Unlimited cooperation

Managers and leaders are working hard
to resolve conflicts, communicate, and perform to ever increasing standards.
But often ignored is what’s referred to as an organisation’s “affirmative competence”.
This is its collective ability to shape positive images and rise to the challenges in new and creative ways through process called appreciative inquiry (AI).
In its most practical form, AI is study that discovers and highlights the life-giving properties of an organisation.
There are two basic questions behind any appreciative inquiry:
1. What makes organising possible in this case?
2. What are the possibilities for more effective forms of organising in the future?
The art of appreciation is the art of discovering and valuing those factors that give life to an organisation or group.
By interviewing and storytelling, you find the best from the past and this sets the stage for visualising how things can be.
AI searches for the best of what is (one’s experience up to now) to provide the basis for managing “what might be”.
The aim is to generate new knowledge which expands the realm of the possible and helps members of an organisation to envision desired future.
Such futures are linked to an actual experience of being at one’s best. They are naturally compelling and therefore attract energy and mobilise intention.
This method of analysis differs from conventional managerial problem solving. The basic assumption of problem solving seems to be that “organising is problem to be solved”.
The subsequent task of improvement involves removing deficits, obstacles, or causes. This process typically includes (1) identifying the key problems (2) analysing the causes (3) analysing solutions (4) developing an action plan.
By contrast, the underlying assumption of AI is that organising is solution to be embraced. Standing in full curiosity about the miracle of organising when it’s at its best calls for radically different process and language.
That process includes (1) discovering and valuing the best of what has been; (2) dreaming and envisioning what might be; (3) discussing what can be; (4) constructing what will be.

Find the best
First discover and value those factors that give life to an organisation when it is at its best. The challenge of valuing is to discover the commitment of the organisation and find out when it was at its highest. Regardless of how few the moments of high commitment, the task is to focus on those peak moments and to discuss the factors or forces that created them.
Positive or affirmative topics for discovery is many and varied: high quality, integrity, teamwork, customer responsiveness, self confidence, partnering, technological excellence, sense of ownership.

Second, envision what might be. When the best of what is has been discovered, the mind begins to search beyond this. It starts to dream new possibilities.

Share the vision
Third, engage in dialogue. The open sharing of exciting discoveries and possibilities builds consensus where people say, “Yes, this is an ideal or vision we value and should aspire to”.

Build the castle
Finally, construct the future through innovation and action.
AI establishes momentum of its own. Because the ideas are grounded in past realities, there’s confidence to try and make things happen.
People naturally find new ways to move the organisation closer to the shared ideal image — sometimes without any of the traditional change management techniques of action planning, task forces, project timetables and deliverables.
Clearly this isn’t an exercise in problem solving. It’s an exercise in anticipatory learning. As you experiment with AI, there are some important assertions that can be made regarding the nature of organisations:
* Knowledge and organisational destiny are interwoven. To be effective as managers, change agents or leaders, we must be adept in the art of understanding organisations as living human constructions.
* Change begins the moment we ask question: The seeds of organisational change are implicit in the first question we ask. The questions we ask (eg “Who ..?” vs “What..?” vs “Why…?”) set the stage for what we find, and this in turn becomes the material out of which the future is conceived and made.
• Deep change comes from first changing our images of the future: The most important resource we have for change is our cooperative imagination.
• Positive images lead to positive actions: Finally, organisations as human constructions are largely affirmative in nature and therefore responsive to thought. People and organisations are heliotropic — they grow toward the light of positive anticipatory image.
The practice of AI is in its infancy. Like the curious child standing in wonder at the surrounding world, widening net of scholars and practitioners are experimenting with the principles, discovering new questions and documenting their stories daily. What’s emerging is thesis that asserts “We have reached the limits of problem-solving as mode of inquiry capable of inspiring, mobilising and sustaining human system change; the future of organisational development belongs to methods that affirm, compel, and accelerate anticipatory learning involving larger and larger levels of collectivity.”
The arduous task of changing organisations will give way to the speed of imagination and innovation. Instead of negation and criticism, there will be discovery, dream, design and delivery.We are poised to enter new millennium with no limits to cooperation.
Ronald Fry is professor of Organisational Behaviour, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

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