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Change Leadership - Innovation - Creative Thinking

Reverse Union Thinking


Below is an extract from the Big Project, which was carried out by one of the students Amanda taught on the Creativity, Innovation and Change module at Warwick Business School.

Here at Company X (client confidentiality) we have a heavily unionised workforce represented by different unions with different bargaining agreements. We currently have three agreements covering the 5000 Engineering staff. Each agreement constitutes between 100-140 pages of highly restrictive practices and there is no flexibility of staff across agreements. These agreements date back 15-24 years. The workforce is largely resistant to change and I feel that the old outdated way of working, strictly in accordance with highly complex and outdated agreements, is now serving to limit individual and team performance to a point that is making us uncompetitive in the ever increasingly competitive global market.

The Creativity Technique - Reverse Brainstorming
I decided to use the reverse statement: How can we go out of business as quickly as possible? I selected the reverse brainstorm as it is a simple process to understand and can be practically used with a fairly large diverse group of staff.

I particularly felt that it would be a safe lead-in for some of our trade union members to engage in, as the opening title is rather humorous, but at the same time would likely capture the real issues at the heart of our business.

So What Happened?
A clear linkage to the need for change was essential for this group and so linkage to business plan right up front was essential. I explained that I would be facilitating this session and as such it was wholly dedicated to capturing their ideas as to how we could transform our business to become highly competitive.

The Reverse Brainstorm
I briefly described that the good part of this technique is that there are few rules other than we should not critique ideas at this stage. We can build upon others ideas and that it is all about quantity of ideas and that the follow-on stage of filtering is where we will determine the quality. I made them aware that as we were using reverse brainstorming, a seemingly insignificant idea could turn out to be much more significant when reverse engineered - so don't hold back!

I facilitated the process using flip charts and over a period of about 40-50 minutes (largely due to our inability not to critique others ideas) we had captured four flip charts worth of ideas. We then mapped each idea to a separate page and reversed it.

Reverse brainstorming was a great technique to use. It did require strong and continued facilitation, as there is a great tendency to evaluate and critique the ideas as they arise. However I believe the best feature is the reverse format as not only does it drive the brain to take a different perspective and thus possibly discover an idea that might not have been considered, it is also a powerful way of dealing with a topic that has a lot of emotional baggage in a less hostile way ie... starting with the how bad could we make it approach naturally tends to lighten the event and leads you nicely into the more thorny subjects when you reverse it.

Following the innovation workshop and given the potentially volatile nature of the work we had undertaken if not properly communicated to the 5000 engineering staff (it had been over 15 years since anyone had tried to reach a single new agreement let alone sweep away all three previous agreements) we agreed that we should issue a joint statement.

A Memorandum of Understanding was decided upon and jointly signed by myself as the Management chief negotiator for Engineering and the staff side Trade Union Convenor.

Many thanks to the author for allowing the use of this. It was a really great outcome for him. He asked for the Company and himself to be anonymous.

They say...

I felt ultimately that a new fresh innovative approach was needed if we were to be able to break out of the stranglehold that years of old fashioned industrial bargaining and entrenched values had given us.

To say I am delighted with the result would be a huge understatement. To have a 'Memorandum of Understanding' signed by all the Trade Union groups, along with the Board sign-off to this approach in itself is a monumental step forward.