A Positive Revolution in Change
Publication date: 10/10/2005
Bestseller over 50,000+ copies sold
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is, as Professor Robert Quinn at University of Michigan has recently written,“creating a positive revolution in the field of organization development and change management.” 1 Why? One clue lies in how AI turns the practice of change management inside out. It proposes, quite bluntly, that organizations are not, at their core, problems to be solved. Just the opposite. Every organization was created as a solution designed in its own time to meet a challenge or satisfy a need of society.
Even more fundamentally, organizations are centers of vital connections and life-giving potentials: relationships, partnerships, alliances, and ever-expanding webs of knowledge and action that are capable of harnessing the power of combinations of strengths. Founded upon this lifecentric view of organizations, AI offers a positive, strengths-based approach to organization development and change management.
Management guru Peter Drucker commented in a recent interview,“The task of organizational leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”Could it be, as Drucker implies, that leading change is all about strengths? Why would strength connected to strength create positive change? What would it mean to create an entire change methodology around an economy and ecology of strengths? Where would we—as managers, facilitators, and change leaders—start? What might be the steps and stages of positive change? What about unique skills? How could the discovery and fusion of strengths elevate and extend a system’s capacity to adapt, learn, and create upward spirals of performance, development, and energizing growth?
Indeed, the field of management has always acknowledged that strengths perform and that their very presence, that is, the visible display of strengths, signals some kind of optimal functioning. The principles and practices of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) suggest the idea that collective strengths do more than perform—they transform.
At the surface, this sounds obvious and good. But when we pause and take stock of the way contemporary change management is practiced, we see clearly that positive approaches to change are not yet the norm.
Many, for example, were shocked at the results of the largest, most comprehensive survey ever conducted on approaches to managing change. The study concluded that most schools, companies, families and organizations function on an unwritten rule. That rule is to fix what’s wrong and let the strengths take care of themselves.
Although the results of this study do not sound like the Peter Drucker quote put into practice, where change is all about strengths, the research conclusion unfortunately rings familiar and true. Companies all too often call for low-morale surveys instead of designing rigorous inquiries into extraordinary moments of high engagement, commitment, and passionate achievement. Managers charter and analyze turnover rates—one report after another—instead of calling for analyses of retention or of magnetic work environments ,that is, times when people felt so connected to their work, their colleagues, and their organization that the bonds could not be broken.
How pervasive is this deficit-based approach to change, which says change begins with the identification of the most pressing problems, the gaps, and their root causes? Do you recognize it? Okay, try this: Think about the last three projects you’ve worked on and the last half dozen meetings you’ve attended. How many of the projects were designed to fix something? How many of the meetings were called to address a problem?
This book puts forth a bold challenge: Could it be that we as a field have reached the end of problem solving as a mode of inquiry capable of inspiring, mobilizing, and sustaining significant human system change? What would happen to our change practices if we began all our work with the positive presumption that organizations, as centers of human relatedness, are alive with infinite constructive capacity?
This book provides a beginning answer in an overview of the newest findings related to the definitions, principles, and practices of Appreciative Inquiry as a model for change leadership. Drawing upon twenty years of practice since Al’s birth at the Case Western Reserve University’s School of Management, we share stories of the success of positive change—bold and inspiring experiments in businesses and communities around the world. 2 Our hope is that this book will open your hearts and minds to the possibilities of positive change and the many ways that Appreciative Inquiry can help you and your organization achieve your greatest potential in service to a world of peace and prosperity for all.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) begins an adventure. Even in the first steps, one senses an exciting new direction in our language and theories of change—an invitation, as some have declared, to a“positive revolution.”The words just quoted are strong, but the more we replay the high-wire moments of our five years of work at GTE/Verizon, 3 the more we find ourselves asking the very same kinds of questions that the people of GTE asked their senior executives:“Are you really ready for the momentum that is being generated? This is igniting a grassroots movement . . . it is creating an organization in full voice, a center stage for positive revolutionaries!”
Tom White, president of what was then called GTE, Telops (making up 80 percent of GTE’s sixty-seven thousand employees), replied with no hesitation:“Yes, and what I see in this meeting are zealots, people with a mission and passion for creating the new GTE. Count me in, I’m your number one recruit, number-one zealot.”People cheered.
Fourteen months later, GTE’s whole-system change initiative won the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) award for the best organization change program in the country. This award was based on significant and measurable changes in stock prices, morale survey measures, quality and customer relations, union-management relations, and more. Appreciative inquiry was cited as the“backbone.” 4
To achieve this stunning shift in organizational culture, the team of internal and external change agents asked,“How can we engage the positive potential of all employees toward transforming the company?”The team wanted whatever we did to recognize and invite the positive expression of frontline employee strengths, initiatives, and capabilities. We set a goal of creating a narrative-rich culture with a ratio of five stories of positive performance and success to every negative one as a way of building a vibrant, high-performing, customer-focused culture.
This goal was approached in a number of ways:
In year one, more than fifty internal change agents (OD consultants, ER managers, Public Affairs and Corporate Communications staff) received extensive training in Appreciative Inquiry. In addition, Appreciative Inquiry was taught to eight hundred frontline employees.
Opportunities for sharing good news stories were created. One executive volunteered to be the story center. The stories came into his office, and he sent them out to other groups and departments to share and replicate. Many were published in the company newsletter.
Storytelling was embedded into many existing processes. For example, the annual President’s Leadership award focused on relaying stories about winning employees, their teams, and customer service.
Open-ended questions were added to the company employee survey, and the ratio of positive to negative comments was tracked.
An Appreciative Inquiry storybook was created as a teaching tool for all employees.
Appreciative Inquiry was used to introduce a new partnership model for the unions and for company management. 5
Based on his experience, Tom White described AI in executive language:“Appreciative Inquiry can get you much better results than seeking out and solving problems. That’s an interesting concept for me— and I imagine most of you—because telephone companies are among the best problem solvers in the world. We troubleshoot everything. We concentrate enormous resources on correcting problems that have relatively minor impact on our overall service and performance . . . when used continually and over a long period of time, this approach can lead to a negative culture. If you combine a negative culture with all the challenges we face today, it could be easy to convince ourselves that we have too many problems to overcome—to slip into a paralyzing sense of hopelessness. . . . Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating mindless happy talk. Appreciative Inquiry is a complex science designed to make things better. We can’t ignore problems—we just need to approach them from the other side.” 6
Are you ready for a positive approach to change? Are you tired of the same old discussions of what’s not working, how hard it is to overcome, and who’s to blame? Do you have hopes and dreamsforyour organization? Would you like to see engagement, commitment, and enthusiasm rise along with revenues and profits? Are you searching for a process to open communication, unleash human potential, and create a truly learning organization? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you are ready to accept the invitation to the positive revolution, to embrace Appreciative Inquiry, and to benefit from a positive approach to change management.
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