There is a system of techniques commonly applied in organization development work called Appreciative Inquiry, which was developed in the 1980s by management and development experts David Cooperrider and his mentor, Suresh Srivastva. I have used Appreciative Inquiry extensively in my doctoral studies and in my organizational change projects. Not only is it a powerful way of sowing the seeds of change within a resistant work culture, but it is also adaptable and works well when applied creatively in unique circumstances. Due to its ability to be applied to real-world problems and to help create real-world results, I’d also argue that Appreciative Inquiry is one of the most successful concepts to come out of the positive psychology movement.
So what is it, then?
Appreciative Inquiry is a process by which we focus on positives rather than negatives. Could it really be that simple? I will explain a bit more, but that’s the heart and soul of it.
“Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way to engage groups of people in self-determined change. It focuses on what’s working, rather than what’s not working, and leads to people co-designing their future.”
– positivepyschology.com https://positivepsychology.com/appreciative-inquiry/
Thinking specifically within the context of a business, it seems natural that a leader would focus on improving things that the business is doing poorly. Certainly, some thinking about this is necessary for a business leader, particularly with sustained day-to-day operations, such as customer service outcomes and product quality, but when we’re talking about large scale changes – adaptive rather than technical changes – and creating a vision, focusing on fixing problems is unintuitively counter-productive. Another fascinating paradox!
This point deserves a foot stomp. Think about this. When you focus on fixing broken stuff, you are describing a future condition through the lens of the present condition. Or in other words, the vision you hold for the future only exists as a relationship with the present condition, which you have already decided is less than optimal. Why does it make any sense to think about change this way? There is no inspiration or aspiration in fixing broken stuff and operating this way does not speak much to our humanity. It may seem like a subtle nuance in thinking, but in my experience, taking an Appreciative approach to change is a massive paradigm shift and can greatly increase the likelihood of success.
We need a way to express a vision that feels as real as the current condition. No, we need to think of the vision as being even MORE real than the current condition. Think back to the post about Paradox in Change, specifically the discussion about Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change. In order for your change effort to be highly successful you need to move toward a truer version of yourself. The vision is not just something we hope comes true. The vision is so real that if we give it permission, it will take hold of every opportunity to manifest. The vision is REAL; it doesn’t need any thoughts about the past or the present conditions to be REAL.
Practicing appreciative thinking
Notice that I said “practice”. This will start to come natural after enough practice, but you should have no expectation of perfection in the beginning. Just create some space to let yourself play with these new ideas.
What are some things that you like about yourself? What are some things that you love about yourself? My go-to answer here, especially when I was first starting my journey, is this: I love that I’m the kind of person who can recognize growth opportunities. There are many people in this world who are much too insecure to ever admit any imperfection or wrongdoing. That’s not me; that has never been me. I love that I care enough about myself and the world around me to make moves to make this a better existence for all, even in the smallest ways. I love that quality in myself and in others.
This is a great place to start because it now allows us the opportunity to discuss with ourselves the things that we would like to change without the negativity that might typically be associated with such thoughts. It’s not “Oh man, why do I do this crap? What’s wrong with me?” but rather “I’m awesome for recognizing my imperfections and even awesome-r for seeking growth!” This is an exciting paradigm, through which, anything is possible.
So let me ask you, what does your future look like? What is your vision for yourself? Can you put Beisser’s Theory into practice by visualizing the truth about yourself that you have deviated from in some way that is meaningful to you? Maybe try closing your eyes and dwelling on these thoughts for a short while. Can you Appreciate your true nature that you yearn to return to?
This technique can be incredibly powerful, but it does require practice and it does require honesty. Give it a shot and reflect on whatever thoughts and emotions arise. You’re well on your way.