Appreciative Inquiry (AI) works. I know, because I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. Last week my wife and I led one of our client organizations through the very beginnings of an AI process. In three days’ time, we facilitated 11 meetings that involved a total of almost 200 people. From 7-year-olds to 70-year-olds, everyone was engaged by the quest to discover and share some of the great stories of their life and work together. It was a touching reminder of the transformational power of inquiry and narrative. Read on to learn the details.
I planned to title this Provision “Continuous Inquiry,” to distinguish the appreciative organization from those that are committed to working the agenda of “Continuous Improvement.” We’ll get to that eventually, but I figured you would be more likely to read the Provision with a title like “I Saw It Work.” Everyone loves a good story, and I have a good story to tell.
LifeTrek Coaching has been working with a school district in the Midwest for more than a year. We were retained to work with the leadership in response to the research and writing that my wife has done on the importance of organizational climate to school performance. That’s my wife’s area of expertise (she teaches Leadership in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA) and she has made a name for herself around the concept of trustworthy leadership. In the wake of various corporate scandals, businesses are not the only ones concerned about trust. It seems to be on everyone’s mind.
That’s good, because the evidence is both clear and overwhelming that the quality of the relationships between people impacts and often determines the performance of their organizations. If there ever was a time when trust didn’t matter, when the boss could get away with old-school, command-and-control, “because-I-said-so” leadership, that time is long past. Today, organizations rise and fall on how well people work together and treat each other. When trust is high, performance is high. When trust is low, performance suffers.
Since Megan published her book, “Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools” Amazon, in 2004, we have been contacted by many districts and professional associations to not only present her findings and model but also to apply her research to the practical challenges of school improvement. Our most extensive relationship to date, including assessments, coaching, training sessions, radio interviews, and public events is with that district in the Midwest.
As part of our ongoing work with that district, we have mutually decided to conduct an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) summit in June 2006. We see AI as a very compatible methodology for promoting trust in organizations. When stress levels are high • and they are clearly high in the United States right now when it comes to public schools and the accountability movement • it’s tempting to go looking for what’s wrong. That’s what regulators and auditors do! But the more we focus on problems, the harder it becomes to trust each other. Under the surface, there is always the question of who is to blame for the problems. It can become very messy, very quickly.
Since AI gets people to go looking for what’s right, it generates an entirely different kind of energy. There’s no blame or shame game, since it’s all good. By focusing on the accomplishments, the best things that are going on in the life of an organization, people see new possibilities for working together and moving forward. Even people who have had breaches in trust become more open to making things work.
To get ready for the AI summit, my wife and I spent three days in the school district last week conducting 11 discovery sessions that involved a total of almost 200 people. Most lasted an hour. Some were as long as 5 hours. We met with students in every building, all the way down to first grade. We met with administrators, teachers, parents, school board members, community leaders, business leaders, and the general public. As a result, we had scores of people volunteer to work on the planning committee for the June summit. It was an uplifting and positive time for us all.
The process we facilitated was simple enough. My wife and I hardly spoke at all. We got people talking to each other, first one-on-one and then in groups of four, about the best things going on in the district and about their hopes and dreams for the schools. When we had enough time, we also showed a video (“Celebrate What’s Right With The World” by Dewitt Jones Click) and invited people to share their discoveries with the larger group. For all its simplicity, we could not have asked for better responses. Consider the following vignettes:
- Our second meeting was with a group of 2nd and 3rd graders, along with their teachers. We started by explaining that we would be telling each other stories, stories about the good things that are happening at the school. As soon as we said that we would be “telling each other stories,” children around the room gasped, oohed and ahed, smiled, giggled, and otherwise expressed their delight. We could have been offering free candy and not gotten a better response. Storytelling is that attractive.
- The first graders were a pretty squirmy bunch in a very crowded room. The stories they had to tell were nevertheless delightful.
- All of the school sessions were videotaped by a teacher and a student from the high school. While we traveled light, they spent two days lugging heavy camera equipment around to five different locations. It was not easy work, but we now have the raw material for a great video leading up to the summit. One of the middle-school students did such a good job that we asked our videographer if he could quickly transfer that clip to a VHS tape so that we could show it to some of the other groups. He agreed that it would be valuable and he happily spent more than hour after school to get that together for us. He didn’t have to do that, but he did.
- A PR consultant was captivated by the notion of putting a video together for use in the community. “This tells the story of the good things this school district is doing,” she said, “and people don’t hear that often enough.” Something tells me they will be hearing a lot of good things in the weeks and months ahead.
- In a meeting with community leaders, the Mayor enthusiastically endorsed the summit as well as the AI methodology, noting that this was the first meeting in his six years as mayor that did not include discussion of some problem or another. He found it to be refreshing, exhilarating, and helpful. He, too, signed up for the planning committee.
- Since we were doing these discovery sessions with different groups at different times, some people attended them more than once. It was most impressive that a number of board members, administrators, and teachers showed up voluntarily for a public session on Saturday morning when some of them had already gone through the process on two other occasions. They found the process appealing enough to take two hours of personal time to go through it again.
- One administrator teared up over having a hard time thinking of any positive stories. “That’s just not right,” was the reflection. “I know they’re out there, but they’ve become invisible. All I deal with, day after day, are problems. This exercise makes me realize that I have to start paying attention to more than just the problems.”
- Several people asked to renew their coaching sessions in the wake of our visit. They realized that AI would not be sustainable without intentionality, focus, and strategy. Coaching is one way to bring those dimensions to the fore.
- At least one person came up afterward to express his pleasant surprise as to how good the time together had been. “I don’t usually get into these things,” was the explanation, “I’m not a touchy-feely kind of person. But our sharing here was good and I really enjoyed it. I’m hopeful that we can keep this spirit alive in the district.”
- At the middle school we met with the student council as well as several teachers. The student government representatives were both thoughtful and articulate. They expressed a vision for their school that was echoed everywhere we went. More respect, less drama, non-judgmental, and academic recognition were their themes. Who doesn’t want those?
These are only snippets of the good times we had together. Will they be enough to make things better in the district? You never know. To quote Dewitt Jones from the video we watched, “You never know where it’s going to go when you publish it in your life. When you give it all back. You just have to do it and believe. Incredible things happen when we’re open to possibilities, because the world is an astounding place. If we believe that, if we’re open enough to it, we’ll see it. If we hold a vision that fills us with energy, takes us to our own edge, and gives us the courage to soar, we’ll indeed be able to celebrate what’s right with the world.”
That’s what I think happened during those three days. Stories were told about what’s right with the district and what people still dream of for their life and work together • that energy was published in the district, and there’s no telling where it’s going to go.
I was struck by a story our leaders told us at a recent AI training event. Avon Mexico retained AI consultants to assist them with gender diversity. Even though the vision of Avon is “to be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service, and self-fulfillment needs of women globally,” there were no female representative on the executive committee at Avon Mexico. The process involved a leadership team, several two-day workshops, and an AI summit.
By the end of the summit, more than 300 appreciative interviews had been conducted with a wide variety of stakeholders, including customers. The consensus was that the more people knew about the positive ways that men and women were working together in teams, the better things would get. So that was their strategic plan as to what they would do with the results of the summit. The external consultants moved out and the internal people kept on doing interviews. They went from having 300 appreciative interviews to having more than 3,000. Two years later, Avon Mexico was the winner of the prestigious Catalyst Award, given annually to a company whose policies and practices most benefit women in the corporation.
Can you imagine that as a strategic plan? There was no grand design. There was no quota set as to female representation. There were no heads that rolled. There was nothing to guarantee improvement except the power of the Appreciative Inquiry process itself. The more people asked each other appreciative questions, the more positive stories were told, and the more things shifted in an award-winning direction.
For AI to work it has to become part of the culture, as it did at Avon Mexico. It’s not something to do at a summit and then forget about. It’s not an isolated intervention. It’s a philosophy, a process, and a way of working together. It generates continuous improvement by making continuous inquiry of the things people want to see.
When that happens, when people start looking for the good stuff, they end up discovering more resources and energy for change than they ever imagined possible. Continuous appreciative inquiry is a wonderful change strategy for 21st century organizations, whether they be school systems, corporations, government agencies, or nation-states. It works because it assists people to construct a new reality based upon new questions and new stories.
I know, because I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. Don’t you want to see it too?
Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time that you heard a good story about what was going on in your organization? How could you be the catalyst for change? Could you start making appreciative inquiries? Where else could this approach be useful? Is your family or club looking for a few good stories? Who could join you in the appreciative quest?
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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, Pleased To Be Click, was profound. Your reflections on life and death lifted my spirit and made me think. Thanks for that
I always pay special attention to your marathon tales, I love mountain biking and running. I have just engaged the Paleo diet and I would appreciate if you can give me a piece of advice on feeding for aerobic exercises. Reading your provisions is always a blessing. Thank you for all the work we receive. (Ed. Note: You might want to read The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance Amazon)
I always enjoy your readings when you mix a recent race with a ‘lesson in life’. Congrats on your finish. I too have lost friends close to my age and it serves as a wakeup call for me. As always, I really enjoy your weekly message and topics.
You mentioned last week that you ate a modified Paleo diet. What are the modifications you have made? I bought the book to see what the diet involved • I don’t eat meat or fish, and see that Paleo man did not eat grains, dairy products, legumes, or starches, which mitigates against being vegetarian. (Ed. Note: It’s hard to be a Paleo vegetarian. As you say, that’s not how they lived. When I made the change from vegetarian to Paleo, I started eating lean wild game and organic, free range poultry in addition to fish.)
Are you interested in articles on keeping a journal? I write a journaling column and have the book, The 5 Year Journal? http://www.the5yearjournal.com.
Thanks for sending me your Provisions. I look forward to them every week. I enjoyed reading your one about Tex. I knew Tex and I will be going to the ASP again this summer. It will never be as good as it was with Tex as the head man.
Its very nice to meet someone like u. I know that the Lord is keeping u stronger and stronger. I want to know whether u have some packages for children services. I teach the children service in my country, Ghana, and I want more exciting and lovely ways to teach them and draw them closer to the Lord. It could be through quizzes, puzzles, and questions from the Bibles that could help them to grow. These children are aged between 2 to 20 years. I hope to hear from u very soon. The Lord be with u always. (Ed. Note: Thanks, but we do not have packages for children services.)
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
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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