I smiled today when a colleague invited me to explain appreciative inquiry (AI), ‘because it sounds like an optimistic approach to problem solving’.
The wonderful paradox lay in the framing of the question itself. AI is an outlook manifested in an approach that challenges conventional problem-solving. It frames issues and experiences not in terms of problems to be solved but opportunities to be grasped. It draws the attention away from problems and deficits towards positive attributes and potential.
Unlike rational analytical problem-solving, AI evokes and draws on the power of positive and vivid imagination. It aims to create a compelling vision that stimulates motivation and drives people energetically forward. It reframes situations by encouraging people to think in fresh ways, to notice the unnoticed, to experience and celebrate the joy of success.
Imagine looking back on a project. Use your imagination to put yourself back into a phase when things went really well. What happened? What did people say or do that made the difference? How did it feel at the time? What do you want to repeat or build on when you approach a new project? What positive platform has the outcome of that project created for the future?
Even those most challenging aspects can be open to reframing. When we felt frustrated, what underlying positive desire did the frustration point towards? What did it reveal about our hopes, dreams, values, aspirations, even if they felt thwarted? In light of that experience, what has it revealed that we want to be more like, more of the time?
Thinking forward to the future. Use your imagination to picture a really exciting and positive outcome. What would be happening? What kind of looks would people have on their faces? What would they be saying? How would you and they be feeling? ‘Imagine...’ The idea is to generate a vision that’s so compelling that people will have the energy to overcome any obstacles on route.
The trick is in not to use AI to avoid, deny or gloss over problems, setbacks and difficulties. It doesn’t intend to build a naive idealism. Where people have experienced or anticipate trauma, frustrations etc and where real problems and blockages have emerged, acknowledge these things honestly and sensitively before moving to explore potential up-sides and a way forward.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.