Sunday, November 7, 2010

Appreciative Inquiry

This is a posting on a trend that I find distressing within Unitarian Universalism at the national level.  I originally posted it as a shorter response on Linda Laskowki's blog (where she graciously included these critical comments); but I repeat it here to keep it in the stream of essay-form things that I write.
 In the "UUA View from Berkeley", ( Linda Laskowski writes:

... Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a powerful methodology that is based on some interesting assumptions:
  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry forward parts of the past, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.
 I will respond to this on two levels: first, appreciative inquiry itself; and second, the focus of the UUA board.
When I read this description of Appreciative Inquiry, my bogon shields went up immediately. These are something other than "interesting" assumptions.
  • "In every society, organization, or group, something works." Why should that be true? Some organizations are quite dysfunctional. Or the things that work might not be important.
  • The statements about "reality" are some combination of post-modernist and New Age mumbo jumbo. "What we focus on becomes our reality." No, that's just not true. Reality is out there. What you focus on is in your head. At best, what we focus on might be our model of reality. And it could easily be an incorrect model. I realize what is meant here by "reality" must mean "someone's model of the world", but to then use "reality" to mean that is rhetorical misdirection.
  • Items four through seven ("asking questions influences the group", going into the future, valuing differences) are far from deep insights. In the flow of this, they are a sales job trying to "get me to yes", and might just as well have come from a Successories poster.
This all reads like marketing hype for another management theory. Oh, wait! It is a management theory. A quick check at Wikipedia for Appreciative Inquiry has big warnings about weasel words and sales brochure. The same is true of the page for the Taos Institute, created by the practitioners of AI. This suggests that even in the credulous world of the internet, these words raise red flags.

Which brings me to the larger issue: what is it with the UUA trustees and management theories? First we had Policy Governance. Now we have AI. And conveniently enough a person to tell us all about it. There is a case study at the Harvard Business School about using Appreciative Inquiry at a coffee retail chain. The net effect was that they reduced costs by 25 cents per cup of coffee. If you're a coffee chain, that could be big money. But at the end of the day, you're still selling coffee. Is the UUA equivalent of 25 cents per cup the change we are waiting for? It's not my idea of transformative change - it's just better management.

Policy governance, appreciative inquiry, changing the composition of the UUA board, election rules at GA, redistricting - these are all management and process issues. None of them is leadership. Vision is not going to come out of deep listening. From a post on Peter Bowden's blog, quoting Paul Nixon, "Churches that are paralyzed will gain nothing by self-study. They will just use the self-study as a stalling tactic." What do we possibly think would come out of such deep conversations that we don't already know?

All that can happen from these efforts is better management. We can have organized sub-groups rearranging those deck chairs and monitoring the exact distance to that iceberg instead of someone turning the ship around. We need to get back to what is permanent instead of the transience of organization change.

Peter Bowden, "Where does a Church Vision come from?",


  1. Well... there is the question on if we're electing leaders, or if we're electing servants. There's a major difference, and we as the congregations don't all agree on this.

  2. Sadly, I find the same tendency toward introspection in my own congregation. I'm definitely feeling "navel-gazing fatigue" and don't think the latest round will make any difference at all. (That said, I'm trying to make lemonade and use it as an opportunity to try to start a small group that will engage individuals at a more spiritual level.) But that brings to mind a topic I'd like to see in a leadership blog -- how to lead the movement to "just say no" to another round of introspection and make the shift to engagement.

    Re AI: I've found value in the technique, particular its attention to devising a particular type of question with the potential to draw out deep and sometimes unexpected responses. However, the case studies I examined dealt with organizations quite different from the UUA.