Appreciative Inquiry--Leverage your Strengths

(originally posted in

I was raised in an environment where we were consumed with “fixing” ourselves. Perhaps this came from my family's immigrant roots and the driving need to “fit in” or not to stand out (at least in bad ways). I always sought to do a good job, but I put limitations on myself in terms of getting better, as I focused so prominently on my development needs. A pivotal point in my work life came when I read Marcus Buckingham’s works, in particular, First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths. First, they caused me to become aware of the importance of bringing out the best in others and identifying how to maximize others talents. Second, the books made me aware of my own strengths, which I at first was disappointed to learn, since they were all ‘soft’ skills-- things which did not relate to my education, my work achievements, or characteristics that I cultivated actively. Understanding and focusing on what is good helped me to unleash thoughts of what could be. It is not surprising that I embrace the Appreciative Inquiry approach as one that can help organizations achieve their own self awareness and success in the way Buckingham teaches individuals to leverage what is good and do more of it.

Learning about facilitation was a nasty surprise in my professional development. Like good writing, good acting and good athletes, good facilitation skills are harder than they look. No matter the level of preparation in advance, a facilitator multi-tasks at the highest level—summarizing, synthesizing, extracting, recording, provoking, and teaching to name a few. In our quest to drive for clarity, it is often a facilitator’s jobto be the devil’s advocate, the reality tester, the shock of ice that helps quench the heat of discussion. So, having high quality tools that feel comfortable for us and our clients is of the utmost importance. Appreciative inquiry is such a tool.

In The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond shows how appreciative inquiry can help shift our paradigm from problem solving to visualizing solutions, or more aptly, what the solutions look like, feel like and sound like. (Hammond: p 24) It is all about enhancing the strength of what has been and discerning how to do more of it. I was particularly
struck by the final reflection that “the language we use creates our reality”. (p.24) The quest for constant vigilance in how we shape our thoughts, our words, our actions create a confluence of energy that becomes our new reality. What ties it together is the confidence that we have of knowing we have had success in the past. Hammond points to a probative example to make her point: athletics. Leveraging brain research that captures the power of (positive) suggestion, we see how the power of visualization helps athletes in particular to see the perfect shot, the perfect pitch, and the perfect hit. (p.30)

I see so many applications for appreciative inquiry, and in particular, as Jim Collins teaches, to help teams coalesce around their vision, to create an envisioned future, and to discover what they can be best in the world at doing. The tool of posing a “provocative proposition” is one that I believe can unlock true hidden potential in organizations. Hammond teaches us that provocative propositions “keep our best at a conscious level. They are symbolic statements because they have meanings well beyond words, reminding us of what is best about the organization and how everyone can participate in creating more of the best.” (p. 39) In Buddhist teaching, these propositions are our “right intentions”, and their prominence helps us to bring in universal knowledge to guide us towards success. It is, in short, the power of positive thought.

In current sessions, I already use some other principles of appreciative inquiry, in particular, when
I help clients to discover their core values. We ask clients to do two exercises, one of which is an exercise where they are asked to visualize colleagues who they believe best exemplify the values of the organization, and how those values have been demonstrated in the past. These characteristics form the basis of what the organization then can use to define “who they are”, a guidepost for what they can be. If identified well, a core value captures the past and blazes a trail for the future. It is the yardstick against which actions are measured. While Collins tells us that values are “discovered” rather than invented, asking the right questions helps others to take the first step towards being great, which is self awareness.

I look forward to using this powerful tool even more as I go forward in my practice. I need to test further the power of appreciative inquiry both with my clients and in my own life and community. While Hammond commends us to embrace this tool fully, I think that we must first unlearn years of problem solving skills and unleash and nurture our organizational positivity.

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