New Jersey Department of Human Services

SITUATION

New Jersey DHS is charged with protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens.  DHS employed over 23,000 employees, operated with an annual budget of $10 billion, and served one million people every day.  The agency was in the spotlight.  Tragic high-profile cases in the child protection division received CNN and Good Morning America coverage, and two Law and Order episodes "ripped from the headlines" depicted agency failures to protect foster children.  It was a tough place to work.  Every DHS employee knew it could be their own division in the news.  Some admitted to leaving for work early just to avoid facing their neighbors after the latest crisis hit the news. 

The governor appointed a new commissioner, a man whose leadership and true caring went a long way to support employees.  The commissioner heard about Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and decided it could be a powerful tool to improve the culture of the organization.  He contracted with Weiss Consulting to "infuse and embed" AI in the Department.

RESULTS

We trained and provided technical assistance to 65 employees who learned to reframe problems to possibilities through the principles and practices of Appreciative Inquiry.  An appreciative perspective was infused through the organization and embedded in its training and development function.  Within 6 months over 2,000 employees had participated in major appreciative projects throughout the Department.

The internal training department now carries the appreciative perspective into all training programs and consultations.  AI has been used for the most intractable challenges because of its power to make people feel heard and valued while propelling them toward workable improvements.  Ironically, the child protection division did not participate in the first round of training and technical assistance.  However within a few months they welcomed the help of DHS trainers, who used AI to frame a critical new supervisory training program.  In another division facing significant challenges, 95% of the staff participated in AI summits honoring the best of their division and articulating their visions for the future.  Yet another division celebrated their 25 year anniversary with an AI summit that set the agenda for their ongoing professional development priorities, grounded in their positive core.

A new governor has been elected and the commissioner has been replaced.  His legacy lives on in the people of the Department.  One middle manager volunteered in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, using AI to manage a homeless shelter.  Many employees took AI personally, bringing appreciative interviews to family reunions or reframing their response to a family crisis to confront the situation positively.  Instead of spinning their wheels reacting to a problem, executives identify what is working and expand on the strengths in the system. 

WEISS CONSULTING APPROACH

Our approach included training, individual and group projects, and technical assistance.  Our team of Lonnie Weiss, Nancy Aronson, Jill Golde and Ferne Kuhn developed a four day course in Appreciative Inquiry.  The first two days introduced AI principles and theory and practices that focused on each person as a leader of positive change.  The second two days launched AI projects across the Department.  Projects included improving an early intervention program in partnership with provider agencies, increasing internal capacity to make meetings accessible for staff with disabilities, and improving the level of employee appreciation within a division. 

After the initial training we implemented several approaches to reinforce the basic learning.  We provided technical assistance, coaching and consulting to the cadre of new AI practitioners.  This included consulting to project teams, special topic training on particular competencies, and two follow up technical assistance days that reinforced skills while deepening connections across the divisions.  In addition, we provided strong scaffolding support to the internal training and consulting team, involving them in technical assistance efforts and preparing them to carry the torch after our contract was over.  They quickly became the champions of the appreciative approach.  All these methods combined to embed the AI competencies in the people of the Department, who will be there through any number of political shifts and changes in top positions.

Additional information about our work at DHS can be found at the AI Reading section of this site.