Appreciative Inquiry, Complexity and the ‘cat up the tree’

I’ve recently had the pleasure of getting to know Diana Renner, co-author of the award winning book ‘Not Knowing: The art of turning uncertainty into opportunity’. I’ve also read the book and I’m now re-reading it, as one does when there is too much to absorb first time around.

During a recent meeting where we discussed our ‘edges’, the limit of our respective competencies, I talked about how I use Appreciative Inquiry in my practice (Appreciative Inquiry is a change management approach that focuses on identifying what is working well, analysing why it is working well and then doing more of it). A very interesting conversation ensued, where Diana questioned the usefulness of Appreciative Inquiry in a complex environment. It was a really interesting point. In fact she brought into focus something that had been nagging me for a while. One of the realisations of being in a complex environment is that what has worked in the past may not be at all useful when trying to address a completely unfamiliar challenge in the present. Yet as a practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry we rely heavily on discovering what has worked well in the past for identifying ways to be more effective, as opposed to be obsessed with ‘problem-solving’.

A complex situation or environment is one where we don’t have any useful map for the future. As an example Diana, and co-author Stephen D’Souza, referred to the 2013 economic crisis in their book. It was described as ‘the cat up in the tree’, catuptreewhere no economic theory available could help to get that cat down. (Interestingly many economic commentators after the crisis said they could see it coming, but no-one said they could see it in advance.) ‘Being in a complex situation means that having a map for a largely unknown territory is about as useful as having no map at all!’ (D’Souza and Renner p 82)

Of course maps are based on journeys that people have trodden, calculated or navigated previously. So how useful is it to use Appreciative Inquiry when the 4-D cycle (Discovery – Dream – Design – Destiny) relies on first understanding how things were at their best in the past? David Cooperrider, the co-founder of Appreciative Inquiry, says, ‘if we must carry things forward from our past (as we inevitably do) then we may as well take the best things from our past’. It’s hard to argue with that, and I must say that change processes seem a whole lot easier when they are based on things that have been somewhat familiar, even if the context is different.

Appreciative Inquiry also involves identifying ‘root causes’ of success, and then projecting, and imagining the kind of success possible if we apply what we discovered. This can lead us to identify actions and strategies that can be replicated or adapted. It could also help us to understand some elements that are less tangible – perhaps a growing level of self-awareness, a readiness to learn, a preparedness to follow our instincts, our willingness to let go of our need to get our own way.

One of the things we explored during our conversation was that, in facing complexity, there may be something very important to be gained from Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry requires a topic; and groups are urged to focus on this topic to enquire into they’d like to see more of. This could be a great approach if we wanted to understand better how to thrive in a period of uncertainty? Surely we have all had times when we have coped or blossomed better than at other times. The argument from an AI perspective is that enquiring into what we did then would probably help us to better understand how to approach a highly complex situation. The most useful learnings would relate to our approach, and our attitudes, rather than an action based formula for success

Based on the work of many respected theorists and practitioners in complexity there are some things that we know to be useful. One is to resist levitating toward to person who appears to know all the answers, or be the most certain. That is potentially dangerous. Secondly, developing a long-term strategic plan is rather pointless. There are too many uncertainties and too many levers that the organisation does not control. Developing an impressive plan may provide some comfort and a sense of direction, but it is often illusory, counterproductive and very risky to take this approach. We have also learned that it makes sense to devise experiments, and to learn from each and every one, whether they succeed or not. Look for where there is traction and build from there.

I am keen to use this as the basis of an Appreciative Inquiry process in the near future. I will resist trying to identify and rely on the content of what we did that worked in the past, rather we will explore how we best function and learn when facing complexity, and then apply those learnings.Notknowing

To use the ‘cat in the tree analogy’ previous methods used with other cats may not work with this particular cat. But some lessons learned about what not to do, and what has helped us approach complex situations in the past, may well be useful. Perhaps we will uncover some new ideas and approaches that could serve us well. Even if we just uncover the same insights as other complexity practitioners, there will still be the benefit of generating participant ownership of the plan going forward, rather than it being imposed.

I have since also thought about the merit of using Appreciative Inquiry during the process of conducting ‘safe to fail’ experiments, to guide the process of learning from what is working when traction is being observed. Perhaps this aspect will be the focus of a future blog.

I’m definitely looking forward to more conversations with Diana, as we find ways to co-create new ways of working by combining and drawing upon different frameworks. Also, do yourself a favour and read the book, several times. It is a gem!


Max Hardy

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  1. Arthur Battram on April 28, 2015 at 10:18 am
    • Max Hardy on June 3, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Thanks Arthur. I will definitely check it out!

  2. Matthew Payne on April 29, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Max, I found your blog post via Richard Martin I met Richard on Monday and he refreshed my memory of Harold Jarche’s ‘Seek, Sense, Share’ framework. I believe that this 3s approach can provide the method for helping turn map readers into map makers which is exactly what is required to solve complex problems where no map exists. I think that appreciative inquiry can be a useful approach during the seek phase as a way of discovering what ways of working helped to solve previous complex problems and create maps for the way forward. Discovery involves asking lots of questions and to be curious; it also involves leaders admitting to themselves and others that they ‘don’t know’ the answers. The process of gaining knowledge; of moving to ‘knowing’ must include the safe to fail experiments that you mention. So both organisations and individuals must take risks in order to find solutions for the problems that present not just today but also tomorrow.

    • Max Hardy on June 3, 2016 at 10:23 am

      Thanks Matthew. I like the sound of that framework. Any links you can suggest for me to check out?

  3. Hebergeur on June 3, 2016 at 10:19 am

    Significantly, the stories we tell ourselves get lived out daily. They guide our beliefs and choices, thereby impacting our actions. As we become more conscious of our own stories and the stories of others, we begin to notice different perspectives and potentially reach new levels of understanding. We begin to make sense of complex issues, and together we can create new stories.

  4. Site on June 15, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Appreciative inquiry and thematic analysis methods were found to be an effective tool for understanding the important and sometimes competing role personal and institutional values play in day-to-day work. There is remarkable potential in using WLNs as a way to surface and reinforce shared values and, perhaps more importantly, respectfully to identify and discuss conflicting personal and professional values.

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