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Appreciative Inquiry: it's about more than positivity

Appreciative Inquiry is about engaging people in lively dialogue and reflections around powerful questions in order to foster development. 'A human system moves in the direction of its questions', is one of AI's core principles. So asking the right ones is key, those that bring energy and new ideas.  

At the Fifth World Appreciative Inquiry Conference last April, prof. Ron Fry and prof. Gervase Bushe, held an interesting keynote on this generative nature of AI. As Ron Fry puts it: “The most amazing aspect of AI to me is that it always sets people in motion. Few begin an AI summit wanting more work to do; nearly all leave having volunteered to new cooperative action. Something happens: we call it generativity.”


It’s about action and energy

But what is it? Ron Fry describes generativity as: “The moment a connection happens that leads to more than a new idea or an insight. When the connection sparks actions. So that people don’t wait for the next meeting, or for someone else to do something. They do something themselves. People start up a new business, try out a new approach, get other people together… That, to me is the power of AI."


'Beyond the positive'

The keynote had the challenging title 'beyond the positive', because both speakers see a development that worries them. “Have you noticed?” Fry and Bushe ask the audience, “How ‘appreciation’ sometimes trumps ‘inquiry’? Or, how ‘positivity’ frequently seems to become an end unto itself in AI processes? In such cases, people go away energized, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. Positivity does attract and is necessary, but sometimes we get lost in it.”


They stress that Appreciative Inquiry is really about creating processes that spark self-initiative: when people act without being asked, told, invited. But just start up and get into action. So, says Fry, the core question of AI is really: “How do we make generative connections: interactions that bring a feeling of energy, aliveness and potential. That lead people to create more and new things.” Or, as Cooperrider puts it, 'AI is about what gives life to a system.'


Transformative change

Fry and Bushe are looking for transformative change. Change that is true change, in the sense that things happen that ordinarily wouldn’t have happened in that system. What is needed for AI processes to create such change?

Bushe: “One of the things that distinguishes transformational changes from ‘ordinary’, or incremental change processes is that in such a process the new idea always emerges from within the system (it is not imported from the outside). People think of a new idea themselves. That compels them to action.”

“Also, in transformational change, somehow a generative metaphor always pops up. Such an image or concept alters the landscape and the language. For example sustainable business, or ‘going green’…. After thinking up that word, and idea, a whole range of new ideas became possible.”


Do we need positivity?

With visible pleasure, Bushe puts it out there: “I am not so convinced that positivity is necessary for generative thinking. What you do want, is to appreciate. There is always something to appreciate, because it energizes people somehow. But it doesn’t have to be positive.”


Their remarks meet with the audience's agreement… On the first day of the conference, a Belgian newspaper published an article on the WAIC that presented AI very much as a ‘positivity movement’. Much to the discomfort of many of the participants who feel that AI is more than that. It even inspires one of the participants, @gheysenssaskia, tweeting to that same newspaper during the keynote: ‘#2012waic, Bushe generates a lot of agreement here: AI is not all about positivity’.


Which question do we ask

To put it to the test, they ask the audience: “If you want to use AI to create a great conference: which question would you ask?

  1. Tell me about your most positive high point experience of the conference (when you felt happiest, proudest, most alive….)  OR
  2. Tell me about the most provocative experience you had at the conference – when you felt most challenged (perhaps your thinking was upended, your values were confronted, your ideas were challenged….)."


It generates earnest responses from several people, who stand up and take the mike:

  • “My idea of feeling alive is very much the B question…. That is not about surface positivity, it is about what is deep and connecting.”
  • “The deepest of human experiences very often happen in the most painful situations. It is vital that we make use of them as well, explore them, not shy away from them“
  • “To me it is and- and. I work with people who are very ill, sometimes in the final stages of their lives. The positive questions work very well there as well.”


Appreciating a range of emotions and situations

Fry and Bushe nod and conclude: “There is a difference between appreciating and being positive. We can appreciate a whole range of emotions and thought, that can lead to a generative process.”


And Bushe adds: “In fact, in some organisations, talking about what is positive, is not something that people do. Maybe it's even a taboo. In that case, actually, talking about the positive means you’re delving into their dark side. It can be difficult and uncomfortable. And generative at the same time. Fitzgerald, Oliver & Hoaxey wrote an interesting paper on that: ‘AI as a shadow process’.


They go on to investigate HOW we can make AI into a truly generative process. With very practical advice. A blog on that part of the keynote is published here.


Further reading

  • You can find the ‘shadow process’ article here. Gervase Bushe responded to it, you can find that response here.
  • Background articles (such as the meta-study on AI projects that the speakers refer to) can be found on Gervase Bushe's homepage (scroll down for the publications)
  • This blog was originally posted at the WAIC2012 homepage.


On 2012WAIC

The World Appreciative Inquiry Conference was held from the 25-28th of April, 2012, in Ghent. Some 600 people from over 45 countries participated in this meeting, sharing case stories, theories and tools on Appreciative Inquiry. Important AI scholars, such as David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney, Ron Fry, Ken Gergen, Danielle Zandee, were all present. Our colleagues Luc Verheijen and Luk Dewulf were part of the local organizing committee for this event. The Conference Website 2012WAIC holds all keynotes as webcasts, as well as blogs with background information.