Working with What Works.

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I’m in America. The MSc studies have moved for a week to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where I, along with my AMOC15 ( Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change) classmates/ cohort are learning more about Appreciative Inquiry and about Complex Adaptive Systems. It is, frankly, an amazing opportunity and experience….and I’m determined to make the most of it.

We started working with Appreciative Inquiry yesterday (Monday) Part of what immediately piqued my interest is recognising a tendency to be asked to work in the “deficit” – to focus on what isn’t working, paying most attention to the Department that has the lowest engagement scores; coaching people’s performance based on assumption that “development” is about growing what we don’t have.

It’s raised some good questions in me about the areas I work on with my clients. How often, for instance, have I been drawn into conversations about lack, deficiency or shortage-of –competency/will/ capacity ( add your own words here)? How often have I worked (colluded?) to attempt to help “solve” a departmental or organisational “problem”? It’s a little disquieting.

What is intriguing me about Appreciative Inquiry is the invitation by Caryn Vanstone & Kevin Power at Ashridge Business School and Ron Fry at CWRU to work with what works already. To look at the very best in ourselves, in our businesses and arrangements ; to pay attention to how these can be grown and perpetuated. What I’m loving is this is NOT an invitation to be relentlessly, steadfastly positive. No one is suggesting we facilitate an away day or pick up the aftermath of a staff engagement survey and work with a fixed grin and a neat clap of the hands to only hang out with positive messages and dismiss the stories that aren’t “happy”. This AI stuff isn’t about the pink and the fluffy.

Far from it.

What’s emerging for me is that, in the face of a powerful, deep narrative of “We must be careful, let’s identify the risks” or “We need to bring this up-to-speed” or “We must get to the root of the problem”; asking ourselves to pay attention to the areas where we’ve already overcome risk or are relentlessly innovative is actually bloody challenging. Organisations dismiss good stories with frightening ease. We disappear the stuff we do well… literally vanish it “Yeah, Yeah – that bit is already fixed & done. We have already successfully implemented that, it’s in place…but what we REALLY need is to focus on the bits that aren’t done.” We fragment and focus on broken bits, rather than looking at the whole, bigger picture. Curious.

My questions yesterday were largely around “how can you ask a client to work in an appreciative way, without being seen to be a bit ( a lot?) Happy Clappy or having the term hippy/ dreamer/ not understanding the “real” problem bandied at you?” (for the record – NOT an appreciative inquiry. I have much to learn). What does appreciative dialogue in ourselves/ our organisations look like/ feel like/ sound like? ( better question from an AI perspective.. Quick learner?).

It feeds strongly into my wish to support different/ more productive discussions and stories in organisations….and that was just day one.

The image is an art installation outside the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh – I’ve been slightly slack on photo taking in the US so far.

2 thoughts on “Working with What Works.

  1. I remember my first AI experience. I was working with a an organisation that had gone from small to growing and then – ping – began to look like a “proper” organisation. There was real apprehension and fear about what they would lose as they grew. My work was to help them work through this. When we came together I asked them to share in their groups what they loved, what was precious, what they did well, what they were proud of and what makes them feel good. So much energy flowed into this and so much laughter and reflection. We had loads of paper charting all of this. When we looked at anxieties and concerns that they had expressed and we started working through, there was a gradual realisation that only one thing, out of many, would have to change. It was a significant shift, which they had all been dreading, but they were able to see that it was an inevitable part of their growth – but everything else that they valued was directly within their control. They could see this so clearly, and the relief was palpable, and – we got there quite quickly.

  2. Hi Meg, thanks for sharing – this is exactly the sort of story they were telling us about – I’m truly beginning to understand the power of working with people in a way that at least starts from a positive place.
    I kind of struggled to find “appreciative” questions over the days I was there – put it down to being Scottish & a wee bit cynical, all in….so there’s learning in there for me about not heading toward the “we’re doomed” stuff…
    Like this. very much.

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