Emergent principles of Appreciative Inquiry 1: The Wholeness Principle

Image of the earth

Image from NASA via Wikimedia Commons

As well as the five original principles of Appreciative Inquiry (the Constructionist, Poetic, Simultaneity, Anticipatory, and Positive principles) set out by David Cooperrider, other principles have started to emerge in the light of new thinking and the practical experience of Appreciative Inquiry consultants.

I should add that from a personal point of view, being a big-picture kind of person, I prefer simplicity and elegance in the models I use. In some ways, notably with respect to spreading the word about Appreciative Inquiry to people who aren’t academics or management consultants (in other words, the vast majority, but also the people you have to engage to make Appreciative Inquiry actually work), even five principles might be one too many.

We need to beware of ‘principle creep’ in AI. Every new principle that’s added, especially those with names that are impenetrable at first sight, is an additional impediment to explaining AI to the lay person. There is also a risk that it overlaps with one or more of the existing principles, introducing extra complications – whatever additional richness it also brings to the AI field.

However, I think the three ‘emergent’ principles proposed by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom in their book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide To Positive Change bring enough value, and are sufficiently different from the original five, to be worth knowing about.

We’ll look at the other two principles in detail in subsequent articles – so what is the Wholeness Principle about? This is my understanding, based on the principle as outlined in the book in the light of my experience of using Appreciative Inquiry.

The Whole Story

A story is a narrative of how an event or series of events unfold through time, told from a particular viewpoint. Stories are how we make sense of the world; the meaning of each event as it happens is evaluated in the light of what has happened before (the ‘backstory’) and in the light of our expectations of what will or ‘should’ happen next.

It can be very tempting to think that the story we are narrating to ourselves is the whole truth; all the more so when our colleagues, friends or work culture are transmitting and reinforcing the same story. In fact, because any story comes from a particular viewpoint which embodies particular beliefs, values and associations, “the whole story is never a singular story. It is often a synthesis, a compilation of multiple stories, shared and woven together by the many people involved” (The Power of Appreciative Inquiry)

In the Discovery stage of an Appreciative Inquiry process, as participants undertake Appreciative Interviews with another person in a different role, at a different level, or working in a different team or organisation, they necessarily hear different stories. These give different viewpoints, and a different version of the truth. In hearing these, the interviewer comes to realise that the truth is more complex, deeper and richer than previously assumed, and comes to a deeper understanding and connection with the person telling the story.

The whole system in the room

In an Appreciative Inquiry session we aim to have ‘the whole system in the room’ – everyone responsible for or affected by a change, or at least representatives of each group of stakeholders.

This is a departure from traditional methods of change, where senior management and perhaps some external consultants would decide what the changes should be. If they consider at all how their proposed changes would impact others, they would necessarily be doing it from the outside. At best, they would imagine themselves in the shoes of employees, customers, and other stakeholders, but it would be a very lucky guess if they could fully imagine the perspectives of people in these other groups. Much more likely they would carry over some of their own assumptions, because those will seem part of the fabric of how things are.

An illustration of how assumptions shape the way we see the world: researching their book “Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today“, Polly Toynbee and David Walker assembled a group of top-flight lawyers and merchant bankers in 2007. When asked how much it would take to put someone in the top 10% of earners, they came up with the figure of £162,000 – in fact, at that time, the true figure was less than a quarter of that at £39,000. When asked about the poverty threshold, they put it at £22,000 – which was actually just under median earnings, “which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay”.

When you have ‘the whole system in the room’, the diverse viewpoints expressed lead to greater understanding between participants and better, more robust decisions. Major flaws in proposed solutions which may be invisible from a senior management perspective are often obvious to the front-line staff and customers who have to make them work. New possibilities emerge from the creative fusion of ideas as we make sense of new information and try out different viewpoints.

Also, a ‘whole system’ approach encourages trust, a break-down in ‘them and us’ thinking (‘they’ are real human beings, sitting next to you, listening to your story and telling you theirs), and a can-do attitude. As a workshop participant quoted in The Power of Appreciative Inquiry says:

“Wholeness evokes trust.  When everyone is there you don’t have to feel suspicious about what the others will do – there are no others. It is collectively empowering. There is no one else who must approve your plan. You know that whatever you collectively decide can be done.”

Some questions you may want to consider in the light of this principle:

 

  • Who else do I need to involve?
  • Who will be affected by proposed changes?
  • Whose opinion do I need to seek?
  • Where am I making assumptions, and how would I know if they weren’t correct?