The serious challenge of appreciation that gets results

In this article about using an appreciative approach to solve organisational challenges, Mayvin Director Tony Fraser describes the core and effectiveness of this approach through real examples.

An appreciative approach to organisational challenges offers the possibility of being more forensic and effective

Last year my favourite piece of work was with a hospital. The work was to help a surgical pathway under immense pressure get a better grip of their work together. When we were brought in, the story was that people had been falling out with each other. Accusations of bullying were flying around. Senior leaders were pursuing a mandate of ‘knocking heads together’. Patient care and even safety were under scrutiny.

Our intent was to take an appreciative approach to investigate with everyone involved what could be done to get out of this hole. It occurs to me that this idea of an appreciative approach is often misunderstood. It is sometimes considered as a ‘Pollyanna’ principle, based on the eponymous novel from 1915, about an unfailingly optimistic girl. This suggests such an approach avoids difficult issues. But I don’t think an appreciative approach is about being unfailingly optimistic or ignoring problems or dangers. In fact, I think it offers a possibility of being more forensic and effective than an equivalent, deficit-based, problem-solving approach.

The core of the proposition

The core of this proposition is simply that most people are on the defensive when under pressure. And the more pressure they are under, the more defensive they can be. Aesop offers famous fable in support of this about the wind and the sun competing to remove the coat of a traveller. The sun wins of course, by shining brightly so that the traveller removes the coat of their own accord. The wind had failed in its own attempt: the more it blew, the harder the traveller worked to wrap the coat around himself. This parable is understood in the most forward-thinking environments, for example where safety is key.

In top airlines, pilots are considered more favourably if they are open about their errors. An atmosphere of discussion, meaningful debriefs and openness is encouraged. When I worked in the steel industry, I was impressed by how safety is encouraged through a mindset where vulnerability and openness are rewarded. This approach was learned the hard way, of course. In investigations post fatal events, it usually emerged that an atmosphere of fear and intimidation only served as a primary condition that precipitated danger.

An appreciative approach is a separation of a person from their behaviour

So what does an appreciative approach looks like? At the core of it is a separation of a person from their behaviour. We can be forensic about what someone is doing or has done whilst absolutely valuing of them as a person. But good quality appreciative practice starts with the latter, not the former. This way, we are more likely to get to the root of things. As we often say, it is vital we go slow to go fast. So the appreciative approach we took in the hospital was to put into the system what might be missing. This is usually the time and space for people to get a good listening to and have a chance to expound their own narrative about events, and have it taken seriously.

It sounds simple, but it takes some skill, especially if the senior sponsors of the work have an agenda to root out those to blame and configure you as their vanguard. (And of course, these senior sponsors also need to have their story honoured).

Setting Principles for the appreciative approach

In our work with the surgical team, we developed a set of principles to enable us to open up the space for this appreciative approach to grow:

  • Resist the quick solution and the narrative given to us
  • Assume this is a systemic rather than just a personal issue
  • Gain more traction with sponsors – having them invest the time in meeting and discussing issues and seeing themselves as part of the complex of challenges
  • Seek a quality of genuineness and authenticity from everyone involved, including us
  • Gain everyone’s trust in order to build their trust with each other
  • Get around and listen to everybody in the system, not limited to surgeons and nurses
  • Enable everybody’s voice to be heard by each other
  • Pay attention to the parallel process – what is happening for us and between us – as data about the system
  • Purposely use the diagnostic conversations as an important intervention in itself

These principles are fundamentally appreciative, not because we wanted to be unfailingly optimistic, but on the contrary to get to the bottom of things. It is a paradoxical practice, because it relies on a genuineness that is required to build trust. This can’t be faked; people, particularly those under pressure, often have a radar that detects when they are being ‘technique-d’; that is, when some kind of manipulative fakery is being attempted.

The appreciative approach is more effective

Another challenge in this practice is that people are generally uncomfortable with the idea that an appreciative approach is actually more effective. That is because we are so used to the idea of a deficit-based, problem-solving mentality that is it is a more natural habit. Consider a news story about some failure or accident. The first question that is asked is ‘who is to blame’? It is just how we think, and to offer an appreciative alternative is to disrupt this set of mental habits. That simply makes it harder work. When something is harder work, we find reasons not to do it. The rationale that an appreciative approach is naïve comes from this place. It suggests that we find it easier to carry on doing what we’ve always done, against all sorts of evidence to the contrary.

Uncovering more about the organisational problem through the appreciative approach

With the surgical team, we worked hard to listen to everyones’ story and build trust, and we held this appreciative agenda at the core of each subsequent cycle of activity, of which there were a few. This uncovered a great deal more than the story we had originally been handed, of a few bullies who were holding everyone else to ransom. What we found instead was:

  • A highly successful clinical pathway that was overworked to the point of breaking
  • A lack of overview and grip of the system by the various leaders of the parts of the system
  • Cross-cultural issue that exacerbated misunderstanding
  • A limited view of high performance that focussed on numbers of procedures completed but didn’t include other measures such as staff wellbeing, resilience, long-term capacity, learning and capability building
  • No time spent on improvement work across the system
  • Everybody cares: behavioural issues were more complex than initially presented and aggravated by pressure of work
  • The work of helping the system move on was achieved as much through the diagnostic and preparation as by any ‘away day event’ although the story of an upcoming event was useful in order to focus people’s minds and get buy-in

Challenging our own mindset as facilitators

Interestingly, we did hear stories of behaviour that could be construed as domineering to the point of bullying, but what we also heard was that partly through the process we were facilitating, these were diminishing. Behaviour that needed to change was changing, but not because we were focussing on that. It is a by-product of the overall process. Again this is paradoxical; it suggests we also had to challenge our own mindset as facilitators, and do some ‘self-work’. If we had bought into the story that certain people were domineering and their behaviour needed to change, we would find ourselves subject to a self-fulfilling prophecy faster than we could say ‘yes, but…’

To learn, you need to offer a measure of vulnerability

Along the same lines, last year we helped a government department in the midst of Brexit no deal planning get hold of their complex task by recognising that in order to learn, you needed to offer a measure of vulnerability. It seems obvious now, but at the time, at the core of this was an appreciative mindset that people under huge pressure found hard to realise at times. It just goes against the grain. Yet it was exactly what was needed to learn and be effective. We had the advantage of a set of prominent leaders who were prepared to role model this.
It takes some investment of course. It would have been much quicker to have run a workshop and told everyone to behave better. (That was the original suggestion of one of the senior sponsors.) Such a workshop, even a well-designed and facilitated one, may have even got some good ‘happy sheets’ afterwards. But I doubt it would have got the following response of one of the senior theatre managers:

From what I can see on a daily basis is that the culture in theatre is changed, staff/surgical/Administrators are working more cohesively. The theatre team is more aware of how words and actions may be interpreted by others and teamwork has greatly improved.

The challenge we have in implementing an appreciative approach is immense, not because it isn’t effective, but because it is so at odds with how we think things work, despite the evidence and what our heart tells us is effective. This not even to consider what is morally better. This isn’t a challenge to take lightly. But if we want things to improve in our organisations, and our world at large, it is one we must take seriously.

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