This week’s blog is by way of reporting on a fabulous two days spent with a superb group of NHS professionals and reiterating the power and relevance of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in UK public services.
During the week just past, I facilitated a two day appreciative inquiry-based learning and action event for 15 NHS professionals in the Midlands. The event was designed to introduce the managers to AI; both it’s theory and practice. The group wanted to not only learn about AI but to use AI ‘live’ across the two days to produce outputs that they could take away and use back in their services almost immediately. One of the senior managers had suggested that the challenges the NHS faced required an event that allowed participants to relax, think and work innovatively and perhaps re-ignite some of their passion, drained as it was by current events. Not a lot expected of me then!
This desire to ‘double-up’ as it were, to work almost twice as hard throughout the event on both theory and practice exemplified what I saw often in the participants. A group of highly motivated, passionate and caring professionals, from both front-end and support services, who when they weren’t working on the event’s materials, were using their breaks to do other work. In fact, of all of the groups I have facilitated during the past 12 years, and there’s been literally hundreds of them, this group was one of the most active and engaged with both the event and with their ‘home’ work throughout – a not inconsiderable feat given how much I had planned for them to cover in two days.
Of course, there are several linked, positive and less positive reasons for this level of activity on back-at-base matters, not the least of which is the pressure my participants were under to keep on-top of things back at their bases. I offer no judgment on this; if that’s the way you carve out time to attend a two-day learning and practice event, so be it.
Each individual of course would have had there own reasons as well for breaking away from the AI work to re-connect with HQ issues. Examples might be: personal commitment, worry or concern, lack of self-confidence, basic practical necessity, self-interest, professional pride and passion, and so on. The gamut of motives to look after the day-job as you learn about how to create and lead appreciative ways of change. I should also say that I saw little if any sign of this practical use of breaks interfering with their learning – and I am ‘hot’ on that as a facilitator, precisely because I work to ensure the event meets their learning needs. I also recall the pressures of being a Director in public service and the demands it made on my time, seven days a week.
On that point, i.e. of delivering on their learning needs, the event delivered significantly, by their own assessment. Because we created the opportunity for each sub-group to define their own positive topic for inquiry and action over the two days, their consistent engagement with the theory ensured some strong outputs via the practical exercises.
I chose to use AI’s lesser known model 5i, rather than the more commonplace 5D. The 5i model (Initiate, Inquire, Imagine, Innovate and Inspire) offers for some a less ethereal wording than the 5D. It’s a matter of choice and I mentioned 5Ds alongside the 5i’s throughout the event anyway. One of the joys of using either of the models is that in a diverse group, different people’s action and learning proclivity come to the fore. For instance, Inquire really brings out the investigative and conversational spirit in some people. Imagine, on the other hand, calls to those with creative and lateral thinking tendencies, and so on. In this way, AI provides a rich framework of exploration and action that deeply engages different parts of the group all of the time, playing to people’s talents or strengths.
So it proved with this group. What was particularly enriching was their ability to tie the whole process together, achieving a strong and consistent ‘read-across’ from topic Initiation all the way to Inspire and planning ahead.
In one sense, I don’t anticipate the eventual outcomes of their work to be seen as earth-shattering in absolute terms, but in relative terms, definitely so. They commented that their proposed actions could go on and make some significant changes to current service processes and maybe also create a more sound direction in others. Their topics by the way included two in direct service areas and two in support/development areas, so a nice balance across the overall service.
As we ended our work together, I felt strongly that I had been part of a meaningful, mindful Appreciative Inquiry event. One that for some will resonate in how they view their world and for others it will provide practical tools to lead change. That’s the breadth and depth of Appreciative Inquiry. It’s just a shame that we find ourselves working in such an unremettingly deficit and problem-focused environment. Being the best that we might become holds hope for a sustainable future for our services. The brave souls who continue to invest in such methods are to be applauded.