The critical first step of Appreciative Inquire (AI) lies in framing the initial question/inquiry. Framing provides the foundation; it sets the tone; it signals the direction. I will illustrate a couple of examples at the organizational level and a couple at the individual level.
The first example is given in the book, “Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the mighty oak in the acorn,” by Tojo Thatchenkery & Carol Metzker.
Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS) was established in 1986, designed as a college-preparatory school, from 7-11th grades, for students with learning “differences,” such as dyslexia, other reading and writing difficulties, ADD (attention Deficit Disorder). These students in the traditional schools generally carry the implicit labels “lazy, stupid or slow,” with years of downward spiral in their struggle to keep up with their peers. In general, their would-be hopes for the future are rather limited; their self-esteem is needless to say on the low side, and their spirits are awfully dampened. DVFS take them in with the premise that all students have skills (rather than abilities) that can be properly developed. Hence the stress is on “different” learning styles rather than “difficult” learning abilities.
The school was founded by a group of principals and teachers who used to work in the traditional school systems and over the years were increasingly alarmed by the restrictive nature of traditional teaching methods and attitudes. So they left to start DVFS with AI philosophy. The first year, they met their minimum enrollment of 21 students, and have grown steadily to the current 150+ enrollment. They help students realize their potential by focusing on their abilities at-hand, rather than the abilities that don’t exist. What it is vs. what it isn’t. Students are not short-changed to bypass curriculum that might present difficulties; they learn to negotiate through the requirements relying on their strengths. 98% of the DVFS graduates go to college! Many graduates have gone on and achieved national and international accolades.
One specific and concrete example is the design of their library. A library is usually intimidating for students with dyslexia. So a profound concern during the design phase was, “what if the students wouldn’t come when it is built?” Their reframing question was, “how to catch the students’ attention and encourage them to stay in the library?” Now, when students walk in the newly designed library, immediately there are stacks of colorful magazines that are age-appropriate and interesting. Comfortable chairs are stationed in between the shelves. Walls are made of the type of glass used by discos to help reduce noise and allow students to converse and to view people and activities around them. Instead of treating the library as the traditional quiet place for only reading and researching, at DVFS it is a place for students to not just learn but to create their own community.
The second example is from the book, “The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A practical guide to positive change,” by Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom.
In 1998, British Airways Customer Service did a system-wide reorganization. They came up with a list of topics, one of which concerned the luggage issue, i.e. delayed or lost luggage, with which most of us have unfortunate experiences. In their group discussion, it is easy to imagine the stories shared were all expressing frustration. At the end, the consultants asked these questions: “[Given the newly designed direction for the organization,] what is it that you want more of in British Airways? In this case, we know you do not want more lost or delayed baggage. But what do you want more of?” The respondents’ old habits lead them to say, “better service recovery.” To which the consultants responded, “Let’s see if we have this right. It’s OK to lose a customer’s baggage as long as you recover it promptly?” Of course that was not what they wanted. So, the clarification of “what do you want more of” led to “what affirmative actions would move the organization in the direction you want?” After some discussion, their conclusion was “exceptional arrival experience.” So the focus for the BA agents was on customers’ arrival, not just the baggage.
Now, I have to admit that I haven’t flown on BA for years so cannot attest to their “arrival experience.” And given the airline industry’s current generally dismal performance at worldwide level, the prevailing negativity is likely to have pulled BA into some forms of regression. But I think the exchange is illustrative. In addition, the probable contrast between the two examples (assuming BA has regressed in recent years) highlights the crucial aspect of sustaining organizational changes. To sustain requires internalized commitment across all levels in an organization, and this may be the toughest aspect of making any changes in an organization (or, for that matter, within an individual as well).
So, framing the initial question is utterly important. For instance, a typical diversity concern is “there are problems of sexism, or there is evidence of discrimination,” etc. Indeed, one can collect and analyze data, and try to understand the underlying dynamics that allow these problems to arise. Or, one can ask, “How can we find some exceptional examples of cross-gender relationships in which participants feel valued and work well together?” Such experience might not be pervasive, but is nevertheless a good start for building a new foundation. (This came from “Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination.” By Jane Magruder Watkins & Bernard J. Mohr.)
Think about it: When you want to improve morale, do you look for examples of bad morale? (“The beatings will continue until morale improves!”) Or should you look for stellar morale?
Now, stories at individual level.
A group leader’s administrative assistant is a young and competent woman. But between her various personal needs, grandparents’ and parents’ illnesses, young children’s school delays and days-home, husband’s inability to support, and the organization’s constant demands of this training and that new requirement, she was not reliably at her desk answering phone calls, which made frustrated others trying to collaborate with the group. Should the group leader reprimand her? Lecture her? Tell her to shape up or else? Look for a new assistant and suffer a 6-month wait before replacement can be found? None of these would likely bring improved performance for the assistant or the group. Instead, the leader talked with the admin about how they can structure her time in such a way that at least for a couple of hours a day, a fixed period, people could rely on her presence in the office. So it worked, for a while. But eventually, the personal stuff kept intruding and the admin could not stick to the structure. AI is not a panacea.
I worked with a small organization during a time when it was certain that one (troublesome) employee had to go even though she was very good for the initial few years. I was brought in to help the organization to regroup, and wasn’t expected to issue the let-go to the employee in question. However, when I had to interview this employee — she still thought she would stay — she was very scared about the future. So, I asked her to describe how she came to the current organization from out of town, and built a pretty good program. Then, recalling that she had herself disclosed her recent divorce, I further nudged her to think about how she mustered the courage to end the abusive relationship. Both of these questions were meant to encourage her to focus on her strengths. Toward the end of our conversation, she began to sketch ways in which she could mobilize her vast network to find other opportunities. A couple days later, she tendered her resignation. I don’t know how things are for this individual currently (according to the grapevine she landed on her feet, at least initially), but the small organization is happier and thriving. These examples are illustrations of snapshots of a period or a point in time. However transformative an experience can be, once it is done, it’s no longer transformative.
Appreciative inquiry is both a philosophy and a process by which to change oneself and/or organizations. It is not to be treated as a one-shot deal. Everyone says that changes are difficult — indeed they are — but I’d say, sustaining the changes is a lot more challenging. And no, there isn’t a magic wand, no 12-step manuals, despite retail bookstores. When I read the book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action” by Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton, I hoped for some magic bullets, but alas, reading such a title does not substitute for doing. Next time, I will relate the gist of this book. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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