Appreciative Inquiry: Sarah Lewis, Jonathan Passmore, Stefan Cantore; Kogan Page: 2011
Two topics in which I have long had an interest, combined in one book; what could be more enticing?! It describes its purpose in the introduction as “exploring the power of conversation to create new futures for people and organizations”. Written in an approachable style, the book starts by reminding us of the history of management science and organizational enquiry; a useful starting-point. This leads into a discussion about the typical issues that inhibit effective organizational change, and the authors cite such challenges as the naming of problems to produce change (i.e. the belief that a CEO – by simply identifying the required change - believes that it can be made to happen); the belief that instruction will lead to change; the assertion that emotions are problematic per se; the use of power and intimidation to drive change; amongst others.
These authors see the above limiting beliefs as evidence of organizations operating as machines. In chapter 2 they explore the concept of the organization as a living, evolving entity. Using this framework leads change champions to focus on the interactions that exist within organizations as enablers and action-conduits. Focussing on interactions gives importance to the relationships, conversations, emotional connections and positive energies that exist within the organization. It also provides a platform for the development and enhancement of corporate stories: these stories form the organization’s history which can be told, and retold, and which provides a structure on which its future can be created.
A discussion about appreciative inquiry follows. Appreciative inquiry is social constructionism – postmodernism – wherein our present and future can be constructed from conversations. Positive psychology has contributed somewhat to this approach in that there is a focus on developing the future – the need for change – from a positive / constructive perspective. Postmodern thinking challenges conventional organizational theory because it brings together individual views about what the organization is: the organization, through this lens, is no longer a solid-state entity but rather a shifting, shapeless entity that is in constant flux. If this is accepted, it is easy to see that appreciative inquiry would be a useful analysis and development tool for organizational change, since it is important that all views are collected and given some weight.
Chapter 4 provides the basis for conducting appreciative inquiry for change. It involves story-telling sense-making, shared experience, a continuous improvement ethos and a high level of critical reflection. You’ll discern from this that the technique is best-suited in cases where change is emergent; where the future state is unclear; where the focus is on longer-term outcomes. The technique is one that seemingly requires some boldness in deployment: using this approach means that management cede some control and may need to display some vulnerability because the direction and exigencies of change may emerge rather than be constructed by a few individuals.
The book reaches the end of chapter 4 – page 55 of 199 – and has effectively covered its main topic. Thereafter, the authors offer several chapters on advanced techniques: questioning, the power of conversation, story-telling and the intricacy of interaction. Case studies follow.
What this tells me is that the concept linking appreciative inquiry and organizational change is a fairly simple one; and the toolkit required relatively small. However, the key message is that appreciative inquiry requires practitioners with extensive experience in holding meaningful conversations and in extracting deep meaning through incisive and relevant questioning: this is not a path that one would choose to take without the confidence and skills to hold potentially-divisive dialogue in the spirit of positivity, vulnerability and equanimity.
I like this book for its simplicity and easy-read style. It challenges the just-do-it, alpha approach to change and also contests the process-driven / project-management methodologies beloved by bureaucratic organizations.
In truth, appreciative inquiry should be simply one more approach available to change agents, to be deployed in an appropriate environment and in a spirit of openness and understanding.
Reviewer’s rating: 3 out of 5