Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Don’t bring me your problems, or Appreciative Inquiry to the rescue

Do you ever find out about something and ask yourself “How didn’t I know about that before?” For the last week or so I’ve been reading about the theory and practise of Appreciate Inquiry. It makes a lot of sense to me and I can see myself applying it. In fact, it makes so much sense it seems to underpin a lot of what I’ve been believing for the last few years, so I’m asking myself: how did I pick this up without knowing the name of it?

Actually the idea of Appreciative Inquiry (AI for short) is quite simple: appreciate what is good, inquire into what is good, and harness the positive energy for change.

This is diametrically opposed to many ideas of change that start from the assumption: something is wrong, something has failed or something is a problem, therefore, we must use this failure to fix the problem.

The problem with the problem approach is simple: it is a mind trap, you start looking for problems, you get negative, you focus on what is wrong. Your language becomes full of negative things - “Sales were down”, “Software was buggy”, “Delivery was late” - you loose sight of the miracle that you just shipped a 1,000,000 application, or you sold $1m of product. And when you become negative you mindset becomes negative. And when people become negative they become defensive, change actually becomes more difficult.

So AI takes the other approach: look what is good here, what did we do well? What should we do more of? And with your positive mindset you’ll look for opportunities to improve. According to the stories I’ve been reading (and yes, AI does seem to overlap with story telling) once you get the positive mindset you unleash lots of energy.

I suspect one problem with the AI approach is when you have create a sense or urgency or explain the need for change in a 5 minute PowerPoint to senior management it is always quicker and easier to cry wolf than it is to paint a picture of the new Nirvana.

Now, what about learning? Regular readers will know my proposition that Change <=> Learning. Well, the good news it that this is entirely compatible. We learn best when we want to learn, when we are enthused and focused on learning something - anyone else ever done more education than the law demanded? - If we are positive, and have plenty of energy then learning is going to be easier. If we are learning because we are enjoying ourselves then we learn more and better.

The problem tends to come when we can’t follow through on our learning; we learn how to create better software but we can’t do it (we can’t change our processes) and we get frustrated and negative. We criticize others and see failure and problems.

Before I answered the question I set at the beginning let me give you some references - this thing is worth knowing more about!

The original AI paper is by Cooperrider and Srivastva . Its pretty heavy going, very academic, mainly talks about Action Research (another fascinating topic) and contrast Logical Empiricism with Socio-rationalists. Its heavy but good, I’ve got a few other good ideas from here.

If you want something shorter try this short piece on the Harvard website. Bushe has a good piece on AI with teams here and more stuff here that I’ve not looked at yet.

Finally, for references, I read this piece by about AI at GTE. If your scratching your head saying “I kind of remember GTE” so was I, this is the old name for Verizon. Actually, a bit of Googling on appreciative inquiry and GTE brings quite a few references so may be a well researched case.

The website http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu has a lot more too.

So, to return to my earlier question: how have I missed appreciative inquiry?

Well, on the one hand I haven’t missed it. I found a brief note in my MBA lecture notes about it and a note to myself “Read more about this”. So, I was aware of it four years ago.

Second, I think many of the authors I’ve been reading in the past couple of years had a similar philosophical bent to Cooperrider and Srivastva so, even if they hadn’t be directly exposed to appreciative inquiry, they were leaning towards these theories and I’ve picked some of it up from them.

And third, and this is the big one: I think I’ve had some of my AI bent washed from me in the last year to 18 months. Ever since I became a Product Manager people have been asking me to “Identify the problem you are trying to solve” add to this my own emphasis on some Lean/Agile techniques which ask you to “Fix the biggest problem first” then “do it again”.

So, I think I’ve become Problem Focused. This has had two effects: first it has subjected me to the “we have a problem” approach, I’ve been caught up in the language and thinking of problems and this has had a negative effect on me and my own thinking. Second, the problem approach has hidden my AI bent.

When I think back I didn’t convert my employers to Agile Software Development because we had a problem, I converted them because I saw an opportunity. What’s wrong with that? The developers who bought into the ideas of Agile and Lean did not do so because they were trying to fix a problem, they did it because it seemed like a good idea.

Long live the Opportunity! Appreciate the good! To hell with problems!