Appreciative Inquiry – not the only way to innovation


Written by Guest, Don Dunoon.

An approach to generating ideas for innovation that has gained much favour in recent years is Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  AI focuses on strengths and on building on what’s working well to elicit positive energy for change.

There’s undoubtedly a place for a positive mindset and amplifying what’s already working. My question, though, is whether these things are enough, particularly if our aim is to foster innovative thought and action.

AI advocates tend to argue – or at least imply – that if we’re not being overtly positive, we must be negative. And to be negative is to become caught up in endless argument and angst about the problem; to be chasing our tails without getting any closer to new ideas and ‘solutions’. If this is true, then we might reasonably expect innovation to be a casualty if we take our eye off the positive.

I agree it’s not all helpful to get caught up in negativity and the downward thrust of energy and momentum that can accompany it.  But potentially the emphasis on the positive can lead us to overlook many opportunities for innovation.

There is another way. It’s to be found in the space between the positive and the negative. This alternative path for helping draw out and examine ideas for innovation involves attention to three practices:

  • Working from Observation
  • Attributing Reasonableness, and
  • Speaking with Authenticity.

I call them the Obreau practices for short – representing the first two letters each of Observation, Reasonableness and Authenticity. 

Working from Observation

The focus here is seeking to notice as far as possible prior to judging, to observe and then, in effect, insert a pause before moving to interpretation. We’re not necessarily being positive – or negative; the aim is just to be present, noticing what’s significant, interesting or perhaps unexpected in this specific context. This sounds easy, and any of us can potentially do it with practice. Yet focusing on consciously observing and noticing first is almost counter-cultural to many of us, especially if we’re schooled in technically-oriented disciplines and processes.

Attributing Reasonableness

Here, the aim is to imagine what might be real for others, allowing they can be reasonable at this time. Again, we’re not being overtly positive – but nor are we allowing ourselves to slip into a negative, judgmental frame of mind. We’re seeking to appreciate how specific others might make sense of the situation we’re observing. What might they be assuming? What interests might they want to advance or protect? How might they be feeling? What knowledge or experience might they have that they’re not speaking to directly? The aim is to develop hypotheses for testing – and this requires us to keep open (as far as possible) that others can be reasonable. Otherwise, defensiveness and threat are likely to take over.

Speaking with Authenticity

This is where we speak up for ourselves, and declare what matters to us as well as ask whatever questions are on our mind. There are only three caveats: what we say must be true for us; we need to make a connection with something that’s observable, and we need to keep open that others are reasonable.

The three practices of Working from Observation, Attributing Reasonableness, and Speaking with Authenticity are mutually supportive, and it’s essential that the three ‘legs’ (practices) are in place together – hence they are known as the Obreau Tripod.

Keeping all three legs standing is essential to avoid the drop into negativity and downward spiral that can accompany a focus on “the problem”. Yet being in the present – as well as being open to future possibilities – potentially opens up rich mental resources that are not accessible with an exclusive focus on the positive. These additional mental resources can be a powerful aid in efforts to foster innovation.

As an independent consultant, Don has specialised for over 20 years in helping groups and individuals converse more productively about challenging issues. Don is the author of In the Leadership Mode (Trafford, 2008), a book that frames leadership in terms of interventions to build shared meaning for change with contentious – messy – issues. He is co-author, with acclaimed Harvard mindfulness researcher Dr. Ellen Langer, of a 2011 article, “Mindfulness and Leadership: Opening up to Possibilities”, Integral Leadership Review, October. He’s presented at several international conferences and has an M Com (Hons) degree from the University of New South Wales. His most recent publication is on “Mindful OD and the Obreau Tripod” in OD Practitioner journal, Jan 2014.

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