Appreciative Inquiry—Something Out of the Ordinary

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a unique and proven approach to accomplish change in any human system- individual, group, team, division, organization, community, country. AI is well grounded in the new sciences of chaos and complexity theory, quantum physics, the concept of social constructionism (we create our world by our inner and outer dialogues) and the many years of diverse research on imagery and positive thinking. The assumptions, and procedures of AI are opposite to those of traditional problem solving models. AI looks for that which works; it seeks to discover those behaviors, attitudes, and practices that reflect the best expressions of the human system when it is functioning optimally.


There are minimally four phases of AI (commonly called the four D model): Discover, Dream, Design and Deliver. In the Discover phase people experience the AI interview wherein participants work in pairs and recall and share stories of past and current memorable experiences about the topic of inquiry. In the Dream phase, larger groups analyze the behaviors attitudes and actions that contributed to those memorable times. In the Design phase, groups of ten or less share their most positive lofty images of what is possible to achieve based on the insights from the Dream phase. In the Deliver phase, people commit, request and offer to collaborate and work together in new ways to implement the ideas generated in the previous phases.


Prior to the Discover phase, the topic of inquiry is phrase from an AI perspective. Questions are AWAYS stated in the positive, in the affirmative. E.g. “ What would this organization be like if all were treating each other with dignity and respect?” Not “How do we stop sexual harassment?” “What behaviors are operating when the staff is most engaged and productive?” Not “How do we motivate the staff to be more efficient?” Once the topic is so defined, there are usually four generic questions that begin the Discover phase. These generic questions are asked and answered in pairs and include the following 1) a memory of a past positive experience around the topic of the inquiry 2) what the person values about themselves as a member of the human system 3) a description of the core values of the human system and 4) three wishes for change around the topic. Additional questions address specific subtopics: e.g. “ What are the best examples of cooperation you have experienced when….. ?” And, the questions of those subtopics are always framed from an affirmative point of view. .


The above noted stages and procedures are simply vehicles that have allowed me and those I have worked with to experience an unexpected joy, a kind of lightness of being, and, surprising energizing emotions, as we went through the phases of AI. Let me tell you what I have experienced in presenting AI workshops, in working with small groups and in being a part of a large scale AI experience involving 500 people. Participants in the workshops invariably find themselves caught up in the excitement of recalling and retelling positive memorable experiences of the past. Their joy and enthusiasm excites the listener and the buzz and laugher about the room seems to increase with each passing minute. This energy leads participants to articulate the themes-behaviors, attitudes and actions that contributed to those memorable experiences – and ultimately leads them to develop lofty, creative, super imaginative possible changes and new directions for the human system. (“ Provocative propositions” or “possibility statements” are the AI names for such heightened exhilarating imagery.) When participants tell me of their plans to implement AI after the workshop, it is very exciting to see how quickly the AI concepts have resonated. Additionally, I have experienced a special satisfaction when previous workshop participants tell me of their successes in applying AI in whole or in part to their human systems.


In working with small groups, I have observed how the participants initially hesitate to let go of their skepticism and cynicism to believe that focusing on positive past experiences or reframing a “problem” in a AI question can be honest or even doable. But invariably, once they are engaged in the early phases of AI, the latter phases are experienced with ease and excitement. The group members experience an unexpected ease in formulating ways to implement and address the issues under discussion.


I attended the first International AI conference in Baltimore Maryland in 2001. The participants were from around the world. It was very exciting to be in a room where provocative propositions and to show their group themes in picture form. Whether in small or large groups, people who experience the AI process revisit moments of joy, allow themselves to experience renewed hope and energy, and they are eager to implement the new ideas and images of the group. The synergy from working with others with the AI mindset creates outcomes that bring the participants to emotional and intellectual heights never contemplated or imagined at the start of the AI adventure.


I invite each of you to learn about and apply AI to the issues that are important to you. I encourage you to see your challenges not from an “it is broke and needs fixing” mentality but from “the solution is in how we phrase the question and what we imagine is possible.” I welcome you to the world of AI, a world where impossible in non-existent. If I can assist you in any way to experience the effectiveness of AI, or if you have further questions, please contact me at tgermany@fmcs.gov

In retrospect I have transitioned through three mental models with respect to my ADR work the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).In the 80’s I saw my role as that of a problem solver. Before coming to FMCS I had learned three terrific linear problem solving models from a Cambridge Mass group named “Synectics” I always had elements of those models in my mind as I worked with the parties..
In the early-90’s FMCS expanded our work to include training in how to facilitate and train groups using new concepts and approaches covering power point , decisions making, consensus, diagramming of group dynamics, paradigms , feedback, perceptions and the application of models from organizational theorist.. This information provided me with a broader understanding of what members in a group needed to make use of to achieve their goals.

My introduction to Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and Complexity Science (CS) is the third iteration of how I see my ADR work.. I now look for patterns within systems. Systems are the mental models and assumptions that influence the choices which lead to the patterns that make up how people operate together. I now know, understand, and have experienced how .the application of elements of AI and CS to thinking results in system wide changes. As indicated above, both approaches lead to changes that are transparent, contextual, inspiring, participatory, and sustainable. In my thinking I have gone from the parts (linear mental models) to the interaction of parts ( group dynamics) to the greater whole (AI and CS) .

                        author

Timothy Germany

Timothy Germany has worked for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since l984.  He mediates labor disputes in a wide variety of industries: auto, steel, health care, chemical, and national media in the private sector as well as mediations and trainings in the Federal  Sector. He establishes and maintains Labor Management… MORE >

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