by Mark Lau Branson
Many forms of organizational development assume that the job of leaders is to find the problems and fix them. Perhaps members observe that their church has a declining membership, a changing neighborhood, and a dearth of young families. Church leaders, by fixing these problems, should create a new, reenergized way into the future.
Textbooks and seminars offer numerous options: move the church to a new suburb, evangelize those new neighbors (or market church services to them), and prepare the nursery. Or, change the worship music to the styles that some aging boomers prefer (most “praise music” is similar to 1970s soft rock), lower the membership threshold (assuming that younger generations usually avoid commitments), and recruit anyone with a pulse to the board (this will increase their commitment and give us a rest).
When this problem-solving approach dominates, most discussions are about problems and inadequacies. This is what is called a “deficit model.” We all have our own perspectives, our own historical accounts and analyses, that help us articulate problems. I believe that these can lead to valuable learning, but the approach itself creates the wrong interpretive grid.
Appreciative inquiry (AI) assumes that all organizations have significant life forces, and these forces are available in stories and imaginations. Further, by bringing these resources into the organization’s conversations and planning, major changes can be implemented. In other words, by discovering the best and most valuable narratives and qualities of an organization, participants can construct a new way that has the most important links to the past and the most hopeful images of the future.
Appreciative inquiry is more than a planning method—it is a way of seeing and creating. AI is not something that is done once or every few years as part of strategic planning—it is a way of continually forming an interpretive community that can thereby perceive, think, and create with the most life-giving resources. The deficit-based paradigm sets up its own grid for seeing and acting. AI offers a different reality—a different way of perceiving and living.
Appreciative inquiry assumes that real interpretive work—the discovery of meanings and the forming of local meanings—is the work of the congregation. We have numerous “texts,” both inscribed and oral. As a congregation we need to pay ongoing attention to scripture and traditions. We get interpretive assistance from denominational materials and the resources of other traditions. Locally, we tell and retell our own church’s story and our personal spiritual autobiographies. Additionally, we need the stories about our setting—the local history of our city and the cultural and personal stories of our neighbors. Further, with the gifts of perception provided by diverse people, our society’s story can be told. All of these texts enter a congregation’s discourse about identity (who we are) and agency (what we are to do). Appreciative inquiry provides a means of forming congregational conversations that reshape the interpretive work so that we pay attention to the most generative and hopeful texts, practices, and narratives.
Appreciative Inquiry Assumptions
Below are ten assumptions about AI that I have gathered from several resources.1
1. In every organization, some things work well. AI assumes that even the most challenged and dispirited organization has narratives and practices that can resource a hopeful future.
2. What we focus on becomes our reality. When an organization gives its attention to some aspects of the corporate life, those aspects tend to define the whole. The “reality” of an organization is defined by whatever participants think about, talk about, work on, dream about, or plan. AI teaches us that, while we do not need to dismiss the serious challenges we face or the lessons of previous wrong turns, we need to center our attention in our strengths. Focus has to do with imagination, conversation, efforts, and vision. Simply by refocusing attention, giving energy and priority to positive narratives, we will become a different organization.
3. Asking questions influences the group. No research is neutral or inconsequential; no consultant stays “outside” the organization. The research itself—interviewing people, using surveys, seeking opinions, and weighing votes—changes a church by influencing the thinking and conversations and images of participants. Memories, perceptions, and hopes are shaped in the midst of research questions. Change, of one kind or another, begins with the very first questions.
4. People have more confidence in the journey to the future when they carry forward parts of the past. The unknown easily creates fears. When an organization approaches change by talking about everything that is wrong and all of the innovations that are to be adopted, participants express their fears in resistance. Confidence and trust can be built when questions create direct links with the organization’s best and most appreciated narratives. The future will be a little less strange, and participants can envision their own roles in that future.
5. If we carry parts of the past into the future, they should be what is best about the past. Organizations embed their purposes and goals in their structures, and there is a strong tendency for the structures to continue even after they cease being effective means of embodying the organization’s goals. Social groups of all kinds also tend to carry forward dysfunctional practices. Patterns of behaviors, embedded through habitual action and words, can end up undermining core purposes and values. Generative change should displace meaningless structures and dysfunctional practices with the strengths of the organization’s most life-giving narratives and behaviors.
6. It is important to value differences. It is not likely that participants will always agree on what is “the best.” When an organization surfaces various narratives and works together interpreting the data, everyone gains if mutual respect and attentiveness is the norm. Change is too often seen as a “zero-sum” game: your gain is my loss. AI assumes the synergism of the organization’s best practices—that there will be a cohesive and cumulative effect as diverse strengths are brought together in conversations and imaginations.
7. The language we use creates our reality. We create our social environment, our organizational reality, through words. We use words to bring to the present our moods, memories, perceptions, thoughts, and visions. A story, an idea, a motivation, or a behavior remains hidden, outside the organization’s reality, or hidden in unarticulated moods and behaviors, if it is not brought into the discourse. Our reality, the world in which we see, converse, dream, and act, is formed by the words that we and others utter.
8. Organizations are heliotropic. This is a botanical term about a plant’s orientation—plants lean toward the sun. Similarly, organizations lean toward the source of energy—whether that energy is healthy or not. (This is why problem solving often inhibits an organization’s life.) As memories and imaginations are engaged to nourish participants with the best and most life-giving resources, the church will lean in the direction of those narratives and practices.
9. Outcomes should be useful. Following the AI interviews, the data is brought to an interpretive process that should help participants envision and create their way toward a hopeful and fruitful future. While there may be affective (emotional) benefits from “just talking,” AI assumes we are doing more—we are constructing. That means the interpretive work and the parallel visioning must move the church toward implementation—doable steps, attainable structural changes, and generative practices. AI fosters “grounded dreaming”—that is, the interpretive work deals with the data, then constructs steps forward that are connected to both the past (“the church’s best”) and the future (as it motivates us to faithful imaginations).
10. All steps are collaborative. AI is not a process of giving stories and ideas to experts who then create a plan for everyone. Every phase requires wide participation—interviews, interpretation, visioning, embedding changes. AI provides numerous and ongoing means for a congregation-wide discourse. At its best, this contributes to the formation of a learning community in which all participants have access, voice, and responsibilities. If we are to have any long-range, significant impact, trust needs to grow and participation needs to be broad.
1 Items 1-7 are adapted from Sue Annis Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 2nd ed. (Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing Co., 1998), 13-21. Item 8 is from David L. Cooperrider, “Positive Image, Positive Action,” in Suresh Srivastva and David L. Cooperrider, eds., Appreciative Management and Leadership, rev. ed. (Euclid, OH: Williams Custom Publishing, 1999), 117. Items 9 and 10 are from Dennis G. Campbell, Congregations as Learning Communities: Tools for Shaping Your Future (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2000).
Adapted from Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change , copyright © 2004 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Previously published in the February 5, 2007 Alban Weekly, No. 133.
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Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.
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