaning of democracy in today's world?” Big questions in my view. As we explored these questions it became apparent that innovation was required on the part of those working in the museum. At the time most of their practices were quite traditional and a live question related to the relevance of their historical practices going forward. What needs to be preserved as change is charted and pursued? As you can imagine, questioning the enduring relevance of what for some equated to their professional expertise and life’s work was the source of some conflict between individuals and groups within the organisation. Daryl, previously a documentary maker working for ABC Television, had been CEO for twelve months and was challenged by how to lead innovation and change while keeping the peace.

Finance wasn’t that dissimilar to MoAD actually. Late in 2016 I met Ms Stacie Hall, who had assumed the role of First Assistant Secretary in charge to the Property and Construction Division (PCD) twelve months before. Broadly, the Division was responsible for looking after all Australian Government real estate, actual and virtual, within Australia and throughout the world. She explained at our first meeting that the Secretary had given her “clear riding orders!” when she assumed her role as leader. The Division was not functioning well for various reasons and she was being relied upon to sort things out. Apparently, two separate divisions had merged twelve months before Stacie took over as leader. These two divisions performed very different roles. One group were technical experts, those who understood how to look after buildings and property. They understood bricks and mortar as well as networks and firewalls. The other group were policy experts. The government of the day had charged them with responsibility to divest as much government real estate as possible in order to save the government money. According to Stacie, the day these two divisions merged the “Hunger Games began!” During our first meeting Stacie explained to me that the situation had proved so intractable that she, after 12 months of trying, didn’t know what to do to improve things.

In both instances, MoAD and PCD, I introduced the ideas embodied in prosocial as a possible way forward and they agreed to give it a go.

PA: So how did you implement prosocial?

RS: The approaches I adopted in both institutions were a little different. Though many aspects were the same. The difference related to the way I worked, the design principles stayed the same, of course.

The initial work with MoAD happened over 2014 and 2015 and involved a series of facilitated workshops at which the practice of psychological flexibility or one or several of the design principles were introduced to the mid-level managers and executive. These leaders engaged in discussion about the meaning and relevance of the practices and principles and how well things were working in that regard. Between the workshops, group and one-on-one coaching sessions were provided to a number of the individual teams and leaders with the aim of supporting them as they endeavoured to translate what they had explored in the workshops into action. Following the cycle of workshops involving the managers and executive some additional workshops were held for specific teams responsible for the coordination of education tours through the museum and the design and hosting of the various exhibitions themselves. Each of these teams had quite a diverse set of responsibilities. For things to work, different individuals or sub-teams had to interact with a significant number of stakeholders to coordinate their effort and input.

The work with PCD occurred several years later in 2017. By this time, I had observed that translating the prosocial principles into the living and breathing normative environment of a community or organisation happened a lot more effectively if I got myself out of the way. You’re probably wondering what that means? Essentially it means I get them to do more of the work. In MoAD I did most of the workshop facilitation, coaching and mentoring. In PCD I worked only with the most senior leaders in the division and supported them from behind the scenes as they did the facilitation and coaching/mentoring work with their Branch team-leaders and staff. I ran half-day workshops with Stacie and the five Branch heads, the executive, once a month to introduce an aspect of the work the Division had to do. They would then run a particularised version of the same workshop with their Branch, I would oftentimes observe from the back of the room and shadow coach. After the round of Branch workshops, Stacie with her executive and I would debrief. Key learnings and insights taken were then used to draft the agenda for a Division wide forum at which select team-leaders and staffers presented to the whole Division the outputs from their Branch workshop discussions. The cycle would then repeat itself – five times in all. I provided one-on-one coaching to the executive throughout. It worked very well!

PA: One of the core ideas in prosocial is surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interests of the group. Can you tell me how you used prosocial to do this in these cases?

RS: Certainly. You know I think this is one of the most important aspects of this work. To help people find a home for what they value within the collective purpose. In each case there were two interrelated processes. One was designed to help these organisations and respective teams define or redefine their purpose which is all about CDP1. The other was helping individuals to more effectively give expression to their unique brand of magic which is about psychological flexibility.

In MoAD the work on psychological flexibility happened toward the beginning of the intervention whereas in PCD it was the last phase. In PCD we started with collective purpose, CDP1. The reason the order of events varied were multiple: the size and structure of the organisations, the pressing needs at the time, levels and nature of conflict in the system, and the like.

In MoAD the broader context was more of a blank slate in terms of redefined purpose. They were just continuing with business as usual. They were running a museum as they traditionally had for many years within one of Canberra’s heritage buildings, Old Parliament House. Essentially there were five groups within the organisation: the executive who were responsible for the overall leadership of the museum and reporting to the Senate, or more recently to their Board; the learning team who were responsible for school programs and guided tours; the exhibition and events team who were responsible for organising and hosting various exhibitions and events within and outside Old Parliament House; the maintenance team who maintained the heritage building; and, the human resources team. To varying degrees these teams interacted with other cultural institutions and local universities co-hosting events and doing different forms of research on the history of democracy in Australia as well as current opinion captured through the hosted events. Functions and dining rooms provided another dimension of activity within the museum. You can imagine the tapestry of interests! The presenting challenge for Daryl, as I mentioned, was twofold – strategic and operational. While she had ambitions for the museum she had not really begun exploring this with others in a formal way. The pressing problem was operational. Teams were competing with each other wanting their particular interests to be the focus of what the museum was doing at any particular time. Some strong personalities were asserting themselves in ways that was generating conflict both laterally between groups and vertically between the executive and team members at the frontline.

Because of the prevailing climate within MoAD I decided to begin with exercises on cultivating psychological flexibility. The aim was to create a safe space for people to talk about what was important to them personally, to explore the nature of the habitual and oftentimes unproductive responses being taken to the challenging situations they were finding themselves in and to defuse things enough so they could begin seeing themselves more for their ‘magic’ within. In other words, to help them cooperate with the natural movement of life and what was important in the moment rather than what their minds were habitually labelling as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

These reflections and conversations had the team members sharing amongst themselves what they were striving for socially, or wanted to strive for, that was personally important not only for them but also others now and in the long-run. This also, by design, touched on the unproductive, defensive and habitual behaviours that were taking them away from what was important. They were incredibly honest. I remember one of the executives saying that she wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know when she was in situations where she was expected to speak from a position of authority. She explained how quite habitually she would try and fake it fear of being seen by others as not knowing what she was talking about and perhaps even being stupid. A kind of pretending to be someone she wasn’t. She said that following such exchanges she felt quite exhausted and inauthentic. It was her preparedness to be open and vulnerable that really got the broader conversation going. My main objective was to have their hearts and minds meet. There were comments that, “we’re all really just the same aren’t we!” as though their common ground of being human was being realised. By contrast there were other comments like, “wow, I didn’t really appreciate how much you folk (the maintenance team members) care about this building”, a comment by one of the exhibitions and events people.

This opening of hearts and minds set the scene for the more strategic conversation about what their shared purpose could be. The topic of subsequent workshops. To do this I had the various teams reflect on questions about what a preferred and probable future could look like. Not only from their point of view and expertise but from the perspective of all the others in the system who would be a part of that future, be they within MoAD or outside. I like this process because it accesses the wisdom in the room. The output of the discussion was a compelling vision statement about what the meaning and practice of democratic processes could look like for the Australian citizens in 20 years’ time and the particular trends that would need to be impacted in order for this future to be realised. The discussion not only embraced the interests and perspectives of each of the teams within MoAD but also the interests and perspectives of all their stakeholders – teachers, students, families, researchers, policy makers, political leaders, government, tourists, and others.

The work of surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest within PCD was quite a different exercise! Because of the conflicting interests between the technicians who primarily cared about looking after government real estate and the policy people busy selling off that real estate I decided to start the whole intervention in a different way. It was designed to get the groups, rather than individuals, talking about what was important to them as well as what they were challenged by. Really, this was a different way of catalysing the same type of reflection that doing the group matrix does. I took this approach for two reasons, because of the size of the institution but mainly because of the lack of listening. I observed that much of the conflict was a consequence of these groups not being heard. I recall at the first Division wide forum individuals from the opposing factions standing up and asserting, in rather forthright terms, their point of view across the room defending the legitimacy of their people’s interest. Having observed this, I decided to facilitate a process designed to change the listening in the organisation. I had my fingers crossed I tell you. I suggested to Stacie and the executive that each of the five Branches – Property Capital Works Branch, Property Divestment Taskforce, Property Efficiency Branch, Property Legislation & Advice Branch and Property Services Branch – each discuss amongst themselves a set of who, what, how questions and have representatives from each Branch report the outputs of their discussions to the rest of the division at a forum. The questions were carefully worded in four categories.

‘People’ questions: Who are you as a team, broadly what do you think and feel about your work and the organisation? Tell us a little about your team, including how long you’ve been here, what roles you have played in the past, including what you take pride in and what you find challenging?

‘What’ questions: What is your team’s current business, are you aimed in the right direction and pursuing your goals properly? What is the key issue in your team’s work currently, and how are you handling it? Are you headed in the right direction, and pursuing it in the right way? What is your organisations core strength? How do you know?

‘How’ questions: How does this place work, by what explicit rules, unspoken norms, tacit agreements, processes and procedures? What was your team’s most difficult decision in the past year? What were the issues and how did you wrestle with them? With what results, and how did you feel about it? How did others react? What networks(s) of people within and external to the organisation act to influence what gets done and how things get done? What do the people have in common? How does the organisational infrastructure work, including – policy, roles and responsibilities, and processes, such as decision making, coordination, and communication processes?

‘Leadership’ questions: What do we need to know to make the right fit between the organisation and existing leadership styles? What kind of leadership are you looking for from your leader/s? What will be the cues for leadership to tell if they are on or off track? What are the norms for giving feedback upward here?

As it turned out this was a very fruitful exercise. It did change the listening. Many said they had never been asked questions like these. Not only did the exercise of having each group contemplate the answers help them take a broader perspective on their situation, because they knew that the other groups were contemplating the same questions they were very interested to hear what they had to say. The increased level of attentiveness was palpable at the forum when each group shared their reflections and answers. Each group took great care documenting their views and from this the executive we able to derive key themes related to ‘expertise and capability’, ‘communication’ and ‘leadership’ that reflected significant aspects of the normative environment. Stacie, at a subsequent forum fed-back a summary of these themes to the Division. My sense is they felt heard.

At this point the climate was such that Stacie and her executive were able to invite their now receptive team-leaders and staff to consider what Finance’s role could be in the longer term and how they could possibly work together to shape direction at the Division level. This was the segue into an active consideration of the prosocial principles as they applied to PCD. The first phase involved getting clear about, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘How do we get there?’ which was about CDP1, redefining purpose. This was followed by the phase, ‘How do we work together on the journey?’ which was about the rest of the CDPs. Toward the end of the intervention the focus was, ‘How can we leverage each other’s expertise and capability?’ which was about cultivating psychological flexibility. The Division engaged enthusiastically from this point. In fact, one of the staffers said, “We should call it ‘Operation Voltron’!” and it stuck. The sub-title being, “We each have a role to play, a perspective to bring and a stake in the outcome” under which was a full colour picture of a Transformer. It was great. Surfacing individual interests and integrating those into the collective interest had begun.

PA: How did you implement the ACT matrix and did you find it useful?

RS: Yes, implementing the matrix was very useful. All the work associated with developing psychological flexibility that I’ve mentioned was facilitated using the matrix. The way I use it is a little different to the way Kevin Polk originally designed it.

As well as foregrounding the difference between inner experience and actual behaviour, the above and below the horizontal line distinction, and the tension between toward and away moves, I like to use it to help people evaluate the coherence of their worldview. One of the behavioural principles I leverage when doing this work is related to the function of the self-rules we have in use. To do this, when considering the relationship between both the toward move in concert with the values intrinsic to that behaviour and the away move with the inner aversive experience being avoided, I ask the question, “What assumptions are you making that might be worth testing?” For example, the woman I mentioned earlier who wanted to get better at speaking openly and honestly about what she didn’t know rather than pretending, her toward and away moves; when she stopped to think about the assumptions she was making they fell into two classes. Those related to her toward move of speaking openly and honestly were all quite coherent. She assumed that if she did speak up it would improve relationships and she would feel much better within herself. On the other hand, the assumptions she was making about her away move, pretending she knew, were, upon analysis, a bit of a myth. She had somehow subscribed to the notion that others would automatically think less of her if they knew she wasn’t sure about something and that she was perhaps even stupid. You should have seen the look on her face when she said this out loud to herself. From a CBS perspective this is known as an ineffective self-rule. It functioned to take her in an unhealthy direction personally and socially. In fact, she knew it, she said she often felt quite exhausted and inauthentic when she behaved that way.

When these conversations were facilitated in both MoAD and PCD they made explicit what was intrinsically important to everyone, particularly at the team level be it the executive, the group of mid-level team-leaders or an intact team at the operational level. The power of this conversation truly emerged as the intrinsic interests of the individuals found a home for expression through the shared purpose. For example, in PCD one of the team-leaders volunteered to coordinate a series of brainstorming meetings involving anyone from the Division who was interested in exploring possibility at a strategic level. The openness and frankness of ideas generated led to some important innovations.

A little bit more about the context first so you get a sense of the impact of cultivating psychological flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, two different divisions had merged to form PCD, technical and policy people, and they were at odds with each other operationally because they didn’t share a purpose. Some of the assumptions that were challenged within these groups served to overturn this situation and orient them more toward collaborative effort. They chose to work with each other as a consequence of reinforcing what was intrinsically important.

The technical people valued looking after real and virtual real estate in the unique ways that only they could. When they considered how they might express these values in the longer-term as a group, they reconceived of themselves as a hub at the centre of an extended network around the world. A network of experts whose services would need to be procured to do the work locally. In this worldview, as a hub, they were setting the high standards for safe, secure, green, efficient and user-friendly buildings and virtual environments. As they contemplated this future world and the myriad of regulatory and policy requirements required for it all to work they realised, “We need you policy folk!”

The policy people too, at the outset it was apparent that they valued serving the government of the day and playing their part in realising civic good. As a group they had also embodied the norm of being apolitical, a requirement of all public servants in Australia. Their job was to just serve the government of the day without being personally biased by their own political orientation. That if the government changed its view, or if there was a change of government, they would just follow without question. When they questioned the workability of this norm as they had embodied it they realised that in part it wasn’t really working. When they looked 10-20 years into the future and rendered their preferred vision of the world many of the values they embraced were aligned with the technical group. They too foresaw a clearer, greener, safer and more efficient workspace for Australian public servants and any citizen or stakeholder within those spaces. They realised that their passive embodiment of being apolitical had rendered them somewhat speechless within the system. They uttered statements’ like, “We’re here to do the government’s bidding, not to question what we are asked to do”. This changed to, “Heck, if we are going to provide the government of the day a real service we have to take a longer-term view of what is important for Australia and learn to offer courageous advice instead of being scared our head is going to be shot off if we stick it up over the pulpit!” When this shift occurred they said, “If we are going to offer courageous advice we need to know what we are talking about. We need you technical folk!”

So, the matrix as a tool for cultivating psychological flexibility worked well.

PA: Were there particular core design principles that were problematic for the 2 groups? Could you tell us a little bit about what that looked like?

RS: Problematic is probably not the right word. It was a matter of helping them translate and particularise the principles into their working and normative context which in each case was a process. A process that didn’t stop actually. I have caught up with both Daryl and Stacie since we worked together and have learned how these processes have evolved in quite unexpected ways.

Let’s take CDP3 as an example, which is about collaborative decision making. When I caught up with Daryl earlier this year she told me about how post our initial work with MoAD they embarked on the process of becoming a statutory authority or an Australian Public Service Agency with its own independent Board, which has afforded them increased authority to self-regulate (CDP7). This meant they were able to transact and act in the world in a very different way. An increased variety of collaborations were possible (CDP8). Prior to that, MoAD was constituted as an ordinary government department within the portfolio of the Minister for the Arts I think, and answerable to the Senate. This shift to becoming an Agency reflected an evolution of decision-making capacity for the organisation (CDP3) along with the other CDPs. Here decision making is conceived at multiple levels. Constitutional choice which in turn shaped approaches MoAD had at its disposal for public choice and operational choice. While constituted as an ordinary government depart the scope of choice at the other levels was restricted. They didn’t have full control over their budget for example. Each year as a government department they were given a budget along with a set of priorities from the government of the day. At the end of each financial year, if there was any money left over they had to return it to the Reserve Bank. Once they became an Agency they had full control over their budget. This led them to develop and implement an internal set of policies and procedures that further enabled them to plan and chose what they wanted to do (CDP2).

Mechanisms like having an independent Board that helped provide direction and build engagement reflected other ways in which the CDPs had been particularised. The senior leaders of MoAD with the help of the Board had to monitor (CDP4) the Agency’s relationship with the government of the day and the growing number of external stakeholders as well as the internal relationships between the various divisions of the institution (CDP8). To effectively do this, they first cultivated an appetite for risk then gradually refined the structure of the organisation and overarching regulatory environment to manage the risk (CDP5). This involved the Board and CEO clarifying the type, tolerance and scope of risk that was acceptable for the organisation. For example, basic human rights and the reputation of the organisation could not be exposed to risk. On the other hand, an increased appetite for risk meant an increased appetite for experimentation. Different groups not only knew the boundaries within which they could prototype new ways of preserving and building civic engagement through the activities of the museum (CDP1), they also had the freedom to experiment in safe-to-fail ways (CDP7), which consequently facilitated learning and innovation. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives and reporting against these to the Board and Senate. Some of the work the Agency did in this space led to them being identified internationally as one of the most innovative small museums in the world at the end of 2015.

At the mid-level of both MoAD and PCD the team-leaders were engaged in a different type of conversation. This began during the intervention when they were actively encouraged to put ideas forward and debate the merits of different considerations (CDP2&3). Both Daryl and Stacie explained that it took a while before these leaders found their voice because they were used to just doing what they were told. As well as engaging them in high-level decision-making processes, a particularly important step that undergirded their maturation as leaders was the delegation of authority to self-regulate (CDP7). In MoAD this included the formation of a new group with members from across the Agency who took responsibility for innovation. This group reported directly to the CEO. Similarly, in PCD the self-organised task force that explored the idea of the Division becoming a hub represented their ideas to the executive to subsequently have many implemented. These mid-level leaders had reconceived and reinvented themselves. They experienced growing legitimacy and increased support over time.

As you can see, the nature of these prosocial interventions built the capacity for autonomous and self-determined leadership that was increasingly driven from the middle of the organisations by the EL2s and EL1s (Executive Level 2 officers are team leaders/managers and Executive Level 1 officers are their assistant managers). When I interviewed both the executive and team leaders many explained how much more vital work was as a consequence of being empowered in this way. I have to acknowledge the way that both Daryl and Stacie actively drove this. They invited the lower level managers and leaders into the senior leadership mix and continued to encourage and support their active participation. They did things like: take smaller groups of them out to lunch where they posed strategically important questions and engaged them in discussion and debate in a relaxed and informal setting; they personally mentored others who were assuming higher level leadership roles; their modelling subsequently influenced others. Over the months these mid-level leaders grew to feel they actually had a voice in the system that was being heard and mattered. Stacie said to me the last time we spoke that, “My executive is humming like they have never done before!” I observed this flowing downstream to their team-leaders. They were treating their EL’s the way Stacy was treating them.

Other activities that reflected an increased embodiment of the CDPs included the way the executive proactively responded to the needs of the divisions and branches across the organisation as they pursued strategic initiatives. For example, the executive in both institutions provided education and technical assistance for related teams in pursuit of efficiencies or cost reduction, encouraged local teams to develop and enforce their own rules, systematised the open exchange of information, and actively informed the groups across the system of what other groups had accomplished. 

PA: How did you work with each of the core design principles for these 2 groups, or did you treat them more holistically?

RS: As you have probably gleaned the process was quite organic, always a principled and collaborative response to the prevailing context – the emergent future in the present. Quite evolutionary really. Daryl explained that most of the successes that MoAD continues to enjoy weren’t conceived of in that first year we worked together, that a lot has emerged over several years as a consequence of the work we did together. You know, I have been invited back a few times to support different groups in MoAD continue refining their approach. Earlier this year I coached a group of team-leaders as they developed a proposal that they called, “Big Bold Opportunities” that would “increase the significance of MoAD’s work and influence on the brand ‘democracy’ and move us closer toward the realisation of the Masterplan”. Based on prosocial principles, they conceived three big bold ideas: to build a Learning Centre – physical and virtual; to host a Youth Engagement Program; and, provide an Enriched Teacher Professional Development Program. The group of team-leaders involved worked with their team members, drew up the proposal and presented it to the executive. Subsequently the proposal was approved by the Board and they have embarked on a refreshed 10-year journey (CDP1). Once they had been given the authority to take this forward they then got stuck into working out how to work together to realise their goals (CDPs2-8). All along they continued to reinforce the relevance of what was personally valued by each individual and to give those values a home within the shared purpose.

PA: This is fascinating work. Have you been able to measure the impact of it at all?

RS: Yes, the impact of the work in both MoAD and PCD was measured. In both cases, Australian Public Service Employee Census data (Commission 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018) captured pre and post these interventions over several years showed a significant, positive sustained improvement along several dimensions, including: Employee Engagement; Leadership; Organisational Change; Workplace Culture; Workplace Conditions; Performance Management; Career Management; Inclusion & Diversity; and, Agency Specific Performance. In both instances, these measures showed significant improvements when compared with those baseline measures taken over previous years, with some measures improving by up to 25% and 28% (See Figures 1 to 6 below). In fact, some measures continue to climb over subsequent years as though the cultural-normative environment continue to evolve as the principles were further embodied. These statistical results were also substantiated via some qualitative evaluations involving the MoAD and PCD senior executives and staff. Their testimony is reflected in this interview (Also see MoAD Interviews below). MoAD’s outcomes were also corroborated through their 2015 Annual Report prepared for the Australian Senate. Both MoAD and PCD senior executives continue to acknowledge the impact of these interventions. Reportedly this approach has helped them regularly exceed set targets as measured by their pre-determined strategic objectives and key performance indicators. 

PA: This conversation has been very useful. Given the innovative nature and success of this work, have you been approached by other agencies or organisations? It is quite apparent that this approach is applicable in any context where long-term change is sort after. 

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work has been recognized. In addition to MoAD and PCD, over the last couple of years I have been working with key leadership individuals from a variety of public sector organisations in African and South & West Asian countries. These people were participants in suite of programs designed to impact food, water or energy security as well as gender equity and social inclusion across the region. They were hosted by the Australian National University (ANU) and funded by the Australian Government between 2017-18. The participants first came to the ANU for a five to seven week intensive course that engaged them in formal learning related to the objectives of the overall program. During the concluding week they would work with me to design a personal project aimed at delivering sustainable impact on return to their home country. In each instance they were introduced to the prosocial approach we have been discussing. Each person was then supported remotely for six months as they implemented their plan. In some cases, I would travel to Africa or SW Asia to facilitate a follow-up workshop to help them further embed positive change.

Understandably, not all individuals were overtly successful in creating enduring change but a good proportion (around 40%) were. Where there was success, a key component was directly attributable to the structured prosocial methodology that they learned at ANU and subsequently employed. The context and challenges were diverse! To me this shows the inherent universal appeal of this methodology. I guess this is also evident in the work of Elinor Ostrom. She derived the eight CDPs having studied what reinforced the sustainable governance and equitable management of scarce resources practised by indigenous as well as contemporary communities around the world. So, it’s no wonder that the people from the developing countries I have had the privilege of working with readily identified with and successfully employed the CDPs.

You know, this work continues to bring both a tear and a smile to my face. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. These social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. But are they? I suggest not! It is clear to me that the work of prosocial changes the way people live and work together such that it is making the difference.

I have been privileged to know some extraordinarily good people, including you, who are pioneering an aspect of change that is surely needed and I see prosocial as an important and enabling part of this effort. It’s not easy to reframe and own our part in the system while maintaining our shared dignity as human beings. I often find myself working with individuals and teams who struggle with the inherent moral and ethical dilemmas’ that rift the space between being pro-self and pro-social and the resulting psychological and emotional impact. Prosocial, the combination of cultivating psychological flexibility and implementing the CDPs, shows that we can choose to be simultaneously pro-self and pro-other, while fully experiencing all that such a choice offers up, no matter how exhilarating of uncomfortable. I think our personal and collective wellbeing requires that we appreciate it is not about the hedonistic inclination toward just feeling 'good' – it is not about 'goodbeing'! It’s about 'Wellbeing!’ Being able to feel it all really well for what it is and courageously continue moving together in a direction that is important in the long-run.


 

5c97c3a7d78421710092be4d_5c02bdc8f4cf1173a5cccdd2_aZKqp43Mtp3ps7w2Xtm6078ulcQG1mhCEzgx56YtQN_Quq5Ets9GvpStCbvq9-n55xyaOvvX_A30afcDDv4ko6fW7J2VfIuPok8pusizj9ZoMpAHV3l1D5e38hQt6Y7x32n-l3tWz1rOO73-OA.png

 

Figure 1. Measures identified in MoAD’s APSC 2015 Employee Census Report (Commission 2015) as having significantly improved compared to the Agency’s measures from the previous year.

 

5c97c3a7de94e860c80370d7_5c02bdc875e85ad100ceca13_UjevKkUtc_uK-YBKdXKv5dEz84MFyuw5eXF3sy5HV0zdCAUwfxSa1lJ8olzAHvgP7zU1nYKBLKgpM0hzFcYYSE2PAE-zgEa5rK46MkbuTfgA9CC2nVXB7nd5u5-ryanjvKgl56KbavHyBjVbXw.png

 

Figure 2. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015) in MoAD’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars).

5c97c3a7d784212aae92be4e_5c02bdc842e49ebd050c4c78_xgawmciv9FBBh-0V8cn6cXhar3HSZOYZ7sW9KNaF7DAJ0FJ2O48oVxg5I9NOMWvVVBKQBAsBI2Z1K8AY896MNoUk5TyjuPiqalvm-l69YCzkxLVySy2gRaOHAEkyQDO_Pr2eH678kac6GAbOCA.png

 

Figure 3. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2015, 2017) in MoAD’s 2014 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2015 performance measures (blue bars) and 2017 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.

 

 

5c97c3a87e3bc9126a7c97bf_5c02bdc874a7d65f9c057fc6_uSUqbyddKTP8vTWeUX7XLjUSOiXBRwxE-4a0EKUGfhyl4hpoDXPLYl6Di1svuHj_I28xySmGHveAxYODG117dP9Upv8Z5zNjciIWnOzvHaTiB6DVb0JezeeCVawUUH7MgIlAIpJKBwVXaoQayw.png

 

Figure 4. Measures identified in the PCD’s 2017 Employee Census Report (Commission 2017) as having significantly improved compared to the Division’s measures from the previous year.

 

5c97c3a7de1743bbbc1cc91b_5c02bdc82442a6939f296b4f_YGtIGnT5A9dEdCvSX8SEwMkjW5VCiG2Tgrp-DGeIkBJcO4sV1npkRGIq2STU8RpaMjLbvCSfE7oz3Ald1RrNZdZq8rqii1lIFzA1LjMNtJXsjDWScCnVScDGANtZwZxNHgyade6SXyvBV3VJLA.png

 

Figure 5. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017) in PCD’s 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars).

5c97c3a7d784211f9792be4f_5c02bdc8f4cf113bd8cccdd1_P_BMjZRBBbcO1QMVK249DddOMxQsDsHXP5rmzCYnrYwhPMe-SlpU77UAaRar9GbEOhsps_AU61JLkMiNC395GUAO60B1yk-_esikKR_QUZnc9yhL9-m_XQZar8h-B16Zy2VAH3jnDAQCJrUjzw.png

 

Figure 6. Reported percentage improvements (Commission 2017, 2018) in PCD’s 2016 performance measures (red bars) compared with 2017 performance measures (blue bars) and 2018 performance measures (green bars) showing sustained change.

MoAD Interviews

As mentioned above, at the conclusion of the MoAD intervention a series of interviews were conducted with a number of agency staff from the executive and mid-level management to gain a subjective assessment of the change. Four questions were discussed.

How has the work we have done impacted on:

  1. The agency’s approach to developing strategy?
  2. Team culture and effectiveness?
  3. Staff engagement and motivation?
  4. You personally?

Below is a summary of the interviewee responses in their words. When the interviewees themselves read these summative statements, they said it was an accurate representation of their experience. The comments include suggestions about how the work we did with them might be enhanced.

Approach to Developing Strategy

The work we have done together is as good an outcome as could be expected—it has impacted profoundly on culture. The whole process was empowering and engendered inclusivity which heightened the impact of strategy. It got people thinking correctly about strategy and involved in good decision making. The way the work was done with the CEO and executive was essential, it meant there was a united message and effort. This was a critical part of the process. The measures from the state of the service report—collegiality, shared vision, etc.—show significant shifts which is directly attributable to the work we have done together.

The foresight-roadmapping worked well for middle management. People generally don’t get strategy. Our work together provided leadership and management with the tools for that. This approach reduced what is normally unnecessarily complex to something simple and accessible. It translated aspiration into concrete actions. The process was very consultative and energised everyone in the process. Middle management now thinks more strategically versus just having ideas. We are asking “How does this fit?” Leadership is being driven from the middle.

Team Culture and Effectiveness

Firstly, leadership has to have an appetite for risk and a willingness to learn. Team design work has reinforced this and impacted as a result. We have folded the EL1s (Level 1 Executive Officers that report to the EL2 Officers) into the leadership mix. The group design work has shaped attitudes and developed trust. This approach was powerful. Revisiting this (using the group evaluation tool you provided) showed trust had developed – understanding your team, your tribe, clarifying how you share a common purpose. Our work together allowed us to find vehicles for whole of organization conversations. Another key element was the restructuring of the organization so the innovation team reported directly to leadership. This was key to the success of innovative strategy.

Following your work with us the senior managers are more cohesive. Due in part to a change in leadership and structure, and having some difficult personalities leave, but also as a result of your sessions, dialogue has improved between managers; they are reflecting together which is building relationships. The biggest observed improvement is at the EL2 level—they are more supportive; they are thinking together. Some are representing team members more effectively. Though, there are teams that are not aligned as well. They are asking “What do my staff value?” “How can we look after them?” We need to do this better. We often realise too late when they are about to leave. There is a need for more acknowledgement.

Results from the State of the Service Report reflect the impact of your work—clear improvements in relation to management and strategy. While the tools (you introduced us to) as such were not always used, the principles have generalized. As far as I can tell, strategy is seen to always be responding to change, staff cuts, relocate staff etc. An improvement was noticed as a result of your work but may be impacted with coming changes.

Delegations have been pushed down more to the managers, the EL2s and 1s. It is less hierarchical which has meant people have had to be more responsible. We could do more on how to have “tough conversations”.

The values work and work on norms (group design) was very useful for framing and setting up project teams. Cheat sheets would be useful, so the basic ideas and principles can be at hand. I usually have these in my diary. Tools for practice.

The group design work with intact teams was very powerful. We plan to do it periodically as a group to check how we are tracking. The related work on values, communicating to learn and lead, and action learning was very powerful—the team is still talking about it.

A combination of change, personalities and pressure to perform had undermined trust across the organization. The work you did with us has rebuilt the trust. We have learned to say to each other, “You can be open and work with us. We value you!” We have learned to adjust to different styles of leadership. The organization has developed a healthy appetite for risk. This creates more opportunities for ideas. The team design work is what made the difference.

Staff Engagement, Motivation, and You Personally

The conversations we had about values is making a big difference. We’ve learned values are something we “do,” not just talk about. This work opened a conversation that has impacted the culture of the organization.

Perspective-taking skills gained through the work we have done means we have gained an appreciation of how people think differently and value different things. It has helped people manage change and has impacted the culture of the organization. People were helped to think differently about how we work together and support each other. It became safer to try new things. There is now a creative tension between conversation and change. People are more settled. While there are challenges the organization is functioning well. There is more acceptance of change without loss of quality. More is understood about each individual’s motivation and how people work.

Developing personal responsiveness (psychological flexibility) has been very valuable. It is the key to the whole process.

References

Commission, APS 2014, '2014 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2015, '2015 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2017, '2017 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Commission, APS 2018, '2018 Australian Public Service Employee Census', Canberra, Australia.

Read more…
5c97c3a6de1743a9221cc918_5c02bd0574a7d61b67057faa_cd6ef3_2506cdf9f39d47679810534935d260c0~mv2.jpeg

 

PROSOCIAL combines two bodies of knowledge to improve the efficacy of groups. The first is the Core Design Principles (CDP) approach pioneered by Elinor Ostrom. The second is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) pioneered by Steven C. Hayes. Both of these bodies of knowledge have roots in various academic disciplines and have recently been given a more general formulation based on evolutionary theory.

The design principles provide a functional blueprint for building an efficacious group, but their implementation requires a capacity for change, which is not always easy. ACT increases psychological flexibility and therefore the capacity for change. That’s why PROSOCIAL requires both bodies of knowledge.

The number of groups that can benefit from PROSOCIAL is potentially unlimited. For this reason, the PROSOCIAL development team has created an Internet platform that provides a home page and training course to any group, along with a network of trained facilitators for guiding groups through the course. The Internet platform also allows groups to communicate with each other. We hope to reach thousands and even hundreds of thousands of groups with this method of delivery (go here for an early example).

However, this is not the only way to deliver PROSOCIAL. Merely learning about ACT and the Core Design Principles without using the Internet platform or a facilitator can be useful, which could be called a low-end application. At the other extreme, professionals who consult with groups for a living might be in a position to deliver PROSOCIAL even more thoroughly than the Internet platform, which could be called a high-end application.

Dr Robert Styles, a social scientist, business consultant and accredited leadership coach based in Australia, recently described two high-end applications in an interview with Paul Atkins published in the PROSOCIAL magazine titled “Solid Evidence for PROSOCIAL within Government Agency Settings.” Styles had both the professional experience and the authorization to implement PROSOCIAL in several Australia’s government agencies far more comprehensively than the Internet platform’s training course. In addition, the implementations took place between national surveys of government agency employees by the Australian Public Service Commission, which provided a before-and-after third party assessment of the implementation. The improvement in the agencies that Styles worked with provides exceptionally strong evidence for the ability of PROSOCIAL to improve the efficacy of groups.

Styles learned about PROSOCIAL with Paul Atkins, an organizational psychologist at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Paul is a member of the PROSOCIAL Development Team who helped to design the Internet platform’s online training course. My conversation with Robert explores what he did with his high-end applications that was so successful, compared to the application that we are attempting to provide to an unlimited number of groups worldwide through the online training course.

DSW: Greetings, Robert! Welcome back to PROSOCIAL Magazine.

RS: Thank you David. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of the PROSOCIAL effort and not only be enabled to do impactful work but to learn about the evolutionary nature of human behaviour. Thanks for the opportunity to share some of what l am learning.

DSW: You and Paul are both highly trained organizational psychologists with years of practical experience working with groups. What do the two elements of PROSOCIAL, CDP and ACT, add to the toolkit of the organizational psychologist?

RS: For me the two elements of PROSOCIAL provide a coherent and accessible framework for behaviour change that impacts at multiple levels: at a personal level it helps people orient their lives around what is intrinsically important to them and deal with unhelpful habitual and reactive behaviour; at the group level it helps groups manage their priorities and committed efforts in healthy cooperative ways; and, for boards, executives and regulatory authorities it provides a framework for them to regulate and coordinate the effort of various players across a system.

As a social scientist, PROSOCIAL provides an empirically validated framework to conduct applied research. My academic interest is in how our words and speech influences what we do, both covertly and overtly. This is a study of how what we say influences what we do. Paul and I have been able to show in our research how various types of utterances regarding who we are and how we intend to act on what is important in the long run predicts wellbeing. We have found that if people are able to take perspective on what they value and discern opportunities to enact them it predicts wellbeing up to 12 months later. This is essentially psychological flexibility. Together with the design principles, PROSOCIAL provides a framework for groups, and groups of groups, to do this. Groups learn to take perspective on what is important to them in the long run and coordinate their effort to bring about those valued ends both as a process and a set of outcomes.

DSW: I really like how you put all of this. It is precisely how I think of PROSOCIAL but it is exceptionally eloquent coming from you. The starting point for a group that uses the Internet platform is a voluntary decision to take the training course, which we have made as short and engaging as we can. The starting point for your high-end application was a top-down decision to implement PROSOCIAL. This meant that you had more time to work with the employees but also that their participation was not voluntary. Please comment on the advantages and disadvantages of these two arrangements.

RS: This is an important question and goes to nub of an issue that impacts on the wellbeing of people at work. Before I speak about actual examples of introducing and embedding the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL in an organization, I would like to speak about how I approach this in principle. I believe that the value proposition of an organization is no more than the sum total of each individual’s value proposition being made available to the organization. For this to happen, individuals need to know what is intrinsically important to them and how this matters in their work. Further, the normative environment of the workplace needs to encourage rather than frustrate an individual’s capacity to express what is important to them through their work. This is a matter of engagement, alignment and ownership. Individuals at all levels of an organization need to be engaged intrinsically in the higher-order value proposition, the mission or purpose of the organization; also, what is uniquely important to them has to align with what is important to the others they are working with. They have to see themselves as an important part of the system. When this happens, people in teams own their work in a healthier and more productive way. Practically, this manifests as particularized forms of autonomy support. Team leaders support their team members and overarching authorities provide support for the groups and teams across the system. PROSOCIAL provides the framework for institutionalizing this as a way of organizing behavior. Core Design Principle #8 really captures this idea.

DSW: Indeed! CDP8 is really important. It can be initially overlooked when a group is trying to get its own affairs in order (CDP1-6), but you started out working with a multi-group organization.

RS: My approach to infusing an organization with this way of working involves taking constellations of teams that share a common purpose, including the executive, together with their teams through a series of highly interactive structured workshops and coaching sessions. Transfer-of-learned processes into the workplace is the objective. Over several years I have refined my approach and have got to the point where these sessions deal with the real work of the institution, the living responses of people in teams to the demands of daily life at work. I jump in the deep end with them and employ an action learning approach to trying new behaviors in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment. Together we learn from their resulting successes and relapses as leaders and teams strive to implement change or preserve what is already valued and important to them. I am there as a coach working with individuals from the CEO and team leaders down to team members depending on what circumstances require. I do a lot of work with groups of team leaders whose teams share a common purpose. In these sessions we explore which PROSOCIAL principles underpin the particular phase of the program we are engaged in and debrief their experience of trying new things with their teams. We also jointly set the agenda for upcoming workshops involving all their team members.

The program phases take about 4-6 months to complete. We usually start with developing the psychological flexibility of those involved which flows into setting or clarifying the broader agenda of the organization or division. This involves scenario mapping which is a big picture perspective-taking exercise where we consider the broad trends and drivers that are shaping the behavior of the organization. From this, preferred and probable futures are rendered. This enables the divisions and teams involved to set their individual purpose and goals in concert with each other. The overarching mission is fragmented in a functional way. Each team authors and owns its purpose and clearly understands how their purpose integrates with the purpose of the other teams.

Here I have taken insights from a fellow academic, Dr Matt Doolan, a Systems Engineer from the School of Engineering at ANU. He, with folks at Cambridge University, have developed what is called Strategic Roadmapping. It is a highly structured system-wide conversation designed to facilitate technological innovation. One of their first major projects was to plan 30 years food supply for England. This involved policy makers, food growers, environmentalists, transport people to name a few. As Matt and I have been working together we have observed it is not so much the plan that matters – no one sticks to a plan for 30 years – it’s more to do with the players in the system sharing a common purpose and successfully coordinating their effort to achieve that purpose. We have talked a lot about the difference between a successful and unsuccessful roadmap implementation. It has become quite apparent that those that have not been so successful have failed at implementing one or a number of the core design principles. The important thing is the structure of the roadmapping conversation. It lends itself perfectly to the work of defining the shared purpose of constellations of groups and individuals. It foregrounds Ostrom’s insights into the need for polycentric governance, which is an aspect of PROSOCIAL that, in my observation, appears to confuse practitioners aiming to do this work.

Once the phases of developing psychological flexibility, the organizational mission and shared team purposes are completed, we then work explicitly on the design principles. Teams figure out how they are going to apportion effort between teams and within teams, make decisions, and monitor how they are tracking. All this is undertaken using action learning – a cyclical process of trying something then actively taking a step back and reflecting on what and how it is working then practicing again. PROSOCIAL provides the lens for this ongoing cycle of reflection and action.

DSW: I’m glad that we’re having this conversation, because this description of your game plan adds a lot of information about your approach. Let me play it back to you in segments, with special attention to how other PROSOCIAL groups might learn from you. First and foremost, your approach seems highly iterative. Groups don’t learn ACT and the CDPs once and return to work – they rehearse them again and again in the context of the business of the group. Is this correct?

RS: Yes, the whole process is highly interactive and iterative. Not only do individuals and groups repeatedly interact with each other in response to specific questions in the structured workshops, they also reflect together on their ongoing efforts as they try new things – this is action learning/research.

Over the years providing training and consulting into organisations I have been concerned with transfer-of-learning. Oftentimes learning opportunities for leaders and employees take place outside of the work place. We are all familiar with this. They range from formal qualifications, immersion experiences to bespoke and executive short courses. They are all valuable, particularly for the individual doing the learning. But typically, those who undertake the training struggle to have a significant or lasting impact back in the workplace. The prevailing normative environment, work climate or their boss’s attitudes frustrates their effort. I’m sure this is a familiar experience for most.

DSW: It’s also a serious problem in education, where what is taught in one course fails to transfer to other courses.

RS: Indeed! In response to the transfer-of-learning issue I have tried to embed the learning process fully in the workplace and make it part of business as usual in an unusual way, if that makes sense. And what’s more, it’s actually working. I’m observing two distinct types of behaviour change as a result of employing an action learning approach to enculturating PROSOCIAL. The first relates to changing repertoires of learned behaviours, some of which appear very old and well-rehearsed. The other is a broadening repertoire of chosen responses to prevailing situations – current and anticipated. For me, these two aspects of behaviour change further highlight why ACT and the CDPs are such a powerful complement.

I encourage those I work with to reframe the notion of failure and think in terms of handling relapse. It has been shown empirically that whole cloth transformative change typically doesn’t happen. Successful behaviour change emerges step-by-step and involves the cyclical process of preparing to try – trying something new – and handling relapse between 3-5 times before a sustained change in behaviour begins to manifest.

And right here, David, I defer to your expertise and insight as an evolutionary scientist. I understand this as a form of variation-and-selection. Am I understanding this correctly?

DSW: Absolutely! B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning as a variation-and-selection process that results in behavioral change during the lifetime of the organism, similar to genetic change over evolutionary time. He called this “Selection by Consequences” and it is a fundamental insight, even if other aspects of the Skinnerian tradition were problematic. Our colleagues such as Steve Hayes and Tony Biglan have updated the tradition from a modern evolutionary perspective.  

RS: Yes, and when individuals and groups appreciate that relapse is utterly natural they are emboldened. It becomes a question of workability rather than failure in a crushing sense. They don’t lose touch with the value they are striving for in the wake of an effort that didn’t work. They say, “Oh well, that didn’t go so well? What else can we try?” This process of reflection and action has been particularly important for the team leaders. As I mentioned, I work a lot with teams of leaders who together are a team in their own right. I facilitate group coaching sessions with them in between the workshops involving all their team members. In these sessions we engage in meta reflection and evaluation. We explore how things have been working and what next, all through the lens of the CDPs.

DSW: Your work applying PROSOCIAL to multi-group organizations is pathbreaking. Importantly, organizations that use our Internet platform can emulate what you have done by creating a PROSOCIAL group composed of representatives of other PROSOCIAL groups. Your method also enables me to make an important point about the CDPs that was stressed by Lin Ostrom. They are functional principles and each of them can be implemented in many different ways. For example, monitoring is important for all groups but how to effectively monitor can be highly contextual and group-specific. Every group must therefore tinker with its own arrangements. That appears to be baked into your high-end implementation, right?

RS: Definitely! As I mentioned in my interview with Paul, in one of the government agencies we discussed, one of Canberra’s main cultural institutions, the monitoring that the Board, CEO and Executive engaged in was entirely different to that of the various divisions of the Agency, as you can imagine. These senior leaders assumed responsibility for taking a broader perspective on the work of the institution, which had them monitoring the relationships they were required to maintain with various strata of government and civil society, including the general public, schools and universities, and the other cultural institutions that shared the responsibility for maintaining and preserving Australia’s cultural heritage. On the other hand, within the various groups of the organisation, as they had been delegated more authority to self-regulate, there was an increased appetite to experiment with different ways of preserving and cultivating civic engagement through the activities of the museum. Monitoring in this space was primarily about tracking the success of various initiatives. So yes, the CDPs are baked into the work I do within organisations, the constellation of principles are implemented in utterly unique ways depending on the function of the group and the prevailing context.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the Matrix as a fast form of ACT training. Do you use the Matrix or some other method? Is Strategic Roadmapping different from ACT training or a form of ACT training? Is there a source where PROSOCIAL groups and facilitators can learn more about it?

RS: Yes, I do use a form of the Matrix to develop the psychological flexibility of individuals and groups; and, this is very different from Roadmapping.

I have taken the good work of Kevin Polk, who developed the Matrix, and extended it to help individuals and groups deal more effectively with competing commitments and identify choice points where they can test their understanding of challenging situations and try new behaviors. The process I employ invites participants to explore how four behaviours are working for them: 1) how they are observing and discriminating inner experience and important aspects of presenting situations; 2) describing what they see; 3) tracking their actions in relation to what they observe and describe; and, 4) valuing as a quality intrinsic to the first three behaviours – observing, describing and tracking. I see these behaviours as fundamental to the whole process of developing psychological flexibility and prosociality.

For an individual, group or entire organisation it is important they are able to observe and discriminate what is of value and track how they are performing in relation to that value. I strive to have those I am working with foreground the value that is embodied within each individual as well as infused within the preferred and probable futures they render for themselves as part of society as a whole. I use my version of the matrix to begin developing the necessary perspective-taking skills and verbal repertoire to describe value adequately at the various levels. The extent to which they can observe and describe what is of value is a necessary prelude to them being able to enact and bring it about.  

Roadmapping exercises broadly take the community through the process of answering three questions, “Based on what we value, where are we now? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” As I mentioned, the roadmapping process we use in our PROSOCIAL work is based on Technology Roadmapping developed by Matt Doolan with Cambridge University. You will find an example of a technology roadmap we did with the Australian rail industry here ‘On Track to 2040’. Matt and I have distilled this process into a series of key questions that are unpacked in a series of highly interactive workshops involving constellations of teams who share a common purpose. This process re-renders intractable social dilemmas and complex adaptive challenges as a set of interrelated, particularised and manageable local-level challenges. As far as I know we are the only university in the world to have integrated organizational and cultural sociology with systems engineering in this way. We are still refining this part of our work and look forward to making it available to others as we do.

DSW: PROSOCIAL emphasizes the importance of forming short-term actionable goals in addition to the more general mission and values of the group (CDP1). Short-term actionable goals can reinforce some of the CDPs, such as fair distribution of costs and benefits (CDP2, for example by assigning primary responsibility for each short-term goal to different group members), monitoring (CDP4, for example by developing clear metrics for accomplishing the goal) and so on. This is also a strong emphasis in your high-end application, right?

RS: Most definitely. In my opinion it is the ongoing process of goal setting in response to prevailing contexts that is important. Maybe we need to coin a new word here, we need to become experts at ‘reaiming’ as circumstances require. There are two contexts that need to be attended and responded too on an ongoing basis. Firstly, there is the symbolically rendered preferred and probable future; and, there is the ever changing current situation in relation to that future. ACT teaches us to hold onto these tapestries of thoughts, feelings and emotions lightly and to respond to them flexibly and in a value-directed way. The CDPs enable us to ‘reaim’ effectively as these contexts change. Simply, ACT and the CDPs provide a very practical and coherent framework for making sense of ourselves in situ and ‘reaiming’ toward what is important in the long run.

DSW: I was once criticized by a business executive for using a “Ready…Aim…Fire!” approach.  I’d like to think that I was using a reaiming approach, as you so nicely put it!  Returning to polycentric governance, how do you carve a large organization into groups? Do you rely on the existing group structure or do you have a way to reconfigure the group structure?

RS: In my work, shared purpose is the criterion that defines a group or group of groups. In some instances, the group/s already exist, in others the groups are formed to assume an emergent purpose. Without a shared purpose, any work in relation to the other CDPs remains in the abstract, which frustrates transfer-of-learning. I am not fully acquainted with the online system but I would assume that if the new PROSOCIAL group formed purely to learn and then translate the CDPs into an existing social system it may not be as effective as inviting a community of groups who already share a common, higher-order purpose into the PROSOCIAL process. Such an invitation would lead the community to author and enact responses specific to their shared purpose and employ the PROSOCIAL framework to design the things they have to do – apportion effort, make decisions, monitor performance, handle conflict, work with other groups, etc. This way PROSOCIAL is not the main game. The main game is defined by what is intrinsically important to the community and PROSOCIAL serves as the enabling process. By taking this approach I have observed the principles and practices of PROSOCIAL naturally embed themselves and become, “the way things are done around here”. Taking this forward, my next stage of interaction with the Australian Public Service may involve engagement with emergent groups that share a common, higher-order purpose. For example, the creation of prosocial groups involving external stakeholders who are not formally part of the existing system. These groups will, in effect, become polycentric higher-level groupings informing the activity of the key stakeholders within the APS.

DSW: Excellent advice. For me and most members of the PROSOCIAL Development Team, ACT and CDP have become second nature. We spontaneously view the world that way, which makes explicit instruction unnecessary. Have you observed something similar in the agencies that you worked with? In other words, can you imagine ACT and CDP becoming so much part of the culture and norms of an organization that it transmits itself?

RS: When I walk around the Agencies I have work with, the A2 size posters we prepared for the interactive workshops are stuck on the managers walls with fresh post-it notes all over them. In other instances, checklists have been turned into ready reckoners inside of the team leaders’ diaries. They refer to these reckoners during important discussions and planning sessions. I have had team leaders tell me how the principles they have learned have been absorbed into the way they think and do things. So yes, ACT and the CDPs have become part of the culture and norms of the organisation and I am observing them being further particularized and propagated in quite unique ways.

DSW: This conversion has been exceptionally useful for me and I’m sure it will be also for our readers. Given your success and that awesome comparison or before and after measure, have you been approached by other agencies or the Australian government as a whole? They’d be crazy not to see that you are in a position to improve the performance of the whole nation. There’s a heady thought for you!

RS: Yes, the innovative nature of this work is being recognized. Currently I am in discussion with several government departments and in each instance they are seeing this as a fresh approach to organizational development that not only includes the best of what they are already doing but transcends it. Also, the Australian Psychological Society has identified this work as exemplary best practice in the application organizational psychology in 2016 and again in 2018.

Your comment, “there’s a heady thought” drew an emotional response. The belief that this work could improve the performance of the whole nation is not a new one. My heartstrings are tugged each time I contemplate our future as a species and the way we are failing to look after each other and spaceship earth. The social, environmental, political and economic problems we are confronted with are seemingly intractable. We are confronted by apparently intractable dilemmas—environmental, social, economic and political. I have found that PROSOCIAL reframes these dilemmas such that those I have worked with have successfully perceive possible and necessary responses seated securely within their collective moral fiber. We are neither trapped in exorable dilemmas nor free of moral responsibility for creating and sustaining approaches that maintain our collective achievement of mutually beneficial outcomes. I believe it is our responsibility to build relationships based on trust and reciprocity, and to build these core values in and of themselves. PROSOCIAL provides us with the tools to do this. We can challenge the assumption that there is only one type of institution for dealing with the social dilemmas that confront us—those institutions in which individuals are reinforced for pursuing their own short term interests—and build communities where members learn to work together constructively with a set of governing principles (PROSOCIAL compacts) that align our personal and collective values and include sanctions for inappropriate behaviors and motivators for desired behaviors that will yield positive impact in the long-run.

Read more…