By Life Positive
When the focus shifts from what is wrong to what is right, transformation can happen.
here, an introduction to a radical approach that is turning around companies and lives: appreciative inquiry
by R Sankarasubramanyan and Wasundhara Kanbur
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. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. – Carl Jung
One of us is a medical doctor by profession and the other a corporate HR manager. As a doctor and as a manager, we were both used to seeing what was wrong with a person or an organization, conduct a diagnosis and suggest remedial actions, either in the form of “bitter pills” or as an “intervention” that meant restructuring, retrenching or retraining people to become better. The people and the organizations became “better” or at least we felt so, but definitely we experienced this process as a drain on our energies as well as for the people who were involved.
became a stark reality when we started working with one of the largest public hospitals in Mumbai. As usual, we went in to speak to doctors, administrators, nurses and so on, to find out what ailed the system… and the floodgates were opened! People poured out all that was wrong, bad and morbid about the place. They also said that they were helpless and could not do anything about it because someone up there, or the system, was responsible. So we were stuck!
Amongst this outpouring of misery, there were glimpses of statements of pride in their professions, of good jobs done despite the odds, appreciation of the good actions of others and so on… This was like the silver lining in the proverbial dark cloud.
These small instances helped in changing our belief about the hospital. We began to believe that something worked here. We began to respect the staff who had shown tremendous commitment against all odds to help a patient live. We started to look for life here… and we found it! Once we started seeking out stories of what made this work worthwhile, there was no stopping them! There were stories of joy, of the miracle of life, of wonder of the gift that this profession had given. They were moving and often there were many tears, but they were about why, despite what seemed like impossible conditions, people continued to excel. That was not all. Once the staff had shared this, there was a new energy in the room. Suddenly, they could also see how much was right with the system as well, and not just what was wrong.
It changed the entire perspective of how we had started viewing the “problem” in the beginning. Suddenly, it did not seem so insurmountable. Like all hospitals, what got noticed, talked about and acted upon were “failures”, the “things that went wrong”. Even though what went right on a daily basis in a public hospital far outnumbered the wrongs, they were never highlighted. Stories of success never made it to the grapevine, only those of failure. Both the authorities and the people themselves had never focused on how much was being achieved. This changed on the day of the workshop, when they saw their work in a new perspective. It also allowed them to see problems as just that, problems, which can be resolved, and not something that was beyond their control. The reality had changed for them as well as for us.
We experienced for the first time the power of Appreciative Inquiry (AI)…and there was no stopping us any more.
What is AI?
Appreciative Inquiry as a model for change management was created by Dr. Suresh Srivastava and Dr. David Cooper rider from Case Western ReserveUniversity, USA. Afterwards, many people have contributed to the enrichment of the experience and conceptualization of this new body of knowledge in change management.
Inquiry as a process is very simple and straightforward. The philosophy behind this process is also very simple, yet profound.
Life is a constantly emerging organic process that amazes us with its richness, colors, texture and simplicity as well. Life is a mystery to be unraveled rather than a problem to be solved. Naturally, all life forms, whether they are people, communities or organizations, will gravitate towards the energies that are growth-oriented and life giving. What is required is to trust that natural flow and not work against it.
The “mechanistic” and “analytical” paradigm views living systems as inanimate and approaches them as something that can be broken into parts, corrected and re-assembled. But people, communities and organizations are living organisms and require to be viewed through an “organic” and “holistic” view and paradigm. They are more than the sum of their parts! This is an important AI perspective.
Another important aspect of AI philosophy is captured in the statement, “What you believe is what you see”. Life is holistic – it is a myriad of all emotions and life states. If you choose to split this whole and look at what works and what doesn’t, you will obviously see what you are looking for!
How it Works
Appreciative Inquiry is a strategy for purposeful change that identifies the best of “what is” to pursue dreams and possibilities of “what could be.” It is a cooperative search for the strengths, passions and life-giving forces that are found within every system – those factors that hold the potential for inspired, positive change.
The appreciative approach involves collaborative inquiry, based on dialogues, to collect and celebrate the good news stories of a community – those stories that enhance cultural identity, spirit and vision. Appreciative Inquiry is a way of seeing that is selectively attentive to – and affirming of – the best and highest qualities in a system, a situation or another human being. It involves an appreciation of the mystery of being and a reverence for life. It is not a “feel good” approach, but a commitment to a way of life.
There are four steps to the appreciative approach.
For more understanding of AI, please visit www.aicommons.org.
The Realm of Possibilities
The experience of the power of AI was life-changing for us as well. Both of us had been so focused on the problems of our personal lives, that all we got were more problems! When we changed the focus to the possibilities in our lives, many things that we were even afraid to think of, or thought too unlikely … started happening. When we looked at our lives differently, life changed!
We have experienced many transformations, both in our lives and that of others, when we started viewing with an appreciative eye. One such significant experience was that of a participant in one of our appreciative inquiry workshops. This person is a very senior executive with a well-known and highly successful retail brand. He had heard and read much about this approach and come to experience it himself. He brought in his critical mind along with his free-flowing creativity. In his own unassuming way, he helped to transform himself and the group through his persistent focus on what was possible. He experienced for himself the power of this method in the transformation of the group and the individuals. He also saw possibilities of applying this in his work. He has since transformed a very poorly functioning store into one of the most profitable in the chain. He did this, merely by wanting to hear what gave life to the work that the staff were doing, what energized them, and how it matched with the company values. What had started as a few days’ project went on for two weeks, as he heard each employee personally, and was moved by what he heard. Stories of customer care and the value staff placed on it abounded. He then extended this to the executive staff of the store, and could see the different perspectives at the floor and executive level. This allowed them to work together, using this newfound energy to help them through. There were unexpected benefits, of personal bonding and rapport with the store staff, and customers as well. The store has since had a record turnaround.
We could tell you many such stories of transformations at individual, organizational and community levels. But what we would really like is to hear your stories, of times when you felt most alive, and what is that life-giving force which drives you.
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