Five strangers have two hours to prepare for a three-hour consulting session with a client they have never met.
We are a British woman, a Greek woman, two Dutch men, and a Dutch woman. All of us have volunteered to try to help this organisation as part of our two-day experience at the 11th meeting of the Begeistring Network, a European network of people interested in Appreciative and strengths-based ways of working, at Volendam in Holland April 27-29 2011.
We will be working in English throughout. On our first evening we had about an hour to start planning how we might usefully use this opportunity.
Foundation180, we are told, is an organisation that supports youth work by providing proven programmes to help young people in trouble to turn their lives around. The organisation is about 3 months old, being the product of two previous organisations, now joined together. We will meet the project leader and 8-9 of her staff. They have expressed an interest in how to do an appreciative audit of the organisations that use their programmes.
As we discussed how to engage with this idea of appreciative auditing, we began to explore why this was an important topic for the organisation. We hypothesised that as an activity it was probably related to a core value of helping young people. This seemed a good topic to explore as part of ‘discovering what gives the system life’. It seemed likely to help create common ground in the group.
It was noticed that one of the challenges to our conversation was the lack of the voice of ‘those being audited’ in our conversation. It was also clear they wouldn’t be present at the meeting tomorrow. We had a challenge of how to bring their voices into the room in a positive way.
We learnt that the project leader was going to do an introductory talk, introducing the organisation to us. We considered how we could relate to this in a valuable and appreciative way and decided to listen for the strengths, abilities, passions, dreams, and resources present in her talk.
Appreciative inquiry is oriented to positive change; we knew we wanted to give our participants a chance to share some of their best dreams for the new organisation. Someone remembered some picture postcards available as a resource. We thought we might use them by asking people to select one that somehow expressed their dreams for the future of Foundation180.
In the car the next day these thoughts resolved themselves into a programme, complete with timelines and leads for each section, see the photo.
How was this possible?
Five people, working with minimum previous connection between themselves or the organisation they would be visiting, were able in a very short space of time, to co-create something they were highly committed to and that had real, real time impact. How was this possible?
I have been reflecting on this minor miracle, and this is my hypothesis.
- We had a shared understanding of organisations as social systems and a shared belief in the power of appreciation, inquiry and strengths to achieve positive change.
- We were all volunteers, thrown together by chance. There was no ‘leader’. There was no one of whom responsibility for success rested on more than anyone else.
- We all had a stake in the success of our afternoon, for our own reputations, for the reputation of the Network, and the reputation of our Dutch hosts who had negotiated these opportunities with organisations they knew personally. They were displaying extraordinary trust in people they had never met. We didn’t want to let them down.
- We all understood how to build on either other’s suggestions in a creative and generative way. This is a not a skill that can be taken for granted in groups. Was it because we were all consultants/facilitators? Or because of our general appreciative bent?
- We were able to combine our different strengths very well; for example allowing those who were interested in ideas and methods to explore those while those with a stronger inclination to plan and organise detail to do that. Expertise was respected as a resource not privileged as power.
So what happened at the client?
Fortunately the first round of expectation sharing suggested that our plan for the afternoon was a suitable way to proceed and we ran through our plans as outlined. During that, some remarkable things happened.
- The pride conversations, conducted first as a fishbowl conversation by them and then reflected on by us produced very strong emotions and was experienced as highly affirming.
- Optimism about the future of the organisation noticeably increased. This was clear by the comments that accompanied the postcards picked to represent the future. While one contribution was still tentatively hopeful, it was identified by the speaker as a shift from a previous position. In other words some hope was generated by our afternoon.
- An understanding developed about possible good reasons why people might deviate from the established, tried and tested, programmes. Allowing these deviations to become connected to the central value of helping young people started to pave the way for more appreciative audits.
- The shared values of the two organisations came more to the fore and started to create common ground. This will be a valuable resource and touch-point as the many points of difference between the two organisations will undoubtedly continue to be debated.
- We hadn’t realised before we arrived the level of tension within the organisation, stemming from the experience of the recent merger. It became clear that our afternoon had created a shared, positive experience. It was the first time they had been able to have such conversations about success, value and pride. We know that shared positive emotions help to create social bonds. This was apparent here.
So five strangers came together with another 8 strangers and together we co-created a positive, valuable, organisation-building afternoon. I continue to find the power of Appreciative Inquiry a minor miracle.