My response was anything but appreciative. I had been invited to attend an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) workshop in the UK with a view to writing an article on it for a UK organisation development (OD) journal. At that time, AI was still a fairly new concept and approach and I was curious to learn what the hype was about and whether anything new and of substance lay behind the rhetoric. I left the workshop feeling distinctly unimpressed and with clichés like emperor’s new clothes floating in my mind. I subsequently wrote a scathingly cynical piece and the editor chose (wisely) not to publish it!
I’m pleased to say that was all a very long time ago now. Over the years since, I’ve returned to and experimented with AI on many occasions, increasingly convinced by its amazing potential and that of related fields such as Gestalt, social constructionism, strength-based/solutions-focused approaches and positive psychology. There’s something about what we notice and focus on and how we construe it that impacts profoundly on what we perceive as real, true and valuable, what sense we make of it, how we feel, what energy it releases – or not, how we respond what emerges or changes as a result.
I drew on AI with faculty and staff at a ‘university for the poor’ in the Philippines recently. They were experiencing some challenges with cross-departmental working and wanted to find and agree ways to resolve them. I prayed, suggested an alternative hope-filled framing of ‘what is’ and proposed using AI for a 1-day whole group workshop with 4 sequential phases: 1. Stories: when have we been at our best? 2. Aspirations: what do we want to be more like, more of the time? 3. Ideas: what would need to happen for that to happen? 4. Commitments: what are we willing to do?
The vision, energy, ideas and relationships that formed throughout this event were truly incredible – and proved transformational. So, I’m interested: what have been your best experiences of using AI?
I posted a blog a while ago where I proposed that four ‘Cs’ persistently undermine global efforts at development in the poorest countries: corruption, culture, conflict and climate. I spoke afterwards with Steve, an international development expert who has spent his life working with NGOs around the world, leading change strategies and interventions, running refugee camps etc. He said in all seriousness that I was missing a critical fifth C that is, in his experience, central to this equation: ‘Craziness’.
I started to laugh but stopped myself when I realised he wasn’t joking. Steve went on to explain with this example: Whilst working in Africa, he witnessed refugees burn down a primary school because of a personal disagreement between the head teacher, himself a refugee, and another person in the camp. He went on to say that we could attempt to explain such actions rationally but, unless we take into account the capacity for sheer human craziness, our efforts at development will be both naïve and limited.
This really got me thinking. I’ve never yet seen a craziness factor feature in a strategy map, theory of change, HR framework, coaching proposal or organisation development plan. So, I wonder…do we subconsciously and culturally filter out craziness because it doesn’t fit with our worldview, our theory of humanity? Conversely, could a resort to craziness-as-explanation simply be an admission of the limits of our ability to understand that which mystifies us, takes us by surprise, appears to defy all logic?
I don’t know – but I do think Steve may have a point. In our desire to structure, organise, manage and control, do we edit out, seek to remove or simply ignore the unpredictable, unmanageable, spontaneous, playful, mood-swinging aspects of our humanity that don’t fit our tidy, preconceived ideas and plans? If so, in doing so, do we miss out on the best of amazing, emergent, creative, human potential as well as find ourselves caught off-guard by its flip-side dark, destructive, shadows and risks?
Take a clean sheet of flipchart paper. Draw a small black dot in the middle. Ask people what they see, what they notice. Almost invariably in my experience, people will say, ‘A black dot’. I haven’t yet heard someone say, ‘A white sheet of paper’. I first saw this used in an anti-racism workshop. The tutor, Tuku Mukherjee, used it as a metaphor for how we tend to focus our attention on minorities in society and ignore or don’t even see the majority. The backdrop is, in effect, invisible to us.
In this example, the backdrop forms the context for the ‘minority’. In other words, ‘minority’ only has meaning vis a vis a perceived ‘majority’. I heard one astute black speaker say, ‘In the UK, I am viewed as an ethnic minority whereas, when I look across the world as a whole, I see that I am part of an ethnic majority.’ So what we see, what sense we make of it, is contextual. To understand what we notice, we sometimes need to shift our focus to the background against which it stands out.
Take, now, an example of a person who is ‘underperforming’ at work. This definition of the situation locates underperformance in the person, as if it represents a quality, aptitude or behaviour of the person him or herself. It leads us to consider how to improve the person’s performance, e.g. through mentoring or training. All things being equal, this may improve the person’s performance and, if so, we may view the situation as resolved. ‘X was underperforming…X is now performing…sorted.’
Yet what constitutes ‘good performance’ is defined by the backdrop, the wider organisation. What if performance expectations are unrealistic? What if the person does not have sufficient resources, guidance or support? What if systems, policies or procedures are such that they make the person’s work untenable? What if relationships or power dynamics are culturally toxic? What if instances of ‘under-performance’ form a repeating pattern in this organisation or team? Step back…look…see.
‘Constructive counterfactualisation’. What on earth?! I can almost hear the cogs whirring. This was the title of an intriguing seminar I attended yesterday led by Professor Chris Oswick. The main focus was on how to break out of proverbial boxes that trap our thinking and to find ways to challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions in order to broaden the range of options available to us. It reminded me a lot of DeBono’s lateral thinking – except with much more complicated-sounding language.
The main technique we tried was to create deliberate dissonance, e.g. by, ‘making the strange familiar or the familiar strange’ (Foucault). The idea here is to present the strange (e.g. an idea that contrasts starkly with that which we hold currently) as having some (surprisingly) similar qualities to that which seems more normal or self-evident to us, or to present something familiar and ordinarily unquestioned in such a weird or unusual light as to make it appear and feel strange to us after all.
Here’s an example. We often think of global poverty and related suffering as caused or exacerbated by military conflict, e.g. between two or more different ideologies, tribes or nations. We only need to look as far as Yemen in recent months to see this horrifying phenomenon played out in practice. This observation vis a vis ‘poverty & conflict’ could be developed into a hypothesis that, say, military intervention is the antithesis to development. It has a face-value appearance of plausibility about it.
Yet now take, for instance, a scenario in which the military provides sufficient security (e.g. from an external aggressor) to allow sustainable development to take place. It flips the equation so that an alternative hypothesis could be juxtaposed that, in X context, military intervention is a necessary condition for development. This way of posing contrasting propositions to create dissonance and challenge accepted assumptions and norms can be powerful. How could you use it as leader, coach or OD?
Performance = Potential – Interference (Gallwey); Trust = Risk + Support (Covey).
‘Vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation’. If you’ve ever taught or learnt a foreign language, these words will sound very familiar to you. We could think of them as technical dimensions. They have an almost objective feel. The students I worked with in the Philippines last week have been taught well in English yet some still lacked confidence to use it. They were, at first, also unsure about how to navigate conversations with a person from the UK. We could call these psychological and cultural dimensions. Some were so preoccupied with doing it right that they struggled to do it at all.
We opened the workshops by inviting the students to experiment with some simple ground rules: 1. Be willing to try. 2. It’s OK to make mistakes. 3. Support each other. 4. Any question is OK. Next, we introduced (playfully) that I would present a medal to every person who would come forward and speak at the front for the first time. I would not correct their English. I would simply reward their courage to do it. By the end of the first workshop, every student left proudly wearing a medal. By the end of the third workshop, every student took part enthusiastically in open group conversation.
Taking a leaf from Timothy Gallwey’s research, we engaged the students in distractor topics (e.g. ‘Skin whitening in Asia’). The idea was to choose themes that the students would find interesting, provocative and meaningful. By focusing on the topic rather than on the language itself, the students became less self-conscious about their English and actually more fluent. In Gallwey’s terms, too much attention to performance can become an interference to performance. An overall approach? Open, relational warmth and positive reinforcement throughout: ‘What did well; Even better if.’
Now – a question: what are the lessons here for leadership, mentoring and coaching?
A ‘university for the poor’. The past 2 weeks have been an inspiring and humbling experience at so many different levels. A close friend invited me to train and facilitate students, faculty and staff at a college in the Philippines that supports young people who cannot afford university education. It’s based in the inner city, shares basic facilities with various other government institutions and backs onto a market that, at times, fills hot and humid classrooms with a foul stench of waste.
It’s my third time in the Philippines and I’m always struck by the wild, extroverted and, in some ways, quite crazy culture. Dance, song and loud music are everywhere (as are people with guns), intermingled with sounds of all kinds of passing traffic and street dogs barking. The students here greet me with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It’s unusual to receive a visitor from the UK and they are curious, intrigued and keen to learn. We run classes for 3 days and the energy in the group is exhilarating.
At the end of the week, the students first sing a song to me then, one-by-one, come forward with hand written letters and cards, beautifully coloured and designed. I want to cry and yet fight back the tears. They are thanking me but I owe them so much. We move to workshops with faculty and staff using positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Like the students before them, they are passionate, playful and professional. We laugh, work, sing, dance and learn together.
These memories stay with me: Their faith in Jesus that shines simply and brightly without inhibition. Their vision for the poor that extends beyond academic theory to personal and social transformation. Their kind welcome and hospitality to me as a total stranger. The very special friend who worked so incredibly hard – yet so carefully avoided the limelight. The open-hearted generosity of students who said, ‘We want others to experience what we have experienced here.’
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.