Insights into Appreciative Inquiry in the UK

Recently I had the pleasure of carrying out a series of interviews with leaders in their respective fields. With their agreement, I’m going to blog about the talks and share the audio and video content.

My final interview was with Sarah Lewis. I first heard of Sarah at a talk she gave at HRD some years back about positive psychology, which I wrote about here. This influenced my interest in the field due to the practical nature of her talk, and through her use of research to validate what she was sharing with us. It was very cool, therefore, that she agreed to do this talk with me.

Where did it start for you?

Sarah: I did a first degree in psychology and worked in the not for profit sector for a while. Through Kensington Consultation Company I came across Appreciative Inquiry as a change methodology. It has a very positive orientation – one of the main principles is that change takes positive energy. Positive energy is more sustainable than what we might call the negative emotions. It’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose because they do. I then came across Martin Seligman’s work and what he termed as Positive Psychology and the two just fit very well well together.

And did you build up your practise around appreciative inquiry?

Sarah: Well it’s been around for about 25 years now, and initially I focused on my work as a social worker. I used AI as a core part of my practise, and the learning and insight from positive psychology helped to build on that.

Do you find it’s a widely applicable tool (AI)?

Sarah: I think it’s more about preparing the ground for helping people to make the conversational switch to a more appreciative style. For a group who are demoralised it’s too much of a leap for me to say “let’s talk about good things”. People get very anxious when a consultant comes in and recommends doing this. You have to create willingness to work in this way.

How do organisations react to AI and positive psychology?

Sarah: Every organisation and audience within it is different, of course. With HR professionals I might explain more about the research. With a bunch of engineers, for example, I wouldn’t talk about ‘appreciative inquiry’ I’d just design a day and they’ll get on with it. From an ethical perspective, if someone asks me why I chose a certain path, I should be able to give a response based on either research or experience. It’s essentially based in a social constructionist view of the world, human dynamics, and people feeling positive and negative emotions, and of course talking about strengths.

Do you find people are resistant to doing this methodology?

Sarah: My experience is once people get into doing it that fairly quickly disappears. First of all it’s a nice thing to do, it can be a real pleasure from hard conversations. People begin to realise quite quickly something is happening and something is changing. Because it’s a highly participative system based approach, and people co-create, it’s something very different for people.

In your book you describe different ways change can be managed, and AI is one technique which seems to bring about the most success. Do you still find this is the case?

Sarah: Problem solving has its place and we do it all the time. By the time I’m asked to work with an organisation, the change methodology they’ve tried to put into place isn’t working, and they want to explore the potential for a different approach to change. Problem solving works well for logical problems, and people aren’t logical, they’re psychological, and that’s why AI works well for me.

There seems to be little in the way of training in AI techniques. Is it a niche thing?

Sarah: There’s a formal group in America called the NTL group. There are NTL approved courses in the UK and cross Europe, and tend to be 3-5 days long. The likes of Cranfield and Roffey Park have incorporated AI into their programmes. I run one day stand alone sessions. There are other options available, and you tend to only know about it if you know about the field. The CIPD do a Positive Psychology at Work course.

Do you find there’s momentum around this?

Sarah: I’ve just helped produce an article about the top ten tips for positive psychology in the workplace, and that’s been one of the better picked up articles. I think there is a lot of interest out there. People may not know how to apply it, and that’s why I wrote my bookto help start that conversation and to give people some ideas about how to apply it to the workplace.

It’s actually quite a practical methodology.

Sarah: I’ve found this is one of the areas of psychology which has broken the mould quite quickly. It’s quite an accessible field from the works of Martin Seligman, and Barbara Fedrickson.

Do you find links to other methodologies used by other L&D solutions?

Sarah: Mindfulness and resilience is addressed directly by positive psychology. Work is being done with the US military to help understand how to maintain resilience when you receive instant communications from loved ones that are distressing. They have undergone training to help them have better conversations with partners and family members at home so they don’t get upset.

When looking at organisations going through redundancies, there are ways to help people bounce back quicker who are the ‘survivors’. HR professionals are still having to work out how to apply this thinking. Day to day examples are hard to find in this area.

A current hot topic is around employee engagement. What work do you get involved with in this area?

Sarah: Positive psychology has a lot to offer the field of employee engagement. I tend not to hear it in those words, it tends to be around motivation, or redundancies, or morale. One of the key things is helping people feel hopeful. We know concepts like flow, meaningful work, using strengths, all help to create a sense of engagement.

We need to be careful of the cynical application of these tools. There’s a danger of people trying to apply these learnings which are not simpatico with the field as a whole. It’s a very humanistic field, about people flourishing. I have a feeling, that when people apply techniques in a cynical way, the currency gets debased very quickly. And then it starts to not work, and there’s an incongruity in the way it’s meant to work.

This leads to then leaders being authentic and have integrity.

Where do you see this all headed?

Sarah: I see it as a win-win situation, which makes it ethically possible for me. We all have to work for a living, so let’s make it a good part of our life. There are practices which are good for people, which help with a sense of flourishing and help organisations build social capital and productivity. What we don’t have is a coherent body of work which proves that.

There’s a shift in conversation in looking to the future and not just working in the past.

When you look at a lot of management based training, it’s still based on post-war models. You think we’re 50 years down the line, we should be re-thinking core models and theoretical frameworks that we’re working from. We’re applying post war thinking to modern day problems and issues.

Sarah Lewis has developed a set of positive psychology concept cards which introduce concepts like flow, positive emotions, strengths and AI. They complement the book, and they’re quite useful for management development work to discuss aspirational topics. Please contact Sarah directly if you’re interested. (

She has also written a book called Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management.

You are welcome to ring her to talk more about this topic on 07973782715.

She’s very interested in doing speaking work at in-house conferences.

If you’d like to watch the video recording of this, it’s on my YouTube channel.


Resilience through organisational change

Working for the NHS during this intense period of change is proving to be a brilliant learning experience for me. For a long while I was interested in what’s happening in this space of life, reading various reports, watching the news, reading blog posts, and following those who work in the field. A friend commented recently, it’s not necessarily the change itself which is problematic, but the pace of change. The current government wants to reduce the public deficit by a certain time, and that is impacting daily life. To be part of this organisation while they’re experiencing this pressure is just fascinating.

One of the things which stands out for me is the change itself, and how varied it is. There is everything from restructuring of teams and departments, to cost improvement programmes, to redundancies, to innovations in service provision, to changes in working practices, and a whole manner of other changes I’ve yet to be exposed to. It’s interesting to see how this change is implemented, and personally it’s interesting to note how people personally manage through this scale of change.

It’s in this space of personal management of change that I want to share some thoughts.

Many change management programmes will endeavour to cater for the human side of the equation. Some common models and theories are included to help people navigate their way through the change – the Kubler-Ross model of ‘the five stages of grief’, the ‘burning platform’ model, even ‘Who Moved My Cheese’. They all offer different insights into how we think about and manage change. Put them alongside good operational and HR practice around change management and you have a good way of helping people.

What I think has been missing is finding ways for people to find their resilience through change.

I have a bias for organic ways of supporting change. That is, give people the opportunity to behave a certain way, and they’ll get there themselves. In a previous life when I was made redundant, the process was dire, and the heartening thing was the way the affected group naturally came together. Had the organisation provided a way of enabling this, our experience would have been very different. People need a space and a forum where they can voice their ongoing experience. This helps them to offload whatever is dragging them down and find support in others. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as the adage goes, and it is certainly true in building this resilience.

There has been some very interesting research into the use of techniques such as Appreciative Inquiry in helping a group of people move forward. This tends to have better effect on those not being made redundant, and more likely to experience a shift in what they do, and in some form remain as an intact team. It allows the group to reflect on what came before, what successes were achieved, what the future looks like, and creating powerful stories of an ideal future.

In previous writing, I’ve spoken about ‘Positive Deviance‘. This is where a group is asked to find its own way through change, create a sustainable plan of action, appoint some people who will make it happen, and a consensus builds around this and finds ways to make it a success. It is important to note this approach is only designed for behavioural change, and not structural or technical change.

There are more formal interventions around training courses which can be useful, and personal one on one support for individuals too. I came across a fascinating piece of research from ACAS, around the support given to those having to deliver a message of change, called ‘envoys’. The paper helps to consider what support these envoys may require, highlights what they may experience themselves as deliverers of the message, and what they can do to look after themselves. It’s well worth considering as part of the mix as we tend to only think that the people being affected by the change are the ones actually affected.

Probably one of the most overlooked impacts of change is the possible impact on a person’s mental health. Some in an organisation will forever remain cynical about people who may claim to be experiencing difficulties during the change when you consider all of the above is designed to be supportive. We must remain vigilant that if someone is experiencing some mental health issues as a result of the change we deal with that person with care and the right support. I don’t mean get Occupational Health involved and let them take care of the person, but more supportive behaviours from managers and team members so the person knows they are valued. The two most important questions we can ask someone who might be experiencing mental health issues are “what do you do to take care of your health and well-being?” and “how can I support you?”. These will lead to good conversations around helping that person, and may also involve asking for help from people you didn’t expect to be involved.

So there we have it. There’s a lot there to consider, some more practical than others, and some requiring considerable training to help us be more effective in delivering those methods. Essentially it is all designed to offer a complete support ‘package’ and to remain mindful that processes and procedures will be useful to manage the change, and the above offers a way to help people build their personal resilience through the change.

Invisible Barriers

Often, at work there’s a way to do something. There’s the unspoken rules. The unwritten policy. The unofficial way of working. It reminds me of the story of the monkeys as an analogy for organisational policy design*

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it.

Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs.

To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him.

After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked.

The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one.

The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well.

Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced.

Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

Why not?

Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

And that’s how company policy begins …

So what happens when you give permission for people to change? Let’s say we took away the spray, and encouraged the monkeys to reach for the bananas by placing them within easy reach independent of the stairs? They still won’t do it. A set of established rules and way of working has already been accepted. To change it is folly. Even when permission has been granted.

And let’s replace one of those monkeys with another new monkey. What would happen when the new monkey – who is blissfully unaware of repercussions just as the others had been – tries to reach for the bananas? He’ll get beaten down. A sad case of events.

That’s why it often takes someone external to the situation to be able to come in and say – why aren’t you acting differently? Why aren’t you doing what is within your control and power? And the responses of “I didn’t know I was allowed to”, “but we’ve always done it that way”, “that’s their responsibility not mine” suddenly all become myths that quickly unravel. All it takes is someone to say – you have permission to change.

*I unashamedly quoted this story from the site

#HRD11 final thoughts Part 2

In the last post in a series of learnings from #HRD11, I turn my attention to the interesting world of Organisational Development and Change Management. There’s a lot of jargon and titles thrown around these days when we talk about these topics that it makes my head hurt. OD consultant, change practitioner, change agent, L&OD, frameworks, models, theories, facilitation (I LOVE facilitation, but come on), blah, blah. GO SUCK AN EGG. This is a long post, so you’ve been warned.

It seems to me that we’d all be better off if we took the time to understand what OD and change management are trying to achieve. As an interesting aside, at one of the seminars I attended, we were presented with a case study of the botched redundancy announcement the Armed Forces made to those serving on the front-line. The question was posed, “as change practitioners, what change management would you put into place?”. But that’s not about change management, that’s about internal comms. And that’s arguably a department unto itself, but equally the responsibility of every person in the organisation dealing with internal and external clients on a daily basis.

I think what’s happening is we’re getting blind-sided by people too afraid to look at what the issue is that needs to be addressed and are happy throwing the monkey to someone who may or may not be the best person to deal with the situation. Everything seems to need an OD or Change Management initiative (grr, bloody initiatives). In certain projects you can see how this makes an awful lot of sense. Cutbacks demand hardcore black belt project management types to make the change happen and work hand in hand with OD types who can facilitate the people side of things. But for the most part, most organisations aren’t facing those truly organisational challenges.

For the most part, organisations are facing issues such as: “how’s our employee engagement survey coming along?” “are our internal comms effective?” “we need to refresh our competency frameworks” “Let’s take onboarding and revamp it” “our reward and recognition scheme is out of date” – WAIT, are you thinking what I am? They’re not organisational issues, they’re (mostly) HR issues? So where’s the organisational stuff? You know, the stuff that actually affects… the organisation? For all the above, I don’t believe for a second you need to have dedicated OD/change management types dealing with them. You need someone who understands how to use the skills to deal with them, and those might cross into those fields, but it’s far from being a true OD/change management issue.

So what issues should we be looking at? Have a read of Neil Morrison’s post on this very topic. There’s a piece in there about dealing with ambiguity (interestingly this came up in my post yesterday too). Organisations face truly organisational issues such as “we have to move office because our current one doesn’t suit our needs, and while we’re at it, we’ll be merging 3 offices into one building”. That’s the kind of event where you need someone who can manage that change, facilitate the change and make it happen. Is that OD? Is it Change management? Is it Project Management? As I’ve said before, I don’t think it matters, what matters is it gets done.

But, and here’s the bit I think is key, regardless of which approach you choose to take, the important piece in any of this is the discussion. Not engagement, not communication, but discussion. We’re getting so misplaced with the process (as Neil quite rightly points out) that we forget the discussion is what it’s all about. Actually what happens is, in hindsight we say, “wow, that discussion on the change was bloody amazing, we should have captured that because it was really rich”. And then when the next change comes along, we neglect the discussion again.

That’s the one thing any of your/us OD consultants/change management types need to be able to do. Enable a discussion. And the great thing about thinking about it in this way is that it doesn’t matter who knows best. We can all have a discussion. Some of us just know how to facilitate them in different ways.

So. There you have it. Thanks #HRD11, it was informative and helped me direct my thoughts on certain topics. Let’s dance again sometime. Next year perhaps?

Using positive psychology to create change at work

Continuing my learnings from #HRD11, one of the sessions I found truly useful was delivered by Sarah Lewis. She is a psychologist and has a particular focus on using concepts such as social constructionism, positive psychology and strengths based views. She has published a book called Positive Psychology at Work. Regular readers will know I have a bias towards positive psychology, and I was glad to not be let down by Sarah.

The following is a summary of various actions that can be used within a work context. As usual, this is only intended to provide a base level of information, there are nuances and details that I won’t be going into, and as such, this should provide some thoughts for things currently happening that you would like to change.

Sarah reinforced the importance of seeking positive experiences as part of building an environment of positivity. Previously, psychology used to be about helping those with issues increase their wellbeing from a state of -5 to 0 (-5 being unhealthy, 0 being healthy). Positive psychology aims to help individuals move from 0 to +5 (healthy to vibrancy). As such, we should aim to have a ratio of positive experiences higher than negative at about 3:1 at minimum, and at a maximum 12:1.

In organisations, there needs to be increased connectivity. A powerful motivator for a lot of people (be you an introvert or an extrovert), is to be able to connect with others. This is not exclusive to physical connections, particularly now in the ‘connected’ world we live in. Organisations have to allow for their people to be able to connect in meaningful ways. This is not to be confused with making people connect. People simply need to know there are options available, and they are fully capable themselves of deciding how they want to connect.

We should build social capital. An interesting turn of phrase with a good list of benefits:
– Reduces transaction costs
– Facilitates communication and cooperation
– Enhances employee commitment
– Fosters individual learning
– Strengthens human relationships and involvement
– Enhances organisational performance
– Facilitates organisational resilience

If we allow ourselves to act virtuously and positively, we create around us a network of people who see this happening. People are easily influenced by others’ actions, and we have long known that phenomena like peer pressure are incredibly powerful in directing how individuals will behave. Similarly, if you see someone doing something positive and virtuous, you understand there is a benefit to this, and are likely to seek out doing something yourself.

We should create micro-moments of High Quality Connections. This is about intimate, meaningful connections where we enable positive behaviours to happen. The way to do this is to allow ourselves to recognise when someone needs our time. We had an expression at my old workplace called ‘be here now’. By doing this, you build a connection with the person you’re talking to, allowing these micro-moments to happen.

Positive Energy Networks. This was really interesting for me. Who is a positive energy network? What is it? Perhaps the way to answer this is by looking at what a PEN can create:
– A stimulated environment
– Attentive to others
– Energising those around them
– Responsive behaviours
– Being hopeful and allowing others to have the same
– Generating new ideas
– Willing to devote discretionary time

In relationship to change, this was a useful way for Leaders to think about it: Most successful approach to change is to understand and work with it as an emergent phenomena.

#HRD11 Presentations on Change

In a series of interesting posts this week, Neil Morrison has been talking on the XpertHR blog about Commercial HR. It’s been a fascinating series and links in with thoughts I had from last week’s #HRD11 conference organised by the CIPD.

Change seems to be the hot topic of the day and I’m keen to learn more about what this looks like. So I sat through 3 different presentations, all discussing change. In this post, I’ll share the learnings from them, and in a later post this week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think is happening.

The first was a talk by Mike Clayton about how to handle resistance to change. He’s written a book on it for the Management Pocketbook series.

He described how he helps groups to understand how to deal with change by using an Onion analogy. If you peel one layer at a time you can start to understand what level of resistance you are facing:
– I don’t understand why we need to change
– I don’t understand why this change
– I don’t like this change
– I don’t like you
– I like to resist

Each of these needs to be dealt with specifically. If one layer doesn’t resolve the resistance, then you need to move on to the next.

He had a nice opening to the session – Respect your resisters.

I then attended a session with Irving Allen who talked about Change Agents.

I honestly found this a difficult session as the exercises they were asking the group to take part in were not suited to the environment we were in. Also the pair of presenters were not practiced enough with each other to deliver the material side by side. As a result I honestly took little away from this session. Except that they said you had to identify in the organisation who were:
– The targets for change
– The Change Agents
– The sponsors of the change
– The Change advocates

The last session was with Naomi Standford. She wasn’t the greatest facilitator I’ve had in a session, but she did help to deliver some very good models (Ha! Refer to earlier post about models) on how to manage change and how to communicate change.

She started by getting the group to discuss our understanding of what is the rate and scope of the change happening. I hadn’t considered this before and it’s a good reflection piece as as a change practitioner you often need to develop this understanding before you can launch into action.

The Change Management model she presented doesn’t seem to have a reference, so I’ll attribute it to Naomi, unless otherwise informed. She described a seven step process we should go through. This is:
– Set Direction
– Design and Plan
– Mobilise
– Deliver
– Transition
– Consolidate
– Improve

This process helps to realise that even though change may have been delivered, there are several important subsequent steps that need to be followed up.
She also presented this Communicating Change model. Again there seem to be no reference so I will attribute to Naomi.

I found this particularly useful as a way to help understand what I need to do to communicate change effectively.