Organisation development agency OneBeat has been bringing corporate engagement techniques, used at the United Nations and companies such as Apple and Walmart, from the United States to Wellington.
Government ministries, businesses undergoing mergers and companies wanting to boost staff motivation levels have hired it to improve operations.
Business consultants Terry Stewart, a former Ernst & Young accountant, and Chapman Tripp consultant David Patterson, set up OneBeat after being inspired by how the appreciative inquiry technique had brought the public and private sectors together in the United States city of Cleveland.
The appreciative inquiry method used there, popularised by Case Western University organisational behaviour professor David Cooperrider, asks firms to look at their positive qualities and include all levels of staff in brainstorming and decision-making.
"David [Patterson] and I started out looking at leadership in New Zealand, particularly focused on civil service, and thinking if we had good leadership would we get more achievement and good outcomes rather than people pushing things around and around in circles and not achieving very many results - this being a casual observation of the public sector in New Zealand over a 20-year period," Stewart said.
The approach works by bringing staff from all levels of an organisation into the same room for sessions that can last from a few hours to a few days to develop a new strategic plan. Every person in the business is given a voice, by working in small groups during the sessions so that all staff have a chance to speak.
Patterson said appreciative inquiry came from making inquiries into what the strengths of an organisation were, what the staff appreciated about being there and using that to create a positive vision for the future.
"I've run into some challenging situations where analytical people think it is really warm and fuzzy, but at end they come out absolutely engaged and enthused. People say they find it very empowering."
While younger staff often suggested getting pay rises and taking more holidays, they usually exercised reasonable levels of responsibility.
Stewart said that essentially it was a concept of democracy. "I think it's a complete fallacy that one or two people at the top of an organisation can come up with what's best for the whole organisation."
Typically when strategic plans are being developed, management formulates a plan they then share with the rest of the business, asking staff to get on board to support the concept. Appreciative inquiry is based around the whole system of a business including board management, staff and suppliers.
"It is strengths based, rather than talking about all the problems, issues, weaknesses . . . [It is] what has gone right in the past, what the organisation's strengths are that we need to build to do more of the things that are going well."
In his experience in project management and consulting, Stewart found most New Zealand businesses were mediocre at staff engagement and some were downright dysfunctional.
"Occasionally I come across a company where all its staff are engaged and energised, people love coming to work, but that's a rarity. When I do come across it, I wonder what is it about them that makes them unique. It always comes back to building on strengths involving everyone."
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