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Developing Future Products at a Large Food Manufacturer
By Mark Raymond

This case study features the work of Graham Taylor in a terrific application of the ontological methodology with a Research and Development (R&D) team in the food manufacturing industry. Graham has run his own leadership consultancy for 27 years, and completed the Diploma of Ontological Coaching in 2002. I first met Graham back in 2006 at the Newfield Conversational Technology post graduate program and was struck by his wisdom, enthusiasm and integrity.

The R&D team's primary purpose was to develop future products for the company. This involved liaising with the marketing department about customer preferences, and developing a range of potential products, which were short-listed for testing in the manufacturing plant. However, in a significant business breakdown, manufacturing saw their priority as filling existing product orders, rather than testing, and was at full capacity doing this. Consequently there was a bottleneck of untested potential products. The R&D Manager, who had a track record of developing people, saw this as not just an issue about not meeting testing KPIs but also an issue that was affecting the development and morale of his team. He engaged Graham to help him develop the influencing skills of the R&D staff to secure willing agreement from manufacturing to trial their new products and in the process, build the capability of his team.

In consultation with the R&D Manager, Graham facilitated a development program, which they called "Designing the Future". The program involved six full day workshops, each one month apart, to give people enough time to put things into practice. The entire R&D team (16 people), including the Manager, participated in the program. The content of the program involved ontological distinctions in having effective conversations that covered language, moods and emotions and body. Given that the ontological work was quite new for most of the participants, there was a danger of pushing through with new content at each workshop and not allowing the team to share their experiences and just ‘play’ with the material. To address this concern the learning style of the workshops involved refecting, sharing and debriefing in the morning and then new content in the afternoon. This helped embed the new ‘ways of being’. 

Before commencing the program, the R&D team thought that the problem resided with the manufacturing team - that they didn't listen, were aggressive, dismissive and weren't taking a whole of company view.

The first few workshops focussed on the specific language the team members used in their thinking and in conversations with others to describe the situation, as well as the types of conversations they engaged in with the people in manufacturing. R&D personnel soon realised that some of their language was counterproductive, effectively setting up their conversations for failure. Some team members were going into meetings thinking that the conversation would be a waste of time and that they wouldn’t be listened to, which was inevitably what happened. There was a 200 metre downhill walk from the R&D office to the manufacturing plant, during which the negative opinions and stories about manufacturing were played out, embedding negative thinking and feeding the mood of resignation. With team members taking more notice of their thinking, especially before conversations, and having a more constructive mind-set, the team began to see some improvements.

Before the program commenced, people would often vent and share negative opinions about others, to get things of their chest. While it was helpful in some instances to vent, it was having a negative impact on the team. Graham challenged the team’s use of language on two points: firstly, the trap of continuing to regard their opinions as being facts and secondly, whether their opinions could be substantiated. Sometimes there was solid evidence for opinions and many times there wasn’t. They also spent some time on linguistic acts (specific language patterns that generate action and outcomes), in particular making clear requests and responding to the requests of others, making offers, and sharing their opinions in a constructive way. People reported some successes, especially in making clearer requests and in standing their ground.

The next part of the program focussed on moods and emotions, and in particular how moods influence perception and behaviour and the notion that you can choose your moods. Many in the team were feeling resigned and angry about the situation, which was having an impact on their actions and decision making at work and also in their home-life. Graham explained some of the common moods and how this impacted on what you see as possible, and team members began to see and experience that you can set your moods and be proactive.

According to Graham, the biggest breakthrough came when team members were introduced to distinctions in the body and posture. Graham invited team members to notice their own posture and give feedback to others, and practised configuring their postures in ways that resulted in them performing at their best, standing their ground, while at the same time being open to the views of others. One of the techniques that Graham used he learnt in doing the Diploma of Ontological Coaching, which is to have people stand and imagine an invisible piece of string coming from the top of their head to the ceiling and also from their sternum to the ceiling. 

Body and posture awareness had a major impact on many in the team, because as Graham says, our thinking and our moods become embodied. Team members used the 200 metre walk to prepare themselves for their conversations - to get into a resourceful posture, predetermine their mood, think positively about what might happen, and had a much stronger sense of purpose.  Over time they were amazed with the results they were achieving - according the R&D Manager, "the team was flying". They didn't get better outcomes overnight but they felt much more empowered and in control. They were standing their ground in conversations, and listening more openly and with far less bias, were looking at people's faces rather than the ground, and were being clearer in their requests and the outcomes they wanted. They then got the manufacturing time they needed to test their products.

The powerful aspect about this program was that it was 100% about the people in the R&D team, and not about solving the "problem" with the people in manufacturing - it was them seeing the situation in a different way - observing differently -and then being more skilled in conversations that made the difference. 

One of the most satisfying aspects of the program for Graham was the difference it made in people's important relationships outside of work. A number of the staff reported both publically to the group and privately to Graham how the program had improved their family life – there were reports of being more self-aware, more caring, more effective listeners and clearer speakers. Some even reported that their partners had noticed significant shifts in how they conducted themselves and asked ‘What are you covering in that program?’

A big learning for Graham was the power of body and posture in making all of this happen, which is a critical piece in the jig-saw of how people learn and change that is often missed. When asked if he could sum up what he thought the engagement did for the R&D team, Graham replied, "together they discovered invisible influences they couldn't see before, and how to control and manage those influences to get the results they wanted. It's a bit like looking at a map of the world, and seeing a small part, and then looking at it again, and seeing it differently. In all of this, the event didn't change, but to the team's credit they chose to view it differently and act differently."

© Newfield Institute

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