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Reflections arising from "A Comparison of Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus: An Overview"

Kendy Rossi, Tricia Lustig and Mark McKergow have done a great job in compiling their table comparing Ai and SF. They plan a further version with added comments from each tradition. I offer my comments here.

My perspective on the work comes from the SF tradition; I have had only one day's introduction to Ai and read a couple of the key texts, but I have never participated in an Ai project as a member of a system or as a consultant. My comments are my own - I have no claim (or ambition!) to speak for the SF community in responding as I do.

What we share

The two approaches have many features in common:

  • both can be described as "selectively attentive" - to the best of what is and to what works rather than what doesn't work (in the SF tradition, we are fond of quoting William James "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook");
  • their focus and orientation is towards possibilities in the absence of problems;
  • they rely on collaboration;
  • they have a lively appreciation of the systemic or interactional nature of human relationships and the emergent nature of behaviour in complex systems like business organisations;
  • both see the role of language as pivotal in effecting change - the subject matter (the object of selective attention), the vocabulary, the use of the well-chosen question and the apposite comment (especially compliment or affirmation) are all key to the success of conversations using either approach.


Where we (or I) differ

Why, then, do I feel uneasy when reading the Ai columns? I think that there are four main sources of discomfort. The first is the nature of the language used in the Ai community; the second probably stems from a different attitude to the role of work in our lives; the third is the explicit reference to the spiritual and the fourth arises from my understanding of the role of leadership in Ai thinking.


We agree that language is pivotal, but I suspect we use language differently. The Ai vocabulary too often refers to things that are hidden from us - reified ideas, nominalisations, or what Insoo Kim Berg calls $5000 words. In short, rather grand, non-concrete words about things which are difficult to pin down in the sensory, behavioural world where SF practitioners apply their focus, using $5 words.

This is particularly exemplified in the entries entitled Ideal Conditions for Use, Times to Avoid Use and Potential Outcomes. Terminology like discovery, renewal, commitment, sense of identity, culture etc are not part of the SF practitioner's every day vocabulary. If clients use these words, we respond with constructive naivety: how will I recognise renewal (for example) when it happens? What will we be doing differently? What will our customers notice?

What will our competitors notice? By focusing on the answers to such questions, we build up a pragmatic view of what the hoped-for change will mean in the concrete world. Even more importantly, asking for concrete detail (what Bill O'Hanlon calls video-talk) enables the various members of the client team to reach a common understanding of what they're looking for - and of the evidence that they are on the way to achieving it.

[My own favourite example of misunderstood vocabulary is the oft-heard statement that "we don't communicate properly in this group". Well-meaning managers typically respond by issuing all sorts of detailed reports and other reading matter; but usually, their staff simply mean "my boss doesn't greet me by name or ask about my work as often as I would wish". Asking concrete questions about "communication" makes this kind of misunderstanding less likely.]

So the SF conversation may sound more mundane (literally "of this world" - Concise Oxford Dictionary) than the Ai conversation: our "selective attention" is focused on evidence and distinctions in the real world - we establish the desirable future and focus on small indications that things are moving in the right direction.

The role of work

I have been self-employed for 10 years. Before that, I had over 2 decades in the corporate sector, steadily climbing the managerial greasy pole. As a student, I worked on factory production lines and in hospital cleaning jobs. This experience leads me to the view that for most of us, work is a means to an end. I recall a coal miner being asked why he had worked only 3 shifts in the previous week (thus contributing to the industry's dreadful absenteeism record). His reply was "well, you can't live on what they pay you for 2 shifts". Few of us expect, seek or find the meaning of life at work.

So, I am uneasy in the face of a belief in the desirability of mission or vision statements, or shared values and culture, or aligned goals at work. It smacks of paternalism at best, imperialism at worst, to assume that everyone shares their dreams in this way. Why should I share identity, values and culture at work - for me, "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay " is an entirely adequate and sufficient shared value.

I am also concerned that Ai might be unduly self-limiting in coping with change in what I have called the mundane arena. The Comparison Table says that one of the situations where the use of Ai should be avoided is where "there is a lack of support for passionate dreaming and inspired self-initiative". I suggest that this situation is far from unusual! The Ai endeavour is huge; SF is more pragmatic, believing that desirable change can be initiated by anyone who is a "customer for change" - wanting something different and prepared to something about it.

The spiritual dimension

For me, the outstanding difference is Ai's explicit embracing of the spiritual. It is a core tenet of Ai that organisations are " .. living spiritual-social systems, mysteries of creation to be nurtured and affirmed". The Dream is "a vision of a better world, a powerful purpose and a compelling statement of strategic intent" (Cooperrider et al.) Much of the Ai endeavour is in selecting what they call Affirmative Topics for inquiry as they develop the Dream. SF has no such ideals - save for helping the client articulate and achieve what they want. It is more pragmatic in its starting point and therefore as useful for the mundane as the profound. I am not a member of the school that says "this [whatever] isn't just an approach, it's a Way of Life!" For me, the SF approach is something to use when things aren't working. Most of the time, things are! I suspect that Ai adherents do see Ai as a Way of Life.

The role of the leader

Successful implementation of Ai projects seems to rely crucially on the style of organisation leadership. We are told that the ideal conditions for Ai projects include "leadership belief in the positive core of the system and in affirmative process as a viable change driver", a need/desire for "enquiry, discovery and renewal" and support for "passionate dreaming and inspired self-initiative".

Very often, we are told that change initiatives failed because the top team weren't on board or didn't walk the talk. In contrast, SF doesn't need the commitment of the leadership in the same way. Indeed, SF practice lends itself brilliantly to "guerrilla tactics". Our main tool is language and our use of a conversational approach to change means that, given a "customer for change", it can happen without declared initiatives, or task forces, or appointed change agents.

Final Remarks

None of this is to deny that there is a place for Ai - indeed, given its undoubted success in the organisational world, its place is self-evident. There are enlightened leaders in the world, capable of articulating a compelling vision that others are happy to share, and of allowing grass-roots empowerment. There are situations where whole-hearted involvement by everyone in the system is both possible and appropriate. And there are groups of people willing and able to devote the time and effort needed for an Ai project.

The apparent differences between the two approaches may or may not be significant - it could be simply a matter of taste. However, as a vehicle for change - especially in the kind of organisations I work with - I prefer the simple, ideology-free and pragmatic SF approach.

Jenny Clarke
23 July 2003