Friday, October 29, 2010

Appreciative Inquiry

Fourth in a series of post about the October 2010 UUA Board Meeting

The interviews described in the linkage work above were based on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a powerful methodology that is based on some interesting assumptions:
  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry forward parts of the past, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

From the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

Sue Annis Hammond, Thin Book Publishing Company, 2nd Edition, 1998

What if, instead of interviews with 65 congregations, we could create an environment where hundreds of our congregations were having deep conversations about what is important to them and how we can work together as a whole? What if a natural part of that process was then meeting with other congregations to uncover common themes about what has worked, and dreaming together about what could be?

This was the proposition brought to the board by President Peter Morales, Moderator Gini Courter, and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, a noted AI expert who also happens to be a member of Jefferson Unitarian Church. Originally conceived as a staff effort, the power to impact the Board's work as well was quickly realized by Peter and Gini, and brought to the Board. Here was a way to involve congregations directly in created our Shared Vision, also known in Policy Governance® parlance as "ends".

Congregations were heavily involved in the creation of the current set of ends -- through hundreds of their delegates to General Assemblies in 2007 and 2008 (also based on AI), and subsequent discussions with dozens of congregations and district boards in early 2009. Yet the finished product had almost no sense of ownership from our member congregations. The fact that not a single congregation mentioned their GA delegates as "representing the congregation" in the linkage interviews may have something to do with it.

This effort is just beginning, and involves collaboration with more than Board and Staff. It has the power to do so much more than come up with revised "ends" (though that could be a by-product). AI is not only about dreaming, but the transformation we go through to make that dream happen.

May it be so.


Anonymous said...

I will add your site to favorites. Great work!

Tom Wilson said...

Linda - I will respond to this on two levels: first, appreciative inquiry itself; and second, the focus of the UUA board.

When I read this description of Appreciative Inquiry, my bogon shields went up immediately. These are something other than "interesting" assumptions.

o "In every society, organization, or group, something works." Why should that be true? Some organizations are quite dysfunctional. Or the things that work might not be important.
o The statements about "reality" are some combination of post-modernist and New Age mumbo jumbo. "What we focus on becomes our reality." No, that's just not true. Reality is out there. What you focus on is in your head. At best, what we focus on might be our model of reality. And it could easily be an incorrect model. I realize what is meant here by "reality" must mean "someone's model of the world", but to then use "reality" to mean that is rhetorical misdirection.
o Items four through seven ("asking questions influences the group", going into the future, valuing differences) are far from deep insights. In the flow of this, they are a sales job trying to "get me to yes", and might just as well have come from a Successories poster.

This all reads like marketing hype for another management theory. Oh, wait! It is a management theory. A quick check at Wikipedia for Appreciative Inquiry has big warnings about weasel words and sales brochure. The same is true of the page for the Taos Institute, created by the practitioners of AI. This suggests that even in the credulous world of the internet, these words raise red flags.

Which brings me to the larger issue: what is it with the UUA trustees and management theories? First we had Policy Governance. Now we have AI. And conveniently enough a person to tell us all about it. There is a case study at the Harvard Business School about using Appreciative Inquiry at a coffee retail chain. The net effect was that they reduced costs by 25 cents per cup of coffee. If you're a coffee chain, that could be big money. But at the end of the day, you're still selling coffee. Is the UUA equivalent of 25 cents per cup the change we are waiting for? It's not my idea of transformative change - it's just better management.

Policy governance, appreciative inquiry, changing the composition of the UUA board, election rules at GA, redistricting - these are all management and process issues. None of them is leadership. Vision is not going to come out of deep listening. From a post on Peter Bowden's blog, quoting Paul Nixon, "Churches that are paralyzed will gain nothing by self-study. They will just use the self-study as a stalling tactic." What do we possibly think would come out of such deep conversations that we don't already know?

All that can happen at these efforts is better management. We can have organized sub-groups rearranging those deck chairs and monitoring the exact distance to that iceberg instead of someone turning the ship around. We need to get back to what is permanent instead of the transience of organization change.

Peter Bowden, "Where does a Church Vision come from?",
Harvard Business Study:
Wikipedia Appreciative Inquiry:
Taos Institute