And so it has come to past that from time to time I find my self teaching groups ‘coaching skills’. Sometimes this is groups of managers, sometimes fledging professional coaches, and sometimes people with post-graduate coaching degrees or similarly impressive credentials. And yet, for all these groups, one of the hardest challenges seems to be developing the skill of asking questions rather than more tempting options like: offering solutions, giving advice, sympathising, sharing their own experience, or in some other way failing to inquire.
This account of a recent one-day Appreciative Inquiry Event by Alan Brunstrom of ECSAT. He wrote it for their internal use and copied me in. I thought it gave a very good sense of the client experience and asked if I might share it on my website.
I hope you find it useful in creating a sense of how these events come about, how they are experienced, and what they can produce.
In many workplaces conversation is regarded as an adjunct to the real work of getting stuff done. All too often a request for a conversation is experienced as an interruption, a distraction from real work. Seen as a necessary evil, the objective is to complete the conversation as quickly as possible so all involved can get back to work. While the topic of conversation may be regarded as important, the quality of conversation doesn’t even register. This is very unfortunate as the quality of any conversation will have an impact beyond the moment.
Earlier this month I attended the Global Strengthscope Practitioner Conference in London. A wonderful and inspiring conference where completely unexpectedly I was presented with the 2017 conference ‘Outstanding Contribution to Positive Work Practices Award.’ I was delighted and honoured and it got me thinking about what we have achieved so far in bringing positive work practices into the workplace and what we have yet to achieve,
I have recently come across a great paper about human energy, it is referenced at the end of this piece. It set me thinking about what it was saying in relation to Appreciative Inquiry. These are my thoughts.
In the last twenty years a new understanding of organizations has been developed, understanding them as living human systems of enterprise and creativity. It offers as an alternative to the dominant view of organizations as large and complicated machines of production. Methodologies based on this understanding, for instance Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, World Café and SimuReal, allow the whole of the organizational domain to be approached from the living human system perspective. They allow us to address all organizational challenges from recruitment to redundancy within the same living human system frame. Four key factors underpin this approach.
Co-created change differs in its process and effects from imposed change. Whole-system change methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry and World Café facilitate co-created change.
This is an edited extract from my new book Positive Psychology and Change
1. Calls on the organization’s collective intelligence
Participative co-creation involves, from the very beginning, those affected by the change, allowing them to apply their ‘local knowledge’ intelligence at the point at which it can save the organisation both time and money.
Over the past year we have assembled a range of card packs to support development activities from coaching to strategy development. In particular we have our own Positive Organisational Development Cards that condense the wisdom of positive psychology into questions and action suggestions across twenty themes, from leadership to positive emotions. We also have a selection of Strengths Cards suitable for groups across the organisation. And we have a range of other cards to enable work with Values, Behaviour, Expertise and Emotional Intelligence. While many have free downloadable pdf guides, all are highly versatile, easily portable and great value!
How is it different, why is it better?
Co-creative approaches to organization change such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, and World Café have some very distinctive features that differentiate them from more familiar top-down planned approaches to change.
Appreciative Inquiry and other co-creative methodologies are essentially divergent ways of working together; the emphasis is on the value of diversity and variety. Such ways of working can trigger a pressure to converge on a few key points very early in the process, indeed sometimes before the event has even begun. This pressure can be the expression of various different needs, for example:
The plan is not the change
All too often those involved in creating the plan for change believe this to be the most essential part of the process, worthy of extended time and effort, while implementation is seen as ‘just’ a matter of communicating and rolling out the plan. Plans are a story of hope. Change happens when people change their habitual patterns of communication and intervention in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Much research has now confirmed happiness has many benefits. One easy way to use positive psychology to bring these benefits into the work place is by opening a meeting with a ‘success round’. All too often in meetings we plunge straight into the business of the day. Starting the meeting by giving people a chance to share a recent success not only boost people’s mood in the moment, it also prepares them to engage more productively with what ever is to follow. As an added bonus, we learn lots about what makes our colleagues tick.
I used this recently with a group of managers as part of a workshop on positive and appreciative leadership. It is an effective way into the virtuous practices aspect of flourishing organizations and into the topic of authentic leadership. It could just as well be used as an exercise in individual executive coaching or development
A number of Appreciative Inquiry practitioners were having a conversation concerning the strong demand frequently experienced from commissioners and contractors for a highly convergent end to a discursive, divergent event.
We asked ourselves two questions: What was this request an expression of? and How could we meet it without compromising the spirit of our endeavours? Here are the high points of our discussion.
One might have thought that the expression of gratitude was for the benefit of the recipient, to feel acknowledged and affirmed in their generous act: possibly so. However the experience of gratitude also brings great benefit to the donor, and some of those benefits can be seen to act as an inoculation against the dangerous seductions of privilege, power and position.
At the 2012 World Appreciative Inquiry conference I fell into conversation with Stefan Cantore. Stefan was busy thinking about ‘our love affair with problems’ in preparation for writing a chapter for a forthcoming publication (details at end). We had a great discussion about this that stayed with me and caused me further thought.
How do we know when we encounter a problem?
Barack Obama famously crowd-sourced the finance for his election campaign, a powerful example of the ability of new technology to create a great aggregate result out of lots of small voluntary actions. But this process is not as new as it seems: Sir James Murray used a similar approach to creating the Oxford English Dictionary back in 1897.
So while crowd-sourcing is a new and sexy concept, it really refers to the age-old process of recruiting groups to complete tasks that it would be difficult if not impossible for one person to complete alone.
When disaster strikes, under the intense pressure to do something fast, it is very easy for leaders to make quick, isolated obvious decisions i.e. to have a round of redundancies. Very few people like to have to do this, but often feel they have no alternative. However alternatives are available, what they demand is a willingness to go beyond simple and obvious solutions and to call upon the wisdom and goodwill of the workforce. A leader who is willing to work appreciatively with his or her workforce in finding ways to survive and thrive in these challenging trading times will reap the benefit now and later.
1. Change is changing
Traditional, top-down, designed then implemented change takes too long and is too hard to push through an organization. The plan is out of date almost as soon as it’s made. People resist. Change needs to be fast, flexible and proactive and focused on maximising tomorrow’s possibilities rather than rehashing yesterday’s mistakes. Change needs to take everyone with it. Appreciative Inquiry is a change methodology for our changing times.
Positive psychology is the new domain of psychology that burst upon the world when Martin Seligman coined the phrase at his inaugural speech as the President of the American Psychological Association in 1998.