Provision #447: Provocative Propositions

Laser Provision

“Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” Daniel Burnham, a famous US architect, may have said those words in the late 19th century but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that Appreciative Inquiry showed the way to generate provocative propositions in the service of transformational change.

LifeTrek Provision

If provocative propositions ever made it to the top of the billboard charts, it was during my senior year in high school (1971-72). That was when John Lennon released his Imagine album with the following signature track:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Almost ten years later and just two days before his assassination in 1980 at the hands of a religious zealot, Lennon noted that the concept and lyrics for Imagine came from his wife, Yoko Ono. “Those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution, but it was right out of Grapefruit, her book, there’s a whole pile of pieces about imagine this and that and I have given her credit now long overdue.”

What prompted Ono to imagine such a utopian vision? Her experience of coping with the hardships and terrors of being in Japan, as a child, during the second World War. “I used my imagination to help my brother and me get through the war,” she told a reporter. “We had been evacuated from Tokyo but were desperately short of food. As our country was being bombed, I’d imagine menus for my starving brother. He would start to smile. The power of imagination is so strong. If you think something is impossible, you can imagine it and make it happen.”

Of course, we’re a long way from a world where religion, politics, and wealth no longer become causes that people will kill or die for. But that neither invalidates the song nor the power of imagination to make the impossible possible. As the saying goes, some things just take a little longer.

In the case of Yoko Ono, as a 12-year-old girl in war-torn Japan, imagination became the way to hold together her sanity and to lift herself above the fray. She and her siblings were not only hungry, they were also taunted for being reduced to poverty (she had been born into one of Japan’s wealthiest banking families). Imagination lifted her above the wheelbarrow that held their meager belongings. Others might see embarrassment, shame, failure, and destitution in their condition, but in her imagination she saw a different world and cultivated a different posture.

Today, Ono remains an imaginative activist. From world peace to human rights, and especially women’s rights, Ono’s imagination continues to lift her above the fray. “I’m always inside myself,” she muses, “listening to what’s coming into my head. I’m like a conduit of some message coming through me. I’m interested in everything, equally, every day. I’m in love with life, the world, every moment.”

On that basis, she has put forward provocative propositions for nearly 73 years. “Imagine there’s no heaven … countries … possessions.” That was provocative in 1971; it may be even more provocative today.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) sees great value in such provocation and has developed a methodology for raising it to the fore. Instead of timid and tentative suggestions as to how to make things a little bit better, AI seeks to generate bold and provocative propositions as to how to make things a lot better. And it does so by unlocking the power of imagination.

That’s why AI spends so much time in the discovery stage of its transformational process. By looking for strength and stories of success, AI not only inculcates people with a can-do attitude, it also creates a safe environment in which people can begin to dream together. By looking for problems that need to be solved, people are thrust back into the realm of embarrassment, shame, failure, and destitution. Even when lip-service is given to a no-fault presumption, there’s always the lurking suspicion that heads will roll if the propositions get too provocative. As a result, engagement tends to remain minimal and superficial while suggestions tend to remain shallow and incremental.

Not so when it comes to AI. Once people have discovered and collectively celebrated their strength and stories of success, they become much more adventuresome in the putting forward of propositions for change. People who had long suspected that their ideas would never be listened to, either because their ideas were too off the wall or because they were too far removed from the corridors of power, now dare to stand up and speak their mind. Instead of small plans, they end up thinking big.

This is the beginning of the AI design process. “Participants draw on discoveries and dreams,” write Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom, “to select high-impact design elements and then to craft a set of provocative statements that list the organizational qualities they most desire. True to the principles of AI, Provocative Propositions are written in the affirmative. They expand the organization’s image of itself by presenting clear, compelling pictures of how things will be when the organization’s positive core is boldly alive in all of its strategies, processes, systems, decisions, and collaborations.”

Whitney & Trosten-Bloom identify four qualities of great propositions. They are:

  • Stated in the Present Tense. They express future ideals as if they already exist.
  • Grounded in What Works. They are based upon best practice stories that surface through the Discovery phase.
  • Provocative. They stretch the organization beyond the familiar.
  • Desirable. They take the organization where people want to go.

This is the stuff, as the quote from Daniel Burnham in the Laser Provision suggests, that “stirs humanity’s blood.” It’s also the stuff that has kept Yoko Ono going for 73 years. And it all becomes possible once Appreciative Inquiry unlocks the door of imagination.

Coaching Inquiries: What can you imagine? Are you afraid to think big and imagine great possibilities? How could you become more provocative? What are the conditions that need to be satisfied in order to move you into a new way of being? How could you let go of judgment and grasp hold of peace?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

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..

Your last Provision, Embrace Greater Goods Click, makes a lot of sense. It’s a keeper and one I’ll put on top of the work pile and personal calendar this week to see what kind of staying power it has. 

Appreciative Inquiry was a whole lot of buzz at the most recent convention of the International Coach Federation, as evidenced in writings and newsletters of several coaches with a strong internet marketing program, like you have. Your presentation of it has been a steady series of articles and that’s making it useful. Thanks!

In your last Provision you wrote that, “The more people try to push and stretch the performance leg, without comparable gains in learning and enjoyment, the more things break down.” How true!

First of all, please, please, please, may I use the phrase “incompetent problem magnets to competent possibility creators” in an upcoming workshop? What a GREAT phrase! I’ve really been enjoying the Appreciative Inquiry series.

The poem on Change Click was wonderful. It helps me think about my current situation a little differently and gave me a new angle. Thank you. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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