I worked with a high school in London recently that practises a philosophy of positive reinforcement. In reviewing student and staff performance and achievement, it poses two simple questions: What went well? (WWW) and Even better if? (EBI). It feels very different to conversations about strengths and weaknesses or successes and failures. It focuses people’s attention on what we/they want to affirm, celebrate and build on; what we/they want to see more of, more of the time; what we/they want to move towards rather than move away from. It is appreciative and solutions-focused.
Today, I met with a group of talented aspiring leaders at a national UK charity. They are half way through a leadership development programme with Eagle Training and we were interested to review progress and next steps. I introduced WWW and EBI as a framework. After WWW, I added a provocative WPYPT (What Part have You Played in This?) and, after EBI, WYWTRF (What are You Willing to Take Responsibility For?). This challenged and shifted the conversation from evaluating the programme ‘out there’ to raising awareness and exercising personal leadership ‘in here’.
In a similar vein, I worked with a group of Christian leaders and managers this week who are keen to develop coaching skills in order to enhance their relationships and conversations. We explored coaching as increasing a person or team’s resource-fullness rather than simply solving problems or applying techniques. It brought clarity of intention and enabled participants to shift their focus from coaching as ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’: building the capacity of others by developing their ability to exercise initiative, take ownership , think through and do things for themselves.
In my experience, this philosophy and approach, building on positives and, at the same time, challenging and supporting personal leadership and growth can be motivating, engaging and transforming for people, teams and organisations. It calls leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to reflect carefully on their beliefs, values, intentions and approach. It also calls us to reflect and act on what culture we model and reinforce through our attitudes, behaviours and decisions. In terms of your own practice to date, WWW and WPYPT and, as you move forward, EBI and WYWTRF?
A well-known management development agency invited me to take part in a masterclass in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) some years ago, at around the time when AI was first becoming popular in the UK. The idea was that I would write a review of the workshop afterwards that would be published in the agency's monthly journal. I have to confess that I wasn't exactly blown away by the experience. Phrases like 'Emperor's New Clothes' came to mind and I wrote a critical review accordingly. Needless to say, it wasn't published!
I have, however, used aspects of AI on numerous occasions since with different people and organisations and I have to say I've been impressed by the results. I like its emphasis on imagination, positivity and solutions. It fits well with my beliefs from social constructionism about how we create and co-create our own realities. Its discover, dream, design and destiny phases can envision and energise, inspire and motivate people far more than any problem-solving approaches I've seen or used. A simple question such as, 'What has inspired you in the last month?' really can transform the focus and energy in a team.
The best article I've read on the foundations of AI and what it involves in practice is by Richard Seele (2008): An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. If you're interested in the AI and to learn more about it, Richard's article is well worth a glance. I have used, adapted and applied aspects of AI without ever having worked systematically through its 4-stage process. I'd be interested to hear from you if you have: what was the issue/opportunity you focused on, how did you approach it, what questions did you pose at each stage, what happened as a result?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.