Appreciative Inquiry is an organizational change process that can be very successful. But I often get asked why the process doesn’t spend time identifying and trying to fix problems, “Doesn’t focusing on the positive give an unrealistic picture of an organization?” Or, “Only looking at what works is a very slanted view of our organization.”
I experience Appreciative Inquiry as being an adaptable process that creates opportunity to build relationships, allow all voices to be heard, and gives people permission to have fun and be proud of their accomplishments.
Yet operating out of an appreciative framework won’t make any more difference than reading most self-help books. Having a one to three-day event where everyone walks away feeling good doesn’t do any more for an organization than thinking positive thoughts for five minutes at the beginning of the workday. Reading positive blog posts is not all that valuable.
A question often used in Appreciative Inquiry process goes something like this, “If you had a magic wand, what three wishes would you grant your organization?” But, it should end with this, “What one step will you take today to make that wish a reality?”
In the end, using a positive appreciative frame for an organization is not magic. In order to have value, it requires positive action. Positive thinking does not deny difficulties like tsunamis and recessions. Given the challenge faced, positive thinking creates an environment that asks us to identify what is possible now, to identify the first step we will take to move forward. Then each one of us has to choose to take that step … and the step after that …
Without action, Appreciative Inquiry is just a nice event spent telling stories. Let’s stop sitting and start moving. What one action will you take today to move toward your desired future?
Generative and Positive
“Kathleen, what happened to liking the glass-half-full?! Aren’t you and your team focused on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive organization development approaches?”
Yes. We are. But – I’m going to challenge you to consider the power of the glass-half-empty. Often when we consider emptiness we often think of empty nest, empty wallet, loneliness, and even despair. The glass-half-empty has become the symbol of the pessimist, of “if only….”
So, where is the power of the glass-half-empty? An empty screen box awaits a new blog post or Facebook entry. An empty schedule presents the opportunity for doing whatever we choose. An empty office offers opportunities for a new business or organization to create itself in that space. The power of a glass-half-emtpy is its emptiness. That emptiness can represent the power of possibilities, imagining what might be.
What are the possibilities you or your organization have overlooked by focusing only on the half of the glass that’s full?
Idea for reflection – 21
The world we have made, as a result of the thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.
– Albert Einstein
Jon recently walked through the door with this photo in hand. What is it? My father-in-law, who is a professional artist, would say, “It’s whatever you want it to be.” The value of the abstract is that it challenges our imagination and creativity. It opens the door to all possibilities.
What would you imagine if anything were possible? If you had three wishes to increase the health of your organization in 2011, what would they be? Where are the greatest opportunities for realizing these dreams? Where will you start? How will you take the first step?
The Japanese word, kaizen, is often translated as continuous improvement. A more literal translation is change (kai) better (zen). Continuous change happens while taking one step at a time into the future. Continuous – meaning that we never arrive at perfection, but steadily work to improve. Matt May describes the kaizen steps using the acronym IDEA: “Investigate, Design, Experiment, Adjust.”
I’ve been reflecting on the power of combining kaizen with Appreciative Inquiry. Together they create a unique process for organization development. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) asks us to investigate, inquire, and discover what is working well. It asks us to imagine and design next steps. Then, without conclusion, AI cycles to delivering results and back to renewed inquiry. Adding the “Experiment” from IDEA into the process, improves and strengthens the design by asking us to innovate using design thinking.
AI opens a conversation with every level of an organization. It builds on existing resources and strengths, creating possibilities. I’ve seen managers surprised by the energy and ideas coming from within their team. I’ve seen departments shift their focus, creating entirely new opportunities and practices. I’ve seen large systems discover ways of engaging across formerly impermeable boundaries. I’ve seen individuals take steps toward personal goals. Appreciative Inquiry is an effective framework for kaizen and organization development.
When and how have you experienced kaizen? What processes do you use to support “change better?”
Waiting for the Winter Wheat
In Kansas, the winter wheat is planted. We watch and wait for it to emerge, wondering if the weather will support its life. We wonder – and all the while every human being is born with a preference for predictability. We want to know when and where we will sleep and eat. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. We learn more when we are given an agenda or syllabus that tells us what’s coming. Yet life remains uncertain; we can’t control everything or get all of our questions answered.
In our organizations we like certainty too. We create five-year plans, develop key performance indicators, and post weekly metrics on the bulletin board in the cafeteria or coffee area. Yet, here too, the unexpected and uncertainty continually get in the way. Or do they? What if we changed our perspective, paradigm, assumptions, or way of seeing?
As organization leaders and organization development practitioners, our role is to engage uncertainty, to engage what is emerging. I’ve used the Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology processes to successfully engage organizations and individuals in emerging possibilities. As often as I’ve used these processes, I’m still amazed at the unexpectedly innovative and surprisingly positive outcomes – ones that could not have been imagined when we started.
Peggy Holman, coauthor of The Change Handbook, suggests that when we engage emergence, we become more inspired to pursue things that matter, form new connections with other people, and create new possibilities. The challenge is choosing to engage the disruption, chaos, and upheaval rather than spending our energy trying to fix and maintain the existing system. Practical questions for engaging the possibilities in uncertainty:
- What is most important?
- Given the unexpected circumstances, what is possible now?
- Given the broken process, what would it look like if it were working successfully?
- What could we do together as a team that we can’t do by ourselves?
- What would you most like to do?
As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands
Nancy Duarte’s new book, resonate (sic), landed on my porch yesterday. A quick read-through showed that in the new book, she is building on her work in slide:ology (sic). The main point? Even a well designed PowerPoint or Keynote slide will not connect with the audience unless the speaker has a compelling story to communicate.
The book delivers a review of story design techniques. I appreciate the case studies and process descriptions that make the material practical. Even more importantly she asks each person to reflect on how and why they communication (p. 216):
Passion for your idea should drive you to invest in its communication.
I have experienced first hand the power of story to connect people and groups, to form networks, and to create something that didn’t exist in the past. This book is worth reading if you want to consider how you communicate – whether or not you stand in front of a group to do it.
Stories with Wings
Back in 1989, before I’d ever heard about the philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry or Good Boss, Bad Boss, I had an experience that began to change my ideas about management.
I knew a manager of a local division of AlliedSignal who wanted to improve the warehouse space in order to increase efficiency. He began by redesigning a part of the space with new lighting, shelving, inventory tags, and order pulling carts. It looked not only well-organized, but appeared beautiful in the midst of a dusty warehouse. He excitedly explained the new system to the employees and returned to his office.
About a week later, the manager called an informal meeting near the redesigned space. He was eager to hear employees report so that he could complete the redesign throughout the facility. He asked, “How do you like it?” He was dismayed to hear multiple people say things like, “It looks nice, but …. It makes it harder to pull orders. We don’t like it. It slows down our work.” He stopped and decided to listen. He asked them to walk him through the processes they used every day: receiving, shelving, pulling orders, and shipping. They showed him how the redesigned space negatively impacted their productivity.
Instead of shrugging and suggesting they “get used to it”, the manager stayed to listen – an unusual behavior at that time and place. Implementing the ideas of those who used the area daily changed not only their productivity, but it began a culture change that lasted throughout the manager’s tenure. By implementing employee ideas, trust was established in a new way. The manager shifted from being the chief in charge to leading by facilitating. And I learned that organizational power sometimes comes not by force, but by actively listening, supporting, and providing resources.
Now, more than 20 years later, there is evidence to support his method and behavior. Opening a space where people can engage their best ideas and discover what works well is still a breath of fresh air. And often the unexpected, the surprise, shows up too.
Gaeddert - The Plainsman
You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read.
– N. N. Taleb, in Prologue to The Black Swan
Idea for reflection – 12