Today we conclude our series on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) with a review of the five core processes for transformational change: Define what you want to learn. Discover what gives life. Dream what might be. Design what should be. Then deliver your Destiny, before starting the process all over again. AI is not a linear progression to a final resting place; AI is a spiral dynamic for continuous engagement with the best life and work have to offer. If that sounds good to you, this is one Provision you won’t want to miss.
I want to conclude our series on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) with a few thoughts on the concept of destiny. That is, after all, what AI promises. It’s not just a wonderful, life-affirming process to experience. It is a wonderful, life-affirming process that generates positive outcomes in organizations and individuals. Those outcomes are so positive that they often prove to be transformational, quantum-leaping, and paradigm-shifting. We’re not talking old-school, incremental growth here but new-school, wholesale change.
In other words, we’re talking about a destiny makeover which is about as radical a concept as I can imagine. That’s because destiny tends to be a rather stubborn thing. The primary dictionary definitions of “destiny” are: “the inevitable or necessary fate to which a particular person or thing is destined; one’s lot; a predetermined course of events considered as something beyond human power or control; an event (or a course of events) that will inevitably happen in the future.”
Now that’s heavy stuff! Words like “inevitable,” “fate,” “predetermined,” and “lot” suggest there’s neither much hope nor much chance when it comes to changing one’s destiny. It reminds me of the predestinarian who fell down the stairs, broke his leg in the process, and then quipped, “I’m glad I got that over with.” Taken to the extreme, the concept of destiny implies a certain powerlessness over how things work out. Our destiny is fixed; everything else is preliminary. As my 92-year-old Uncle Ernie likes to say, “When it’s your time, it’s your time. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Fortunately, there are other, more dynamic and malleable uses of the word “destiny.” I like the definition in the Cambridge Dictionary of American English: “the particular state of a person or thing in the future, considered as resulting from earlier events.” Now that definition gives us something to work with. If our desired future state results from the things that happen yesterday, today, and tomorrow, then perhaps we can determine our own destinies rather to have them served up by the fickle finger of fate.
That is the posture that AI takes when it comes to organizational and individual change. Nothing is predetermined; everything is negotiable. It’s a free-will universe and the things we focus on tend to become our reality. So why not focus on the positive?
It’s that conviction which eventually led to the framework and methodology of Appreciative Inquiry, including five core processes for transformational change that we have reviewed in detail over the past four months.
1. Define. What do we want to learn? Although AI can be used to elevate global self-esteem, that is neither what led to its creation nor why companies pay good money to bring AI into the workplace. AI is more typically used to meet specific challenges in life and work. It seeks positive, observable, and lasting changes in how people do business and the results they get.
So the first step in the process is to figure out what we want to learn. When you ask most people or organizations that question, the responses come fast and furious. We want to learn how to fix what is broken! We want to stop having so many problems! We want a better attitude! We want to become more productive! We want to stop hurting! It’s the old squeaky wheel phenomenon. Pain has a way of getting our attention. When it hurts, we want to learn how to make it stop.
AI is not so Pollyanna as to suggest there are no problems. It understands that problems are a part of life. But AI also understands that fixing and avoiding problems is neither a sustainable pursuit nor what we really want to learn. Imagining and embracing possibilities is a much more attractive endeavor with far more potential to enhance our quality of life in both the short run and the long run.
That’s why AI gets people, at the beginning of the process, to flip problems into possibilities, deficits into assets, and negatives into positives. It’s really not that hard. AI simply asks the question, “What are the positive things we want to learn rather than the negative things we want to unlearn?” Here are a few examples from classic AI cases:
- Instead of learning how to avoid high employee turnover, why not focus on learning how to promote longevity?
- Instead of learning how to avoid sexual harassment, why not focus on learning how to embrace positive, cross-gender working relationships?
- Instead of learning how to avoid low morale, why not focus on learning how to have fun in the workplace?
- Instead of learning how to avoid competing interests and silos, why not focus on learning how to collaborate openly and effectively?
- Instead of learning how to avoid poor training, why not focus on learning how to be highly skilled?
- Instead of learning how to avoid fattening foods, why not focus on learning how to enjoy healthy eating?
- Instead of learning how to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, why not focus on learning how to experience flow in exercise and movement?
To the flipping of problems into possibilities there is no end. But just by looking at the short list above, you can get a sense of the energy difference between the left and right sides of the equation. Deficit learning involves heavy lifting. It’s tough work, and can usually not be sustained. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to go on a deprivation diet! Asset learning, on the other hand, uses leverage to get things done. It still takes work, but the work is lightened by the positive change focus.
Topic choice, then, is the starting point for any AI process. Flip the problems into possibilities and define a learning goal on the positive side of the equation. This creates the inquiry process.
2. Discover. What gives life? Once the topic is chosen, once the learning goal is defined, AI then performs a subtle sleight of hand. It goes on a treasure hunt for examples of the future learning goal manifesting itself in the past and present. And AI does so in full confidence that the treasure will be found. That is, in fact, a basic assumption of AI: in every situation, something is always working. If we identify a future learning goal, then there are always anticipatory glimmers of that goal in the past and present.
“Prolepsis” is the formal name for this principle. The word literally means “a forward look,” and it is used to represent something in the future as already existing in the past and present. How can that be? Think of the acorn and the oak, the caterpillar and the butterfly, the charter and the convention. One thing has a way of not only leading to the other, but of foreshadowing and representing the other • proleptically and energetically • in the here and now.
In the discovery phase, AI goes looking for examples • however faint • of the future learning goal as being already operative. Perhaps one person, one team, one day, one project, one case, one meal, or one workout already captures much of what we want to learn. AI goes on a search for that one, positive thing. Through appreciative interviews it gets people talking and listening to each other, capturing the best of what is in the form of stories and ideas.
To find these stories and ideas, AI goes out of its way to involve every possible stakeholder. No one person, not even the people at the top, can know everything that’s going on. So AI gathers the largest group possible, ideally the whole system, to go on the treasure hunt together. The more people participate, the easier it is to discover the life-giving stories and ideas of how that learning goal is making its presence felt.
3. Dream. What might be? Once individuals and groups define what they want to learn and once they discover how that learning is manifesting itself in the here and now, AI challenges people to generalize those discoveries into images of what the future might look like if such things were the rule rather than the exception, the norm rather than the anomaly, the visible rather than the invisible.
To do this, AI gets people to brainstorm what it calls “provocative propositions” as to the desired future state. No idea is discarded or judged as unworthy in the generation of these propositions. Instead, people are encouraged to openly discuss every option in order to connect with their life-giving energy. This is not a time to figure out what is realistic; it also not a time to figure out how to make those dreams happen. This is simply a time to dream big dreams and to savor their goodness.
In order to make this happen, AI encourages people to use both the left and right sides of their brain. Dreams are not the stuff of analysis and rigor. Dreams are the stuff of synthesis and play. So AI gets people engaged with their creative selves by utilizing art, music, movement, and metaphor in the development of their dreams. In large group processes, this can take the form of murals, skits, and songs as groups find their provocative, propositional voices. It’s no different in individual coaching. At some point we have to stop analyzing and start imaging, stop talking and start playing, in order to stir the human heart.
That is, in fact, exactly what happens when the dream comes into focus. It becomes a target that beckons, a magnet that attracts, an interest that inspires, and an ocean to which all streams flow.
Carl Jung once said, “All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble… They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This ‘outgrowing’ proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.” That’s the best statement I know of how dreams work to overshadow problems with life.
4. Design. What should be? If AI were to stop with define, discover, and dream it could still have an incredible impact on organizations and individuals. Putting a great dream on the table is powerful in and of itself, regardless of who agrees with the dream and of any specific strategies for its realization. But AI does not stop with the pretty picture. It asks people to hone that picture and to focus that vision into normative new patterns of behavior and meaning.
Of the dreams that are on the table, AI challenges people to develop the details. The design phase is still about dreaming, only now we get into the nitty-gritty of roles, jobs, relationships, leadership structures, management systems, business processes, as well as organizational culture and climate. Here too AI encourages people to put forth provocative propositions, but on a much finer level of granularity. Whereas the dream phase generates provocative propositions on the macro level, the design phase generates them on the micro level.
The devil, they say, is in the details. But so too is the spirit of life. As people work on the details of their desired future state, as things get even more palpable and specific, they get even more exciting. Once the fine lines get added to the broad strokes, things really jump off the canvass. Gradually • and sometimes suddenly • things long thought to be impossible are seen to be possible, dreams long thought to be fantasies do not seem so ridiculous, and insoluble problems really do lose their urgency.
5. Destiny. How do we make it happen? In many organizations and change strategies, this is where things start. The boss walks in the room, states the problems, and says, “Here’s what I think we should do, what do you think?” No wonder so many destinies go undelivered and unfulfilled! When we jump to the destiny phase too quickly, our solutions will be timid and may miss the mark entirely. Better to take the AI steps in order if we hope to provoke transformational change.
Destiny is the place where the rubber meets the road. To get there we have to do the hard work of strategic planning. But in the wake of the four other AI processes, the destiny planning process becomes much more innovative and courageous. We are no longer content with business as usual; instead, we seek extraordinary shifts that align the entire system • all four quadrants in Ken Wilber’s theory of everything (internal, external, individual, and collective) • in service of the dream.
To that end, AI makes continuing dialogue a fundamental part of any plan. The AI process is not linear; it’s circular. Once the destiny is delivered, it’s time to go back to step one. There will always be new things to learn, new discoveries to make, and new dreams to have. As Jane Magruder Watkins writes:
“The key to sustaining momentum is to build an ‘appreciative eye’ into all the organization’s systems, procedures, and ways of working. For example, one organization transformed their department of evaluation studies, to valuation studies, dropping the ‘e’, and with it the accumulated negative connotations that have attached themselves to the word ‘evaluation.’ Others have transformed strategy development processes, focus group methods, surveys, performance appraisal systems, leadership training programs, diversity initiatives, and almost every possible function of an organization, into an appreciative process that inevitably creates higher levels of excitement, enthusiasm for the work and commitment from the people involved.”
If that sounds good to you, whether for your organization or for yourself personally, then perhaps its time to consult with an AI practitioner who can make this process come alive and work its magic for you.
Coaching Inquiries: What experience do you have with transformational change? How have the big rocks been moved in your life? Does the process of Appreciative Inquiry speak to your experience? To your heart and mind? How could you learn to use AI on the job, at home, or in your persona life? Who could assist you to make it so?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I am really valuing your weekly Provisions • what a great way to start the week! I read with particular interest your Provision on doing Appreciative Inquiry with schools Click • that is so great! I am convinced that AI is such a powerful/critical process for school folks (and students) especially in this climate of failure that so many educators are enduring every day. We are currently leading an entire district on the West Coast through a strengths-based strategic planning process with AI at the core and have recently been doing some work with the State Teachers Association on using strengths based approaches for High School Reform • very interesting and exhausting 🙂 Perhaps we can find a way to partner at some point. Keep up the good work.
I just read your poem, Change Click. Change brings possibility and change comes at every moment. Our life floats in a vast ocean of changes. So we swim in possibility. This does not makes everything possible: change makes possible things that we could not see before, things that were hiding behind an unchanged world.
May I have your permission to reprint your Passion Poem Click in by Blog and/or newsletter. It is such a powerful reminder.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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