The Qi Effect: How to unlock the power of interaction

By Alison Reynolds and David Lewis


Through each of the chapters we take the reader on a journey exploring the philosophy, the principles, the behaviours and the benefits of Qi. We provide the reader with a simple diagnostic to assess their current Qi performance. We conclude with practical examples of how to put Qi in to practice, where it is lacking and wherever it can improve outcomes for people.

Part One: Principles of Qi

Chapter One: The Execution Gap

How many times have you heard the modern business mantra ‘people are our most important asset’ and ‘we live in a knowledge economy’? Yet still we behave as if the opposite were true by treating people as human resources, as a means to an end. In doing so, we allow knowledge to become trapped in organizational silos or undermined through stereotyping others – the curse of the single narrative.

Our research into the ‘execution gap’ reveals that when you ask executives where they focus their attention during strategy execution, the answer is on organizational structure, hierarchy and processes. When you ask them what in their experience are the biggest barriers to execution, the answer is interaction. This is the ‘Tyranny of the Tangible’ at work. We allow ourselves to be diverted to the tangible, easily measurable actions in our desired for control and our rush to demonstrate progress. The result is a further deterioration in the quality of interaction, strengthening of the single narrative and reinforcing the silos. We need to focus first on the intangibles, people, their feelings, their relationships, agency, intentions and obligations.

Here we will introduce our foundations for establishing Qi to enhance performance:

  • Thinkversity : difference in approach to and engagement with change, unrelated to gender, ethnic or generational differences, but critical to creating value and performance
  • Psychological Safety : an environment within which a person feels able to express their ideas and perspectives openly
  • Dual Perspective : the ability to make timely transitions between asserting your own point of view and exploring and integrating other’s perspectives.

Our core concept is summarised in an easy to understand 4-box model, underpinned by research and illustrated by examples. We describe each of the four states in the model - Defensive, Oppositional, Uniform, and Generative - and set up the question of how to hit the Generative sweet spot.

We live in a relational economy. Only if we understand relationships and how to release the knowledge inherent in You and I can we fully prosper, flourish and generate value.

Chapter Two: You, I and Us

A relationship comprises You, I and the space that we occupy together. This is Us. What I think about You and what you think about Me determines our relationship, our Us’ness. It shapes the choices we make and the reactions we have and how we make sense of our world.

The key to understanding the role of Us in sense making is to understand the idea of personhood. What it is to be a person, as opposed to a non-person or an object. It is surprising how much of our organizational structures and management processes are constructed as if we were objects, non–persons, human resources. Persons are sense-making beings; objects are not, persons have intentions, objects do not.

We seek to understand what is important, what we can expect from others, what others expect from us, what works, what does not work and the extent to which we will be able to realise our intentions. We seek to make sense of the state we are in, our context and what it means for us.

Our understanding of Us, what we are together, is the way we understand:

  • Our emotions as an expression of the extent to which our intentions are thwarted or fulfilled in our current state.
  • Our behaviour as an expression of our drive to realise our intentions and the medium through which the sense of Us emerges
  • Our state as a description of the context we find ourselves in.

Behaviour is the visible manifestation of Us. But what it means is determined by our gut sense of what is going on, our intuition.

Chapter Three: Intuition

Intuition comes before rational inquiry. Jonathan Haidt’s work shows when faced with other people, their behaviour and what they say, we start with an intuitive sense of what is going on. From this intuition we decide what is the right response, and if challenged we then defend with post-hoc rational argument. Attempts to change our initial ‘intuitive’ position through rational counter argument rarely works. We see this in a business simulation based on the Monty Hall problem that we run regularly with executive teams. Here, we explain the simulation and the typical behaviour and its implications. We explore Haidt’s model and its application to Qi.

If we want people with different views, thinking styles etc., to get together to solve problems and deliver projects we need to find other ways than pure reason to create shared understanding.

We need to communicate to reveal our differences and to do things together to discover new things and create shared experiences. If we want people to commit to work together we have to connect with where they are coming from and create a space around us that holds the prospect of each of us realising our intentions.

Chapter Four: Intentions

Here we will explore intentions, embodying agency, projects and esteem.

We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge others by their behaviour. Worse still we judge whole groups by their ‘typical behaviour’ (stereotypes, single narratives). There are good reasons why we do this. In much of our history with competition for resources between tribal groups, behaviour was the first contact. Behaviour had to be interpreted as friendly or hostile, pretty quickly. There was no time to discuss intentions!

Unfortunately, we have carried this habit into our organizational lives with tribal categorising of those ‘against us’ and those ‘for us’, perpetrators and resistors, sponsors and anti- sponsors, touchy feely people and hard nosed people …..this categorisation becomes particularly rife when we feel we need ‘buy in’ and are trying to lead or implement change.

This single narrative of others (or groups) leads to objectification and gives rise to the fashionable exercise of stakeholder management i.e. identifying different stakeholder groups and developing distinct tailored plans for each group to bring them into line. When we do this we fail to see people as a source of co-creation. We already have the answer. We classify them in terms of 1) their criticality to realising our objective (means to an end) and 2) our perception of their disposition towards our ideas - for or against. If against, and critical, we seek to manage their emotions and change their behaviour to suit our intentions.

This approach to stakeholder management is a containment exercise at best. It lacks any deep sustainable sense of co-creation and mutual commitment. Its fundamental paradigm is ‘one to many’ i.e. one person or a small group (usually the top) are seeking to change many others. This inevitably leads to the all too familiar controlling, hierarchical and directive management behaviours that our research shows undermines performance. What is needed is a model based on ‘many to many’ interactions and an understanding of the behaviours that facilitate thinkversity, psychological safety and dual perspective, and the behaviours that undermine these.

Chapter Five: The Behaviours that Count

Our research finds that high levels of psychological safety, thinkversity and dual perspective i.e. the Generative quadrant in our 4 box model, correlates with perceived adaptability. This led us to explore differences in the dominant behaviours between those organizations appearing in the Generative quadrant and those in the other three (Oppositional, Uniform and Defensive.)

We found curiosity, experimenting and nurturing to be the most frequently cited behaviours in the Generative quadrant but virtually absent in the other three.

We found hierarchical, controlling and directive behaviours to be virtually absent in the Generative quadrant but the most frequently cited behaviours in the other three.

We go on to present and explore an emerging paradox in current management thinking – that staff engagement and commitment are a barrier to successful execution. This belief has given rise to the modern industry of engagement surveys and subsequent initiatives that organizations increasingly engage in.

Our research finds that commitment, engagement and pride are not differentiators with respect to adaptability – they feature strongly in all four of the quadrants. Across our survey population, commitment, pride and engagement are in fact the most frequently cited emotions across all quadrants. We identify and explore a misguided focus on correcting what is deemed to be ‘lacking’ in others. We draw a comparison with the proliferation of values programmes and challenge the rationale on which they are founded. When organizations launch values programmes the implication is that people have the wrong values. In reality, people are committed, engaged, and proud and have good values. What they don’t have is an environment that enables them to excel. Our experience, our research and the outcomes of our cooperative inquiries illustrate that values are not the problem, but that people are handicapped by an environment dominated by hierarchical, controlling and directive behaviours.

The following three chapters will explore each of the behaviours that count with a focus on cultivating each as a sustainable habit of interaction.

Each chapter will follow the same format

§ What the research indicated

§ Stories from the cooperative inquiries we run around cultivating each behaviour. What did people notice? How did it impact business outcomes and strategy execution over time?

§ How each behaviour relates to the three Qi foundations – thinkversity, psychological safety, and dual perspective.

§ How to make them habits

Part Two: The Art and Practice of Qi

Chapter Six: The Curiosity Habit

· What the research indicated

· Stories from the field (different industries including start ups, the Creative Industry, Engineering, Government, Retail)

§ How curiosity relates to thinkversity, psychological safety and dual perspective

§ Cultivating the curiosity habit – insights from inquiries

Curiosity is the foundation for understanding others and creating projects and roles for each other that can deliver growth and performance. The curious person is attracted to difference, enjoys learning from others and the creative process of shaping outcomes in which different people’s intentions can be both generative and fulfilled. When people are curious they want to know what they don’t know; they want to know what you know.

Curious people act with free will, they choose to inquire, they choose to change their mind, and they choose to see things differently in response to the insights, needs, and agency of others.

We are born curious. We are taught to be less so and warned against the dangers. ‘Curiosity killed that cat”. We can reawaken the habit and retrain ourselves by using different language, by asking different questions, and before we know it, we will be hearing new perspectives and our world of possibilities will expand.

You are not defined by your past and your future is not decided. Be curious and exercise your free will. Get off the beaten path.

Chapter Seven: The Nurturing Habit

§ What the research indicated

§ Stories from the field (different industries including start ups, the Creative Industry, Engineering, Government, Retail)

§ How nurturing relates to thinkversity, psychological safety and dual perspective

§ Cultivating the nurturing habit – insights from inquiries

Nurture has its origins in the Latin ‘nurture’, to feed or cherish and involves the care or protection of something while it is growing. In the world of strategy execution where there is a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, people and ideas need to be in a constant state of growth and development. No person, no strategy, product or service is the finished article.

Caroline Dweck introduced the notion of growth mind-set, the idea that performance is not related to a lack of ability but related to effort expended and thus within an individual’s gift to affect. Dweck and her team ran a now famous experiment to explore the performance of elementary school children. They told teachers that a group of children were of high ability, the teachers believed in their ability, and the performance of the children improved compared to a control group. This is known as the attribution affect.

When we nurture individuals and we believe in them, their ideas and their abilities grow. When we nurture people’s ability to express themselves we support human flourishing. We need all our people and all our ideas to be cared for and protected to grow and develop successfully – to be nurtured.

Caroline Dweck’s research demonstrates to us the power of attribution, the tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits alone. This underplays the power of the environment and interactions with others to affect an individual’s performance. If we attribute the capability of growth to people and nurture them accordingly they will grow. When we nurture the seeds of ideas we cultivate value.

Chapter Eight: The Experimenting Habit

§ What the research indicated

§ Stories from the field (different industries including start ups, the Creative Industry, Engineering, Government, Retail)

§ How experimenting relates to thinkversity, psychological safety and dual perspectives

§ Cultivating the experimenting habit – insights from inquiries

Most Senior Executives, if they have been on a development programme in the last ten years will have embarked on the famous Spaghetti Tower exercise. The lessons from the exercise are stark; kindergarten children consistently outperform CEOs and talented MBA students when asked to build a spaghetti tower that can support the weight of a single marshmallow. Why? Because five-year olds behave in a different way, they choose prototyping and action over analysis and planning. The majority of organizations understand the importance of experimentation and many are shifting to agile approaches. But while most leaders understand the importance of experimentation, the majority find it hard to embed experimentation as a permanent way of being. Mostly, it is seen as a process to be applied in specific circumstances. For instance, we see special project teams convening to design and run ‘experiments’ or separate business units being set up to experiment with new strategies, products and business models. Whilst these are brilliant initiatives and create learning opportunities, they isolate experimentation from the day-to-day reality. Experimentation is rarely cultivated in business as usual behaviour. Our focus is on exploring the habits that help us make experimenting not just a way of tackling a specific problem but a way of being - an integral part of who we are and how we respond to the new, uncertain, complex situations we find ourselves in permanently.

Chapter Nine: Forgiveness

Putting these Generative habits, curiosity, experimenting and nurturing into practice is a learning journey. Inevitably we will make mistakes, misjudge situations, misunderstand or even frustrate each other. Under pressure we will lapse in to old more familiar behaviours. And in our frustration with others we may revert to the single narrative, objectification of others and consequently our relationships will become strained.

Without the ability to forgive the powerful dynamic of the generative behaviours will decay. In this chapter, we will explore the structure of forgiveness as a process between people related to intentions, emotions, free will and renewal. We position forgiveness as the fundamental reparative process to sustain Qi.

Chapter Ten: Qi in Action

In this chapter we will further illustrate the principles and behaviours of Qi through practical applications in business and elsewhere. We will include client examples and stories from a range of sectors and global locations including start-ups and corporates. We will provide principles and techniques to enhance Qi and examples of questions to ask.

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