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Monday, 14 July 2008 19:53

A WORKBOOK AND ONLINE COMMUNITY
for Co-CREATING OUR SUSTAINABILITY ETHIC

 

Section III - Transformative Learning
Chapter 5 - Appreciative Inquiry

 

What would happen to our change practices if we began all of our work with positive presumption - that organizations, as centers of human relatedness, are "alive" with infinite constructive capacity?

'Appreciative Inquiry:
An Emerging Direction of Organizational Development'
Cooperrider et al, p.
6

 


What paths might we take to shift our individual and collective orientations from problematic to appreciative?

In May of 2002 our guest faculty at Antioch was Dr. David Cooperrider the developer of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). We were given readings on the subject prior to class and I'd had time to reflect on how I might incorporate the process into my Antioch graduation project. David shared with us a story of doing his own PhD studies and going to a medical clinic in Cleveland where he asked employees a very neutral question regarding their work. 90% or more answered in terms of a problem with which they were dealing, less than 10% told of how they were doing their life work and the fulfillment they received. David's thesis was the beginning of AI - an authentic process for surfacing virtues while acknowledging problems, and coming to action in ways that do what needs doing yet in a manner consistent with our principles.

OO_III-5_2009-02-15

I was so taken with AI, that in parallel with my Antioch studies, I enrolled in a year long AI Certification program facilitated by Dr. Cooperrider and his mentor Ron Frye. Since then I have used AI extensively for opening meetings, conversation groups, classes and workshops, for fund raising at my synagogue, and as the basis for design of the ‘Caring for Creation' track at the United Religions Initiative North American Conference. It is at the heart of this book, and the ‘Reflection' at the end of each chapter is essentially an Appreciative Inquiry. The ‘Reflections' are very intentional with a number of purposes. First, they put the reader in touch with the virtues they hold most dearly. Second, we have found that people love to share their stories, and when their story is authentic and touches the heart, others love to listen. Third, they serve as a basis for sharing and developing relationships, often quite intimate relationships. Last, they minimize dualistic thinking by connecting apparent opposites with a spectrum - a spectrum in which each of us finds an OK space from which to move forth. An example is most organizations view problem solving and appreciation as discrete approaches, but we find that appreciation can be a very effective means of solving problems, and group problem solving can be a source of mutual appreciation.

One of the comments often made when people pair up to share their response to an AI is, "I have met a soul mate". This very effective relationship building may be necessary if we are to be successful in completing tasks and achieving personal and communal objectives.

Prior to attending Antioch, I met with a gentleman named Greg Wolf, who was responsible for a program called, ‘Oregon Solutions' -- a set of projects supported by the State, and intended to further Oregon's sustainability efforts. I told Greg that I was going to Antioch to study living systems, and how they might inform our understanding of how we organize. I mentioned that I would be doing a project, and I hoped it would be under the auspices of Oregon Solutions. After Dr. Cooperrider's weekend with us at Antioch, I met with Greg again; told him I had the process I wanted to use, Appreciative Inquiry; and asked for some help honing in on a project. We spoke of several possibilities. The one we chose stemmed from a conversation I'd had with our State School Superintendent regarding the need to understand how our sustainability efforts in Oregon informed public education and visa versa. Greg asked if I could find a small community and their school system to work together to define both a sustainable future and the learning that would need to take place both in the school and the community. Through a colleague, Ed Smith, in the Reynold's School District just east of Portland, I found a school with the ideal Principal, Patricia Martinez (mentioned in the previous chapter on ‘Dialogue'), and the town in which her school resided, Fairview Elementary.

Appreciative Inquiry was used extensively, and successfully, to enroll faculty, parents and a Steering Committee. Our project, ‘Imagine Fairview' was to a degree modeled after a similar project, "Imagine Chicago'. Our plan had three (3) phases-

1. Convene a Community meeting to hear of the city's vision and articulate it from a sustainable perspective;
2. Work with the educators to develop curricula and instruction for both the school and the city; and
3. Set up an ongoing education and implementation program.

For now, suffice it to say that the Phase 1 of the project was a very big success and AI was used extensively as the starting point in meetings, interviews and the Community Meeting we held. Some examples follow.

I met with Patricia's faculty and asked them for their cooperation in discovering what brings life to their jobs. The AI that I developed was very simple. It asked each teacher to get in touch with a deeply moving moment in their own learning - one that was an incredible ‘aha', and that both influenced them to be teachers and continues to influence how they teach today. They paired up and each was allotted three minutes to share their experiences. The energy was palpable, and once quieted, we talked about the experience of sharing. Two points were made that I'll probably never forget. First, a young man said, "I didn't understand what you meant when you said, ‘What brings life to my job', and now I know". And then a group of teachers converged on the notion that they wanted appreciation to be part of their culture. I think a little of the joy of this ‘Discovery' is recognizing that everyone in the room had such a story, they were delighted to tell it, and even more delighted that there was deep listening. The experience created a strong bond within the pair, and the energy and later sharing connected everyone.

I had confirmed a strong intuitive feeling that it makes far more sense to experience AI then to try to learn about it through reading or a presentation. The same experiential approach was used when I met with PTA members, the planning team we pulled together, and many of the city folks from Fairview. In addition, almost every city person I met told me of the social rifts within their community - old timers vs. recent arrivals, geographical disputes, and social status differences. I told each of them that I trusted the process, and that I believed the AI bonding would mute their simmering differences. I'm very happy to say that I was correct, because I have doubts about my own facilitation skills when there is conflict. So where other facilitators might focus on conflict resolution, I've found that AI is a terrific conflict avoidance tool.

One of the most incredible uses of AI was for inviting people to our Community Meeting. Our tact was to have students do inter-generational interviews, and we developed age appropriate Inquiries with the following theme.

Please think of someone who you very much appreciate and perhaps you haven't either thanked them or told them the depth of your gratitude. Please call this person, thank them and request an interview. The primary question is, "What inspired you to perform the act of kindness?"; then listen attentively to what they have to say and take only enough notes so that you'll remember the gist of their story; thank them for their time and for their kindness; and invite them to our Community Meeting. The smaller children usually picked a parent or a teacher, and the feedback was always positive and very sweet. I worked with a high school economics class whose students came back with the most incredible stories, many of which brought tears to our eyes. One pretty big, tough young man told the story of someone who had brought him a glass water on a very hot day when he was doing yard work. When he asked his benefactor what inspired this act of kindness, he was told that when he was young he used to always fight with his brothers. One day, quite suddenly, their father passed away, and the brothers realized how important they were to each other. He said that the brothers never fought again, and he had become a kinder person. It struck me that this, and other stories, in addition to being very powerful had an organic feel - they often didn't have the linear cause and effect that I'd grown to expect in stories.

When we finished hearing each student, the teacher, Ms. Jennifer Faro, was obviously deeply touched, and she shared two points with the class. First she asked if anyone could relate what we'd just done with the economic theories and equations they'd been learning - none of them could. She explained that the theories and equations they were learning would be necessary to know when they entered the workforce, and of course they needed to know them to pass her tests. And, more importantly, if they were to advance in their work and solve more complex problems, it was the appreciation of people and relationship building that was at the heart of a strong organization with effective teamwork. Her second comment was that this class would never be the same again - that they now knew each other and the appreciation they had for each other would positively affect their learning together.

We designed the 1-day Community Meeting using the standard AI cycle shown next. For a more detailed understanding of AI there is a short AI writeup in this site's Referenced Documents and a myriad of information available by searching the Internet for ‘Appreciative Inquiry'.

appreciativeinqcycle


We had completed the ‘Definition' phase with our appreciative invitation process that set the theme and the tone for our 1-day Community Meeting. A large number of townspeople participated and were genuinely excited to both share their stories and focus on the future of their community.

The gist of it the agenda is that the AI Cycle with its flow from phase to phase, and key understandings regarding the ‘Affirmative Topic of Choice' and ‘Positive Core' served as our design points for the day.

After a ‘Welcome' from the Principal, Patricia Martinez, we began our communal work with a ‘Discovery' AI intended to put people in touch with their caring for the Fairview Community and their sense of place. When that was completed, I told them about the AI Process and how it would be central for the rest of our work that day. We discussed the ‘Affirmative Topic of Choice', 'Creating Fairview as a Sustainable Community', and we reviewed four Key Principles that guided our work -

1) People and Organizations aren't problems but Sources of Wisdom;
2) Avoidance of all Deficit Language;
3) Inclusion of all Stakeholders in a Relational Environment; and
4) Reconnection with our ‘Latent' Virtues.

We added the virtues from our ‘Discovery' process to the Key Principles, and agreed upon our ‘Positive Core'. I then reviewed our agenda for the day which consisted of the following segments: the Fairview town planners presented a document called, ‘Fairview Vision 2022' as the basis for our ‘Dream'; we presented six facets of their vision in terms of sustainability attributes --

1) Protecting Natural Resources,
2) Sustainable Industries,
3) Renewable Energy,
4) Public Recreation,
5) Revitalizing Downtown. and
6) Strengthening Community

These six facets became the focal points for ‘Design' conversations, and an appreciative reflection and sharing process was used to develop our sense of ‘Destiny'.

Unfortunately, the Project was terminated shortly after the Community Meeting for the following reasons. First, the city determined that they didn't have the money or staff to continue their support. I had made a tactical error by finding a school first, and then going to the city planners where the school was located. I believe that each city or town must self-select so that they are motivated, and there should be a qualification process to be sure that they are committed and ready to move forth. Second, the teachers said that they had to remain too focused on achieving Oregon's standards oriented programs to develop new curricula on their own. I asked my school district colleague, Ed Smith to join me in making a case with the Oregon Department of Education for the fundamental structural changes necessary to support schools who wished to participate in projects like ‘Imagine Fairview'. We met with a mutual colleague, Dr. Pat Burke, the Assistant State School Superintendent, described our project and the varied ways we'd integrated Appreciative Inquiry. He was very interested and asked us to send him additional materials. We asked him to support a process where schools could develop curriculum, like that necessary to achieve balanced sustainability, and collaborate among themselves. New standards would emerge from their work, and folded into the current process as applicable. We were asking too much - particularly in light of all the other financial and legislative issues with which he was dealing.

My hope is that we were just a little ahead of our time, and as municipalities become more focused on sustainability and schools come to terms with how our sustainability efforts in Oregon inform public education and visa versa, we can dust off the project, revise it, and have a model for seeding and nurturing local sustainability.


Reflections

If you have not done so already, I hope that each of you have the opportunity to experience AI, and that you come to the same conclusion as the educators at Fairview Elementary School - you want to incorporate appreciation as a virtue of your culture. Like the high school students in Ms. Faro's class, we have each experienced acts of kindness and generosity, and at some level we know they weren't isolated - they were born of a culture of kindness and generosity.

How can each of us be a part of processes where appreciation is integral?
How does it change us - how we feel and act?
How do we than influence those to whom we appreciate?

 


Rev. 2009-02-15 MOM

 

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