Walking on Coals? Thoughts Before an Appreciative Inquiry Summit

walking on coalsBefore I say anything about appreciative inquiry summits, Case Western Reserve professor of entrepreneurship David Cooperrider’s concept of bringing an entire organization together to focus on preserving its strengths in a collective vision of the future, I’m first going to quote renowned management consultant Peter Drucker:

“The task of great leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Think about that: Make weaknesses irrelevant. Makes sense and sounds powerful, doesn’t it? You don’t have to be HRCI-certified to understand it. To that point, those familiar with talent management and the study of organizational dynamics have a special vocabulary. They talk of turnover rates, leveraging strengths, and “destination workplaces.” Cultures of leadership. State of the business. These terms also translate reasonably well to the outside world.

But when you start hearing things like appreciative inquirywhole system in a room and virtuous cycle, it’s easy to start tuning out. Please, not another New-Agey, Deepak Chopra “walk-on-coals” session, you groan. Skip the drum circle. If I want peace and harmony, I’ll go to my yoga studio.

Skepticism is natural … expected, even. A quick poll of my coworkers (below) reflected ambivalence as the prevailing sentiment when asked about next week’s Fathom Appreciative Inquiry Summit. Of course, ambivalence is a perfectly natural response to something outside of your experience, especially a concept as radical to business culture as shutting down an entire mid-sized company for 2.5 days to conduct a collaborative search to identify and understand organizational strengths.

summit poll

Pre-summit poll of Fathomers

True to its name, an appreciative inquiry summit features inquiry. And not just any kind of inquiry: Cooperrider argues with convincing evidence that positive questions lead to positive change (Organizational Dynamics, April-June 2012). In organizations across the world, where 80% of analyses are devoted to failure, he argues, Why aren’t we analyzing success more often? The summits represent Cooperrider’s established practical method for creating a vision born of success analysis that catalyzes innovation and positive change across a system.

So, why aren’t organizations analyzing success more often? The question is valid. And so is an appreciative inquiry summit for Fathom at this stage in its life, by my reasoning. Yes, summit precedents with great results provide encouragement and vague ideas of what could emerge, but I don’t know what will happen. No one does, and I think that’s the point: An organization gets out of it what it brings to it. If people commit themselves to articulating a shared vision for the future that makes weaknesses irrelevant—and do the work to sustain it once the party’s over—then why not take that risk? Bring out the hot coals!


Photo courtesy of Phuket@photographer.net via Flickr.

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