Appreciating the Best in You and in Others!

I have been reading again…this time on a topic I have had some interest in for years without even realizing that it had a name – Appreciative Inquiry (AI), until I was introduced to it formally by a colleague a few years ago and had the opportunity to take a training course on the subject.  AI was developed by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. 

AI is about managing change in organizations by using an “appreciative”  process to discover (inquire) what is right about things, rather than focusing on what is wrong or what the problem is. AI is about finding the positive core strengths of an organization and building upon those, rather than trying to trace the root cause of problems. I think that is what I like so much about this approach as I have always found it personally draining to dwell on what is wrong with things. I prefer to spend my energy on building upon what is good, what is positive and what is already done well. 

In my 26 years in management I have been part of too many change management processes that took weeks, or months working to identify the problems (often bringing in high priced consultants to interview staff to tell them what the problems are), then look for the causes of problems (often ending up blaming people) and then spending more time to analyze why the problem exists before moving on to decide on actions needed to “fix” it. And then finally developing evaluation strategies to measure if the problem still exists (and being surprised when it does!).  Those approaches to bringing about change were energy draining because they are designed to dredge up everything that is wrong about the organization and the people who work within it. I have found that such processes are negative, are an obstacle to meaningful dialogue, demoralizing to people, they squash any sense of pride that people have in their past (or in their present for that matter), and fail to appreciate what the positive lessons from the past are that should be brought forward to use as a starting point to create a desired future.

on the other hand uses a strength-based approached  to find out what is good and what gives life to the organization (rather than focusing on problems and what takes life away from the organization) by utilizing an affirming strategy to “inquire” about: What is working well here? What are we good at? What are our strengths and best practices? What do we feel proud about? AI wants to know what is the best of what has been (the past) which allows people to tell their stories of their past experiences when they felt they were at their best.  It seeks to “appreciate” the strengths of an organization and its people. How liberating! How positive! What a great way to start people talking when you want to bring about change.

So let’s look at AI a little closer and I want you to think about the ICU  where you work as you read the next section and consider if AI is an approach that has potential to bring about positive change in your unit and elevate it to a new level of greatness.

Let’s face it…every unit has its issues and problems.  But fundamentally when we focus on what is wrong, what is negative, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see MORE of what is wrong.  With AI you CHOOSE to focus on what is going right, what is positive and you therefore create a new destiny and discover new strengths of people and processes. You create a desired future with your colleagues as you believe in the best of you and the best of others. Synergy is the outcome. Greatness is the destiny. AI is about creating a future by building upon what already works, rather than fixing what we know doesn’t.

Cooperrider describes four phases to AI:

Phase 1 – Discovery: This is the phase when you engage everyone in your unit identifying “the best of what has been and what is.” Challenge one another to say (without being modest about it) what it is that your unit is good at from your past and in the present. A simple way might be to start a notebook at the desk called “What we are good at!”   And let people free lance any thoughts they may have. Write down your stories that illustrate what you do well. Then watch the positive energy that starts to come from reading what has been written by others. By doing this you are beginning to identify the positive core strengths of your unit.

Phase 2 – Dream: In this phase the purpose is to think about what you want for the future…to dream without restrictions. You want to liberate your thoughts and let go of the status quo.  Ask yourselves “What is the purpose of our unit? What is it that we want to do (or become)? What contribution do we want to make for the population we serve in this ICU? What is our calling?”

Phase 3 – Design: In this phase, building upon the positive core strengths at what you are already good at, you want to think about capitalizing on those strengths to formulate a plan to make your dream future a reality. Ask yourselves “What would this unit look like if we fully used our strengths to work towards achieving our dream? How can we take advantage of our current capacity and capabilities to create new capacity?”.

Phase 4 – Destiny: During this phase the execution of plans begins to happen but does not necessarily need formal action plans and implementation strategies to sustain momentum. It is important in this phase that people within your unit have opportunity to regularly but informally connect to share ideas (this could be face-face encounters or through virtual discussion forums or even gathering for tea-at-the-end-of-the-desk-in-the-middle-of-shift where positive discussion is the guiding principle of any conversations), to encourage and support one another and to mobilize the positive energy that comes from simply letting go of the negative past. As AI becomes a way of “being” in your ICU, a new culture of positive energy emerges and there is a natural alignment of the positive core strengths to achieve the dreams you have identified and reach the unit’s desired destiny.  (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005).

Does this sound like a lot of work?  There is effort, but the work that it takes to stay entrenched in habits of negativity consumes much more energy than the work involved in using an appreciative inquiry approach to creating the kind of positive change you want in your ICU.  AI will lead you to appreciate what is the best in you and in others.  There are many trained professional AI consultants who could assist your unit in journeying through the AI process to reveal your strengths and creating the change you want for your unit. What destiny do you desire?

As always…take care of yourself and each other,

Kate Mahon
CACCN President

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive
olution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers

** There are many good websites on AI that can also be googled to read more on the subject.

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