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How do you know?

 We want to make a difference.
We can do things more effectively.
I encounter these two comments fairly frequently in my work as an organizational consultant – my clients either have a vision for the change that they see as needed in the world around them, or they have a good sense of how things can be improved, to overcome sub-optimal conditions.
My response to these comments is often a question: “How do you know?
I don’t doubt that the sorts of changes that they can sense are necessary. But I am interested in ensuring that they, and their organizations, don’t simply put their efforts behind things that are based on a personal vision or a gut sense.  I would prefer that they act on the basis of evidence – the more solid, the better. I encourage them to have confidence that the issues in which they invest their time and resources are indeed the right issues, the ones that will bring about the improvements, the changes, the difference, that they seek in their organizations and in society.
Working in organizations to bring about societal change, we have to work with others and develop a shared view about priority needs and opportunities.  We will often have to use the arts of persuasion to win others over to our point of view. Yet the commitment to these priorities is likely to be stronger if it results from the process of dialogue, of discussions in which I offer my perspective of the needs, and I listen carefully to your perspective.  If I am willing to be persuaded by you, then you might be willing to be persuaded by me!

To avoid this dialogue breaking down into an argument about whose perspective is
‘correct’ or ‘better’, it helps if we are have some data to inform our discussion.  And in my experience, this data has more credibility if it is either prepared jointly or offered in a transparent manner.

This means that we need to be willing to engage in a process of shared analysis, prioritization and decision-making, resulting in a joint agreement on what improvements we will work to bring about.

To get to this point, we need to be willing to do the hard work of coming to an honest (and as accurate as possible) assessment of the current state of affairs. We need to be able to develop a realistic vision for how things might be, could be. And we need to be able to examine the gap between the current reality and our future vision, to understand not only how it came about, but also what forces prevent the vision from being realized.
An assessment like this can be done fairly quickly and easily by an individual. But this assessment may not persuade others, particularly if they are from other parts of the organization, or even from other organizations.

It seems to me that if the assessment is to have validity, it should ideally meet two criteria:

  • it should be conducted jointly and
  • both the data and the analysis should be transparent to others.
By joining with others, using reliable techniques and working in a transparent and participatory fashion, you will be in a much better position to say “This is why we know, so come and join our efforts…

In future posts, I will describe various resources that you can use to assess the current state, to develop a vision for the future, and to understand the dynamics of the gap between the two.

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