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Has Appreciative Inquiry Delivered on its Promises? What Might the Next Step Be?, by Joep C. de Jong

In September 2015, Wick van der Vaart of the Instituut voor Interventiekunde and new Editor-in-Chief of AI Practitioner asked me if I would be willing to write an article about the theme ”Has AI delivered on its promises and what might the next step be?” I accepted the challenge of addressing this provocative question, realizing that for many reasons it would be a nearly impossible task to answer it – if only for the fact that, from a social constructionist perspective, we could have many views on what “delivering on promises” means.

Another reason this theme is challenging is that Cooperrider and Srivasta (1987) originally introduced Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a generative approach to action research with an emphasis on shared knowledge creation for social innovation (Zandee, 2015). Neither that original article, nor any of the early adopters, such as Ron Fry, Frank Barrett, Jane Watkins and others, make any promise of what AI will or will not deliver.

Modest beginning, enormous impact
Still, when we look at that original article, Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life (Cooperrider and Srivasta, 1987), it is only fair to say that the impact of that modest beginning has been enormous, and this continues until today. And then there is the large number of case studies telling us stories of AI successes in books by Whitney & Trosten-Bloom (2003), Lewis (2011), Watkins, Mohr & Kelly (2011), Masselink & De Jong (2013) and many, many more. We also see a series of successful worldwide AI conferences, from the first in Baltimore (USA) in 2001 to the most recent in Johannesburg (SA) – and the next already being planned for 2017 in Brazil. Those of us who said that they would strive to ”lift AI in the world” can certainly claim success. AI is now found on every continent – maybe with the exception of Antarctica – and is being embraced by more and more people, individuals as well as organizations – and by organizations I mean the full spectrum: for-profit, not-for-profit and government.

So if it is not on the successful delivery of promises that we can measure AI – and as a reader you may ask “Do we want to measure AI in the first place?” – what is it that we can say about AI and what it has brought to the world? Ken Gergen (Whitney et al, 2010) says that “the growth and application of Appreciative Inquiry over the past two decades has been nothing short of phenomenal”.

I can only agree with that statement: an idea brought into the world at the end of the 1980s now has tens of thousands of people using it, researching it and bringing its gift to so many people and organizations. And I may also add, as a response to the question about measuring the results of AI, that some of the cases described in the publications mentioned delivered very concrete and measurable results. I refer, for example, to Dan Saint’s statistics on his results at Jefferson Wells (Stavros and Hinrichs, 2009) and my own results at BT Syntegra and Van Harte & Lingsma. I am also aware that there may be additional questions about the extent that our personalities played in achieving these results. I hope to shed some light on that question by the time I have finished my Ph.D.

AI’s gift
Personally I believe that possibly the biggest gift AI brings is that it helps us
to reconnect as humans. I recall a conversation with Jane Watkins, who told me that if we were to “strip down” AI, what remains at the core is sharing
our most powerful stories, the stories of when we are at our best, especially concerning situations where we overcame the tough(est) situations in our lives. (De Jong, 2015c). Sharing those stories from one human to another, and then through generative dialogues finding the meaning of those stories, is a gift to a world in need of us interacting that way.

Might it be that AI addresses and appeals to possibly the most basic need
we have as humans: to be in healthy relationships. “Healthy” in this case meaning that we seek the possibilities and potential in others with whom we form a community, “healthy” also in the sense that in those relations we not only connect, but embrace, share and co-create. The way we primarily do that is by sharing stories and images and, fortunately, more and more music and dance. In that sense we are still very close to the original introduction of AI as a generative approach to action research.

Building AI capacity
Let me fall back here on my own practice and experience in the many situations where I – and those I have been working with – have used AI. Every time that we used AI to address the serious issues we were facing and to make meaning of the best stories people shared, we found a positive way forward. This has been especially true when we managed to sustain momentum in an organization. Often I engaged with clients under the conditions that we should be able to a) built an internal AI capacity in the organization and b) stay with the client system for a longer period of time.

When I reflect on the use of AI in my former roles as a manager, board member, director and CEO in those situations, I see a development from using AI as a tool to a way of being that reflects a much deeper understanding of what it means to apply AI as a leader – which we all are, by the way.

That way of being is beautifully illustrated by people like Dan Saint (de Jong, 2015a) saying: “How you act, other people will act.” Trying to understand the principles – trying to understand what it really means to have a generative dialogue – became key to applying AI in the situations I was responsible for. If you really live the structure of the AI approach and its underlying principles, then you start to see the basic goodness in each and every one of us. General John M. Le Moyne (de Jong, 2015b) says it beautifully when he speaks about the task of leaders: “To bring that goodness out.” In my experience, this describes both the way and the purpose of “how” and “why” AI. In my years as CEO, it has been exactly these two things that I have tried to realize by “being AI”: trying to foster a culture of goodness and by doing that, delivering excellent results!

When I look at the potential and the possibilities AI offered us from the very beginning I believe we can safely conclude that AI has delivered and still is delivering. I already referred to some of the literature sharing many case studies. Around the world I see many, many situations where AI is applied successfully, often in combination with other approaches, to bring about transformational changes in both the lives of individuals as well as that of organizations; changes that often reflect a much more natural cycle than the “endless growth” perspectives we developed in the second half of the last century. AI has provided us with the notion that individuals and systems can and should develop continuously, which is distinctly different from growing continuously.

Next steps
So what are AI’s next steps? I would like to point to a few sources. By being selective, I am aware that I am doing an injustice to the many initiatives currently being undertaken to further lift AI in the world but there is not enough space in an article of this length. One of the most impressive things I see around AI is the apparently endless creativity of people combining different elements and fields, playing with possibilities in every aspect
of their lives and the world. Whether it concerns personal coaching using AI; enhancing our education systems; improving the circumstances in the downturn of major cities; or the eradication of hunger and poverty by organizations like the World Food Program – in all those situations we see people using AI. So let me just focus on a few of the high-level developments that I see when it comes to further releasing the potential and the possibilities of AI.

Flourishing AI
At the AI Conference in Johannesburg, David Cooperrider shared with
the audience his views on the Flourishing Enterprise, as grounded in the publication Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business (Lazlo et al, 2014). One of the key statements was that cultivating emotional and spiritual health is the next frontier. We see a growing interest in these fields and in adjacent areas like creativity. In my own work of making portraits of appreciative leaders I find that, next to information and knowledge, there is space for other elements, such as emotions, wisdom, wholeness and spirituality. These will be the next frontier.
Generative dialogue
Another high-level development that I am enthusiastic about is the power of elevated experience (Cooperrider & Goodwin, 2015), especially when we use inquiry to sustain generative dialogues enabling true co-creation. Even though people like Gervase Bushe have been talking about it for a number of years now, it feels that we are only at the early stages of carrying out truly generative dialogues. This is not surprising in a world with a primary space for debate and discussions that support the view of a single truth and winner. The emergence of this third stream, that of the generative dialogue, will allow us to truly co-create.

Being AI
Another source I would like to mention is the development of a clear focus on the quality of our relationships and on the importance of actually” being AI”. This is succinctly described in the booklet Appreciative Inquiries of the 3.0 Kind (Hoogendijk, 2015). Both points support the two other developments of the growing awareness around emotional and spiritual health and the shift towards a true dialogue. This publication, as well as others, stresses that (positive) things will only happen if we are fully aware of the importance of our relationships. Positive effects will happen when we are aware that we exist by the grace of others and that we can realize our full potential when we see the goodness in the other. During the Worldwide AI Conference in South Africa the importance of the concept of ubuntu (I am because we are) was stressed.

The importance of wholeness
We are deepening our understanding of the importance of wholeness – now often listed as the sixth AI principle – and spiritual health. More and more practices in the AI world emphasise this need to include experience, wisdom, wholeness and spirituality, beside the aspects of information and knowledge. I am aware that our Western society still has a strong economic focus, based on the teachings of the last decade of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first. The financial crisis of 2008 is, in my opinion, still casting a shadow over our societies: many still seem to believe that emotional and spiritual health is something for others, not for them.

Leadership lessons
When it comes to leadership lessons I would like to emphasize the importance of work, such as that of Bushe and Marshak (2015), around generative dialogues, and that of Barrett (2012) about the importance of improvisation. Although some of these items may not be totally new to insiders, Bushe has been writing about generative dialogues for quite some time, just as Barrett has been sharing his thoughts on the jazz metaphor in the AI 4D cycle for many years, nevertheless, we see that their ideas are gathering more and more followers in all walks of life.

A final thought
Could it be that, almost thirty years after David Cooperrider’s original paper, AI is now reaching a level of maturity where we are starting to see it realizing its full potential, a potential that, in combination with other related fields, could help us find ways of engaging with each other at a deeper and more meaningful level? Is Appreciative Inquiry helping those of us who engage with it reach a level where we understand that we are relational beings, that we need each other, that we need our ecosystems and our spiritual relations to create a world in which all that lives has a place? Will AI be one of the catalysts that helps us deal with the major issues of our time: how to take care of refugees, how to eradicate hunger and poverty and how to find a way to sustain healthy living for all? I think, feel and believe this will surely be the case!