We know from a comprehensive evidence-base that based on the topics that they select to study, focus-on and have the courage to address that organisations enact and construct worlds of their own making that in turn act back on them. To that reality appreciative inquiry is based on the simple but equally powerful premise that organisations give life, energy, resources, conversations and myths to this end.
What we choose to build and how we go about it stated simply will and does matter. It takes genuine courage, focus and openness to look at what works well and build upon it. Interestingly, within software development this reality has been hardwired or designed in from the outset. Consider the Sprint Retrospective? Are the team invited to focus on what did not work and ensure this does not happen again? The answer is a definite ‘NO’. The team focus on what went well and taking that forward. This is the premise of appreciative inquiry. We build-on, we focus on, and we celebrate what works. As we say the ‘front door of enthusiasm’ has always been the front door for high performing teams.
But hang-on just one minute a more cynical mind may ask: ‘But we do ask what did not go well as part of a Retrospective? So you’re not quite right!’
This is a most misunderstood point around new entrants to appreciative inquiry: we are not suggesting that we are like Pollyanna. We don’t inhabit physical, mental and team worlds wherein there is not an added value role for contested voices, or for values-based dialogue (I use that term rather than challenge purposefully). We don’t deny reality. In fact appreciative inquiry has been used more successfully in important areas like third-world hunger, global warming, poverty, and military conflict than other change management methods.
We are not looking to silence, shut-down, ‘pretend things are different from what or how they actually are’…rather we are seeking to ‘open-up space’ for genuine conversation. But, and this is very important, we are looking to ensure that more than one binary of the ‘positive: negative’ is also justly recognised. Negative is just one choice. There is another.
The problem with an organisation that does not have both sides of the binary as possibilities of discussion and dialogue is that “once a binary has been established, the critics voice operates so as to reify the terms of the binary and thereby silence other voices” (p.190).
(Please see the excellent Chapter on Appreciative Inquiry by Ludema et al in the Handbook of Action Research Reason and Bradbury 2001).
It is fascinating to introduce appreciative inquiry as a fresh, new possibility and then pay attention to, and in turn analyse, the touch-points of resistance. Try adopting appreciative inquiry in your team or organisation and see the ways by which the negative binary seeks to close-down its competing new partner. Fascinating.
For those of us working in Agile methods appreciative inquiry will seem like your hand has been especially crafted for a new, beautiful glove; it will be a genuine fit.
Thankfully appreciative inquiry is taking traction in many organisations including the private, public and voluntary sectors. Asking purposeful questions for teams around what strengths they have; what they want to build/develop on; what works; and what should be taken forward in the next Sprint- further creates organisational circles of dialogue with obvious/natural links to more Agile, innovative, imaginative and life affirming places of work.
If we spend our focus on what is faulty/wrong; if we can only create conversations that critique and challenge; if all our organisation discussions rightly pin-point problems; then I would suggest that we lose. We are the losers! We co-create a workplace that loses its ability to see new possibilities, new spaces for innovation and new forms of conversation and dialogue.
So we can build-on what work has gone on before us. Recognising that such work took team effort, time and judgement. Then we choose to refine it; further develop it and improve it. There is an underlying theme of recognition; celebration and respect.
Another alternative is more negative. I will not go into that here. I am sure you are as tired of that approach as I am!
Take care, Jason
Jason is a Business Psychologist and a Scrum Master.