We’re so accustomed to thinking in terms of the problem-solving mentality that we can be blind to what’s working well in our lives and our organisations.
That statement lies at the core of a new, Gestalt-inspired approach to organisational development, dubbed by its creator, Professor David Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry (AI for short).
AI takes the view that what we mean by reality is actually our perceived reality, which we actively construct out of our experiences and beliefs. If, for example, we focus exclusively on what’s wrong, we get into negative talk about eradicating problems (our talk determines what we find). Such talk sponsors negative collective imagining, and what we imagine governs what we’re capable of achieving.
Cooperrider’s innovation was to invert this logic. No organisation (or organism) can survive for long unless enough of its systems and processes are working well. What if we began talking, imagining and acting on what we want for ourselves and our organisations rather than what we don’t want?
Let’s take the example of a company that defines itself in terms of being the fastest or the biggest. There’s nothing essentially wrong with ambitions like this in the world of enterprise. However, they can easily take a negative turn with an exclusively problem-solving, “manager-as-change-agent” approach. Being the fastest and the best implies endless improvement – the competitive world never stands still. However, what might seem like a worthy goal from a management perspective will almost certainly look and feel very different from an employee perspective – the people who actually do the work to realise the goal.
If constant improvement becomes the core managerial guiding principle for the organisation, employees are likely to feel that no matter how much effort they put in, it’s never enough. If managers respond by focusing on what’s preventing the goal from being realised, the sense of being criticised and underappreciated is likely to multiply, undermining the goal even further.
AI begins from the premise that all attempts to dragoon or marshal people into changing are doomed from the outset. One of the doyens of Gestalt psychology, Arnold Beisser, brought out a paradox that lies at the heart of genuine change – a paradox we’d be unwise to overlook: fruitful change can’t be coerced from above by a self-designated “change agent”; it can only be facilitated and nurtured. In a seminal paper from 1970, he wrote, “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.”
This is precisely what AI aims at: appreciating the talents that already exist, even if in nascent form; identifying in which way they want to develop; encouraging people to become what they already are at their best; and fostering imaginative conversations that seek to break down what has to be collaboratively co-constructed in order for that “best” to flourish.
That means dropping grand plans for reforming organisational culture from above and focusing time, effort and development activities on the individuals who between them have made that culture in the first place.
AI brings them together to work on the values, talents, behaviours and sense of purpose that produce an organisation’s culture (and its success); and it does so from the human foundations up.