Change (Real Change) Begins With Individuals

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: I know the basis of your work was inquiry. Can you give an example and overview of how the process worked and why it often resulted in surprises? And why was your process considered so unusual from what was available at the time?

JM: To explain how this typically worked, I’ll use the example of a manufacturing company I worked with. This was a company in Detroit, Michigan, about five hundred employees. They manufactured parts for the automobile industry. I was asked to come in by the president of the company and lead a three day workshop on team-building for his eight executives. I always start where the client is, even though I’ve learned from experience that team-building or whatever they claim is the solution is generally not what is needed. If you tell them that outright, they’ll kick you out. So in the beginning, I would say something like, “Ok, good. I have a lot of experience in team-building.” Then I gently start into my process of inquiry, asking questions, simple questions just to get a general picture of the people involved. For example, I would ask him to describe the eight executives, what departments they represent, what their personalities are like, how they work together, that sort of thing. And as he is doing this, what am I paying attention to? His way of speaking, his behavior, attitude, and also at the same time, I’m focusing on building a relationship of trust. It’s important that I develop a relationship of trust. Without it, nothing works. It means building a relationship of openness. And another key area that I get into and watch all during the inquiry process is motivation. It’s so important to so much of what I get into. Motivation is absolutely important and critical for change. Without motivation, there can be no transformation.

BW: Can you clarify what you mean by transformation? And also motivation?

JM: Well, we’re helping a person go through transformation—in more simple terms, change. I just chose the word transformation because that’s a word that is used a lot these days. A long time ago, my process was called the ‘achievement process’ or the ‘problem-solving process’ or something along those lines. People came up with all sorts of terms for the process because nobody understands the process. So I just chose the word ‘transformation’ because this is what we’re doing. We’re helping a person go through transformation. We’re helping a person change, transform. And for transformation to occur, there has to be motivation. So I will ask the president something like, “Well, this could be a great step to get into—team-building. Tell me what you would like to accomplish with this workshop on team-building.” And this is an important question, a key question. I search for what the person wants to accomplish because if I can find that, guess what? It triggers his motivation. Deeply. And so the president said something like, “I want them to stop fighting. I want them communicating better with each other. They need to cooperate more.” And he mentioned all the typical things that people think of as team-building. So slowly we are just going back and forth, but a lot is going on. I’m building a relationship of trust and openness and at the same time I’m observing him as we continue to discuss team-building. Then, eventually, I will ask him, “So what are you doing now to help them with team-building?” And, in this case, right away he said, “Well, here’s the thing—I’m doing everything I know to do and they still can’t cooperate or work well together.” So I asked, “What are some of the things that you do?” So he described what he did. For example, he had a staff meeting with the eight executives. He sat at the head of the table and said to them, “I want you to stop your fighting! You guys are gonna have to learn to work together and collaborate!“ And then as he went on talking about it, I’m noticing, “Hey, this guy has a lot of bottled up anger. He seems very angry, frustrated.” But obviously, I don’t say that to him right then. Instead, I pay a lot of attention to the way he expresses himself, his behavior, and emotions—it’s key for me. Then I ask the biggie, a key question. I’ll say something like, “Well, this is interesting, everything you’re doing to improve the teamwork and you seem to be working very hard at it. But does it work? And this is typical—every time, without fail, they say, “No. It doesn’t work.” So then I ask him, “What do you think are all the things that are preventing your efforts from working? What are the obstacles?” You see, I’m opening up a search. Asking what he thinks are the obstacles is critical. So he’ll start to explain. He’ll start with one problem and in describing that problem—say conflict between departments—in passing, another problem emerges. That’s when the floodgates open and the real picture emerges. Such as a rejection rate of 12% in manufacturing, when the rejection rate should be around two and a half, three percent. This is a problem that translates into millions of dollars that a ‘three day workshop’ on team-building isn’t going to fix. So in the process of this gentle inquiry, big problems come out—the cat is let out of the bag so to speak. And so the real picture is emerging. The specifics and the reality versus the vague generalities. And so this is one of the purposes of the Socratic approach—to get people to think differently and gain insights. To see the problem or problems in a different way, to have new eyes, to gain a real awareness of what is going on. So now we have a momentum going and this inquiry moves along steadily and the president is starting to open up and gain all sorts of insights. After several sessions of this inquiry, the president had a completely different view and perspective on what the whole issue was. He began to realize there were major problems throughout the company. For one, the rejection rate was translating into a five million dollar loss for the company. So, at this point, when he asked something like, “Do you think team-building for the eight executives will help us save the five million?” And now I can very easily say, with no reservations, no beating around the bush, “No, it won’t.” But you have to have a relationship of trust before you can say something like that. Because I took the time to develop the relationship of trust, now he is very eager, enthusiastic or I should say, very motivated. Now I can say something like, “This problem of the rejects is costing you five million dollars—do you want to fix that?”  Of course he answers, “Good God, yes!” So now we are able to talk openly about the problem and address it for what it is. Now he is asking me, “So what do you think will help us save the five million?” You can feel his motivation. But I’m getting around to the main point here—the most important outcome of the whole inquiry process is about to occur. Eventually, after quite a few meetings with the president, we had a key meeting with the eight executives and the president. I generally like to have a meeting in which everyone can just talk things out, express what they’re feeling, that sort of thing, and in that meeting, we were talking about a particular manufacturing problem, and the president and some of the executives suddenly gained insight into their own behavior and how it was affecting the problem, and they literally, at one point, sat back and said, “Hey, you know what? We’re the problem.” So that was a critical meeting. Really the most important outcome of the whole inquiry process. And from that moment on, we began to gain more and more clarity and insight into how they were failing in areas of responsibility, authority, and accountability and how their leadership, ways of relating to other people weren’t working. So that was the beginning of a major transformation process. It began with the leaders. But this was a process that took a long time—in this case four years—a lot of details involved in those four years of work—and maybe the most important outcome—they got the reject rate down to 2% in manufacturing.

BW: So long story short, change and improvement in the company didn’t occur until these key people realized and admitted they were the problem and were willing to change.

JM: Yes. That was what was so radical and different about my approach at the time. There were other consultants at the time, but they typically had a ‘bottom up’ approach, meaning, it was all about improving performance in the lower ranks. There was little to no focus on the upper ranks, as if they were never the problem. My approach was the complete opposite—change in an organization began with the leadership. It wasn’t that people didn’t need to change in the lower ranks, but leadership by the sheer weight of its authority, accountability, and responsibility had to be addressed just as much, if not more. And also my focus was the individual and individual transformation. Change in the company began with change in individuals.

BW: How do you affect change in a person?

JM: Well, here’s the thing. You can’t. Number one, they have to have a willingness to change and then motivation to change. Unearthing motivation was a key part of my work. And the motivation has to be authentic. The best motivation comes from within. The worst motivation is a threat or an ultimatum. With some clients, the approach doesn’t work because they are too attached to their identity or whatever agenda they have or their egos are too big. No amount of process is going to make them want to change.

BW: How can you tell if someone is open to change or not?

JM: My approach was getting the person to talk about their situation, the problem that they were coping with. And in the process of getting them to describe the situation thoroughly, it’s possible to bring in questions during that interview. I don’t necessarily ask a direct question like, “Are you open to change?” Because they can say, “Yes.” and not be. So I sort of have a whole bunch of questions that I keep weaving in and out of the conversation which helps me find out more what he will do and what he won’t do. It’s very difficult to describe. Let’s say that a company had brought me in because there was a specific, complex problem that they were not able to resolve. And so in the beginning, I would get the president to just talk about the situation and as I listened —and I’m a very good listener—I would intuitively think of questions to ask him. And I think I had a whole range of questions. And they were based a lot on what I was hearing. For example, if a president is talking about a major problem, we’ll say at the department level, I might be asking him to describe the problem fully. And in doing that, I would find out how much he knows about the real underlying causes of the problem, or not. Because most of the time, they’re dealing with symptoms. Very few people are trained in finding underlying causes. So let’s just say that out of the discussion, bit by bit, the picture begins to emerge and I can begin to see that the department heads are struggling with some major problems that the president needs to be involved in. So a typical question on my part, which is partly evaluating him, is, “To what extent are you involved in helping the department managers solve this?” And if he replies, “Well, I’m spending a lot time with them.” Then I have a question like, “What are you doing?” And when he begins to describe what he’s doing, I don’t criticize it, but I would ask, “Is it working?” Invariably, he would say that it is not working. So a key question that comes next that is a part of my evaluation is, “Well, if it’s not working, and the situation is this critical, are you interested in learning some new skills, new abilities to solve the problem?” Now if he says, “No. That’s what I brought you in for.” I would say, “I’m not the person that can solve your problem, but I can help you solve your problem.” And he might say, “Well, I’m not involved in that way.” I’m beginning to learn about him. So my next question might be, “Are you interested in learning how to be involved and solve the problem?” And he might say, “You mean, I need to get involved?” I’ll tell him, “Yes.” And the way he responds will tell me a lot. So if he responds in good spirit, I might say, “Are you interested in learning more about ways to deal with the problem.” And if says, “Yes,” then I say, “Well OK, if you’re interested in learning, as you learn, are you interested in taking a look at your habits, your normal ways of leading and managing, and making some changes as necessary?” That’s a key question. And if he says, “Yeah, I really want to learn, but why should I have to change?” Then I know that there might be a blockage here. On the other hand, if he says, “I’m willing to learn anything that will help me resolve the problem and if it requires me to change some of my habits, yes, I will do it.” So I have a series of: questions; listening; questions; listening which over a period of maybe an hour or two, will let me know whether I want to work with the person or not. And there’s a lot of other things I’d be getting into, but that would be too long to go into here.

BW: So it sounds like it was unique to each situation.

JM: Every situation and every president is different. I might have to spend two or three hours with a new client in order to get a feeling of whether I could work with them or not. It didn’t necessarily happen quickly. And I’d have to do a lot of thinking as to what I would do in a typical interview because my interviews with new clients varied a great deal. But basically I would be watching their language, behavior, way of thinking, habits—anything that came up really—and intuitively evaluate whether they are open to learning, open to change, in other words teachable. So in my first interview I would usually find out whether the president was open to really changing and learning and becoming a better leader and a better manager. And if he was not motivated in those directions, usually, I would not work with him. During my career, I turned down many clients. Early in my career, I took anything, because I needed the work, but later, as time went on, I got more and more selective.

BW: So after you decided to work with someone, inquiry continued to be the basis of your work.

JM: Yes, because even if you have a client who is willing to change, you can’t say at the beginning, “Hey, this is your problem as I see it, or I doubt that team building will work,” or anything along those lines, because that is generally bound to create resistance, even hostility, especially if you haven’t taken the time to build a relationship of trust. That’s the beauty and effectiveness of inquiry. You’re helping a person to realize things on their own, as opposed to you lecturing them, or telling them what you think the problem is. If you’re just, in a gentle way, asking questions, then the truth emerges and they have their big “Aha” moments on their own. They realize and discover on their own what the actual problems are. When they come to the realizations on their own, they are much more motivated to change. Because it’s not someone telling them what to do. They realize on their own—“Wow, I’m the problem,” and in turn, the company’s problems. But this is a long, slow process—the change doesn’t happen overnight. And the process of inquiry—it’s a lot harder than it sounds. My understudy—it was twelve years before he felt he could apply the process.

BW: But you don’t practice psychology.

JM: I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I mentored people with psychology degrees, and very often they had to unlearn a lot before they could become effective in this field. Too often they were overloaded with theory and information and they had to go back to their native instincts. After many years of doing this, I realize this is a process that’s unique to each situation.

BW: In other words, this is not something formulaic.

JM: Right. Though people are always looking for something formulaic. At the time I was consulting, other consulting organizations were selling, and I’m sure they still do, preplanned programs or what could be called ‘off-the-shelf’ package solutions, but I feel they can be misleading or a blind alley or a distraction. The inconvenient fact is, every person has their unique set of issues and problems. To be real simple about it, people are usually blocked by emotion. And fear. Fear is big. But this is unique to each person, each situation. We also carry with us all sorts of mental attitudes and beliefs. And these affect our behavior and decisions. It all begins with choice. We all have choices. We can choose to act the way we act. We can choose the things that come out of our mouths. We can choose to be forgiving. We’re constantly making choices, decisions, all the time. So it is in the simple, everyday decision-making process where real change is occurring. And this comes from within an individual. But the person in question has to be willing to change. I can’t or no one can, for that matter, manufacture a willingness to change. That is something voluntary. Key point I’m making here—the desire to change is everything. Transformation isn’t possible unless the person has made that choice, decision. The person has to be open to change. Be willing to change. That in itself is a choice, decision.