In keeping with the theme of change and complexity, it is well known that families who own and operate successful enterprises manage both of those at the same time and, it may seem, all the time. It isn’t enough to create both long and short-term strategic plans for the business: Family leaders must also balance family dynamics, family interests, family future engagement, and sometimes, family conflict. Of course, that doesn’t mean that managing the change that comes from those complexities are always quickly accomplished or immediately appreciated.
That’s where Dr. David Cooperrider’s development of an OD (Organizational Development) or change management tool called Appreciate Inquiry comes into the picture. This tool, or process, has gained a great deal of attention in recent years because it is based on the homespun notion that what we learn and know about, what truly works and “gives life”, is actually more effective and sustainable than what we learn from breakdowns, problems or pathologies. Most businesses are trained to focus on fixing the latter while taking for granted the wisdom that comes from the former.
Cooperrider’s basic philosophy in developing Appreciative Inquiry was that “organizations are heliotropic” – that is they are like a plant that leans toward the sun. He identified key assumptions about A.I. that can have significant influence on how change is experienced and managed: That every organization has at least some things that work well and that what we focus on becomes our reality.
This positive focus does not mean that problems do not exist or are to be denied or ignored but that they are purposefully just not the primary frame of reference in managing the results of large scale change. John McKnight in, Building Communities from the Inside Out, relays the story of a carpenter who lost a leg in an accident. According to McKnight, the carpenter can choose to focus on his capacity for woodworking, or on his deficiency due to his missing limb. The positive principle underlying Appreciative Inquiry says that by focusing on his capacity, the carpenter is more likely to sow the seeds for creating his desired and most productive future reality, even though it is through significant change.
Finally, according to Sue Annis Hammond, one of the key aspects of Appreciative Inquiry revolves around the idea that “if we carry parts of the past into the future, they should be what is best about the past”. That seems to make good sense to me and is consistent with what I know about the best of the family enterprise.
For family businesses, this perspective is baked-in to the process of effective continuity planning, for example, for the next generation’s involvement in the enterprise. That process is underpinned with strong desires followed by clear plans to pass along the strengths of the organization’s most life-giving narrative and behaviors rather than it’s difficulties and potential dysfunctions. Given these realities, family businesses are naturals to engage in Appreciative Inquiry as one of their primary change management tools.
- David L. Cooperrider (2000), “Positive Image, Positive Action,” in Appreciative Management and Leadership.
- Sue Annis Hammond (1998), The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 2nd ed.
- John McKnight (1993), Building Communities from the Inside Out.