Seeing change as a problem

Seeing change as a problem

In a previous article, I examined why problem solving, which is our conventional approach to change, is instrumental in creating resistance and slowing or neutralising attempts to create change.

Briefly, the reasons are as follows:

1) The focus of problem solving is usually on the ‘gap’, and the present problem/s and rarely is enough emphasis placed upon creating shared clarity about the destination.

2) The emphasis on deficiencies tends to have a disempowering effect – ‘I can see that’s the problem but I’m not sure I can change’.

3) This in turn creates defensiveness – ‘Why should I change?’ because it becomes easier to knock down the change than to admit we can’t.

4) In turn, this defensiveness and reluctance, coupled with a human dislike of being confronted with our shortcomings, fractures the relationships and depletes the trust necessary for people to make changes.

A different starting point

Every person or organisation has inherent creativity, capability, imagination and success. If we begin from this perspective then a new approach to change is possible.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to change that begins with the assumption that, for whatever the issue, there will always be examples for an individual or organisation of success. They may be fleeting or infrequent or incomplete but they will always exist.

Too often these successes are dismissed as being a distraction to the problem or too insignificant to matter. But, surely, it is worth finding out how these successes occurred – not because we want to revel in the knowledge that everything is OK but because if we really understood how these occurrences came about we might be much better equipped to create more of them.

The Appreciative Inquiry way

Appreciative Inquiry begins by asking exactly these questions. It also begins, critically, by asking them of the individuals who will ultimately be asked to change.

AI begins with establishing the change which is aspired. What does the individual or organisation want more of? This then becomes the focus of research, and questions are developed to look deeply into where such behaviour or outcomes already exist.

These questions are positively framed and individuals involved in the change are interviewed to explore the best examples of the chosen aspiration. The emphasis is on real stories and actual events as these are not only primary data but they tend also to be easier to collect and communicate.

The stories are then shared and discussed to establish what they all have in common. It is also useful to examine where they differ as this can uncover alternative and complementary strategies to success. The conclusions are then drawn together into a compelling and memorable vision of what success would look like and feel like.

The next stage is to create a set of statements for what will be necessary to create the desired future. These will be based in the vision but will be both provocative and practical and will provide guidance for action planning – both now and ongoing.

Using the vision and guidelines, action steps are created for who will do what and when – both immediately and into the future.

Why does it work?

Most people, when they hear this approach, say that it sounds very logical but struggle to see why it is so much more effective.

AI is based on a vast body of research into human behaviour in the fields of psychology, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences. It also shares its scientific underpinnings with other leading edge approaches to change like Neuro Linguistic Programming and Coaching. There are many reasons, therefore, why AI works but without going too deeply into the theory, some of the key ones are:

1) We get more of what we focus on. If we ask questions about our problems the issues will take up more of our attention and become more significant. If we inquire deeply and persistently into what we want we will find, inevitably, that we create the future that we are learning about.

2) Successful change needs to engage with what really matters to each individual. The interviews connect each individual with what really matters to them and thus help create a personally compelling reason to change.

3) Change is a social phenomenon. Relationships, support and co-operation are required for almost any change. AI fosters and grows these by creating energising, positive and transformative interactions between those involved.

4) Human beings move towards positive images of the future and the creation of a compelling, sensory rich picture of the destination is vital.

5) Change takes courage. People have more energy and confidence moving into the future (unknown) when they take forward parts of the present (known).

6) Change requires action. Positive practical steps, by as many people as possible, are essential to make progress and achieve results.

It’s a great theory, but does it actually work?

AI is proven in applications across the world. From major organisational change at NASA and British Airways to Imagine Chicago where over a million people have been engaged in the process. From coaching to creating self sufficiency in food in villages in the developing world AI has proven incredibly powerful. (See also the US Navy case study )

I believe that there are two particularly interesting things about AI. The first is that, in a world where some estimates say that 75% of all organisational change efforts fail, I have yet to come across a story about where AI has not worked.

The second is that AI is the only approach to change I know which is generative – which is to say that the scale of the change increases as you go further from the point of initiation in both space and time. Most change efforts work like a rock thrown into a pond – big ripples at first which gradually diminish to nothing. Because of the energy it creates in people AI goes on working long after and far away from where the change started – and that has to be worth having!

How could you use it?

AI can be applied from 1:1 coaching interactions to organisational change involving thousands of people. It can help individual change, the creation of powerful teams, in conflict resolution, cultural change, mergers, redundancies – any form of change in fact. It can transform workshop or training design for a short session of a few hours to much longer term projects.

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