The reason Appreciative Inquiry works is because it inspires people to not only dreams bigger dreams but to embrace greater goods. We end up motivated not only to raise the bar of our expectations, but to seek a more holistic and life-giving experience. This may sound like New Age woo-woo, but it’s actually the essence of success. Focusing on performance alone is ultimately counterproductive and unsustainable. Bringing in such life-giving factors as learning and enjoyment provides a competitive, transformational edge.
It’s not rocket science, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. In last week’s Provision Click, I wrote about the power of appreciation to help us dream bigger dreams. When we see nothing good around us, when we feel discouraged and distressed, our dreams • if we have them at all • are very small. We hope to make things a little bit better or even just not so bad. Baby steps and incremental progress describe how we show up on a good day. On bad days, there’s no room for dreams at all.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has an antidote for small dreams. By looking for examples, no matter how small, of what we want to have happen, AI puts the spotlight on positive things. By taking the time to become aware and to tell the stories of those things, AI discovers even more of those things than people knew existed. Good, positive stories are like laughter. Once someone catches the bug, pretty soon the whole room is laughing. So too with great stories. Once someone has a great “remember when” story, others recover and tell some of their own.
The discovery phase of AI is the most important phase. That’s because the discovery phase surfaces the positive questions, memories, and stories that elevate the affect and awaken the hope to dream bigger dreams. In fact, when the discovery phase is done correctly and thoroughly, bigger dreams become an automatic reflex. We don’t have to be told or commanded to dream bigger dreams, we want to do so. In fact, we can hardly keep from doing so. When we move from seeing ourselves as incompetent problem magnets to competent possibility creators, there’s no limit to the dreams we may generate.
In fact, the dreams often become so dynamic as to move altogether outside the realm of where we started. Performance improvement is a case in point. Let’s say that an organization or an individual wants to improve performance in a particular area of interest or concern. A manufacturing company, for example, may want to improve productivity, a customer service department may want to reduce average call time, or a school system may want to meet state standards. An individual, on the other hand, may want to improve their sport performance, lose weight, or increase their sales volume.
Whatever the interest or concern, the traditional approach starts with a root cause analysis of the problems. I remember working with a Consumer Products Goods (CPG) company who brought in a large consulting firm because they were having problems getting products into and out of their warehouses on time. For the first month, the consulting firm went to every warehouse and shadowed the workers, documenting everything they did, recording times with stop watches, and interviewing people as to the obstacles and bottlenecks. Through a series of meetings, they ended up making recommendations as to how to fix the problem: new warehouse management hardware and software, business practices, training, and personnel were all in the mix.
For the warehouse workers it was a very discouraging process. They had been doing the best they could with what they had to work with, yet the consultants saw only the problems. And why not? That’s what they were being paid to find! After their recommendations were made, some were successfully implemented while others were not. Many solutions lacked the buy-in of critical stakeholders since they were recommended by outside experts. Months of engagement by the consultants were not enough to fully appreciate the culture and capacities of the company.
The result? There were improvements in warehouse performance, but they did not fully meet management expectations and they did not impact other areas of the organization. In other words, the improvements were limited both in quality and quantity. The dreams started and ended small: fix the warehouse problem. And they didn’t even do that.
This same process would have been ideally suited for Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of doing a root cause analysis of the problems, the consultants could have launched a company-wide root cause analysis of the successes. From order to cash, including every department, the consultants could have shadowed and interviewed people about the instances when products did get into and out of the warehouse on time. Then, in an appreciative forum involving as many stakeholders as possible, the consultants could have brokered a conversation as to what was going on when things worked right and how could that be done more often.
Chances are, if that had been the process, the company would have come up with bigger dreams than merely fixing the warehouse problem and they would have had the necessary support and resources to make those dreams come true.
One reason for that is because systems, by definition, are interconnected. That’s what makes them a system! Business systems, school systems, family systems, and every system function only as well as their constituent parts function in relationship to each other. There’s no way that a warehouse problem is just at the warehouse. It involves each and every person in the company. When orders get filled on time, something worked well on every level. But it takes time to appreciate and understand that, let alone to make that the rule rather than the exception.
Nevertheless, such is the promise of Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of a modest improvement, AI holds out the promise of a quantum leap. Like those bowlers who improved their scores 100% by watching their strikes and spares rather than their misses and mistakes Click, AI inspires people to “make no small plans” and to implement those plans successfully.
Another reason for that is because AI inspires people to not only dream bigger dreams but to embrace greater goods. Once people get in the appreciative spirit, they are not content to dream bigger dreams about small questions (e.g. warehouse performance improvement). They start asking bigger questions as to how the original interest or concern fits together with everything else. Suddenly they not only want to do better, they also want to learn more and to enjoy the process. In other words, they become interested in what Tim Gallwey calls a new definition of work.
I have written about this extensively before Click, but it fits in so well with Appreciative Inquiry that a quick review is in order. Most people, Gallwey notes, define work in terms of performance. Work is what we have to accomplish, and it is neither necessarily nor even usually something we enjoy. Work is a chore. From this definition, dream bigger dreams would mean that we set the performance bar even higher. Instead of seeking to improve performance by 30%, we shoot for 100%.
As that CPG company found out, however, setting the bar higher does not necessarily generate peak performance, even when we bring in expensive consultants. If setting the bar higher just makes work even more of a chore, it will prove to be counterproductive. If people are not learning and enjoying the experience of work, then performance degrades over time.
We like to think of this as an equilateral triangle, with one side being performance, one learning, and the third enjoyment. Since it is an equilateral triangle, the sides must always be equal in length (or else the triangle breaks). To grow performance, we must also grow learning and enjoyment. That’s less of an assertion than a statement of the way things work. The more people try to push and stretch the performance leg, without comparable gains in learning and enjoyment, the more things break down.
Appreciative Inquiry is an excellent methodology for getting people to embrace these greater goods even if they have never read or heard of Tim Gallwey. Once people feel appreciated, once they feel safe, respected, valued, trusted, and heard, they will naturally generate ideas for transforming the entire work experience into a larger performance-learning-enjoyment triangle.
That’s why AI speaks of itself not as an approach for organizational development but for transformational change. It empowers people to think outside the box of narrow performance expectations. The bottom line, when it comes to AI, is not a single financial figure. It’s not even a Balanced Scorecard Click, as businesses are want to use the term. It’s bigger than that, because it involves all aspects of the performance-learning-enjoyment triangle. In short, it seeks to make work and every other experience an affirming expression of life.
As David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney write, “AI is the cooperative, co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. It involves systematic discovery of what gives life to an organization or a community when it is most effective and most capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.” Talk about something larger than warehouse improvement! AI seeks to find and amplify the vitality of people and their organizations because it knows that there is no other way to make things better.
Think about that for yourself in any area where you may be pushing for performance improvement. It’s not enough to just work harder. It’s not even enough to work smarter. Sometimes we have to work wider: embracing greater goods in the pursuit of every singular goal.
Coaching Inquiries: Do you pay attention to the big picture when it comes to what’s going on in life and work? How could performance become only one of the goods that we seek? How could we balance performance with learning and enjoyment in a perfect, equilateral triangle? What changes would that require? Who could assist with that project?
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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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