The Consulting Perspective -
Reclaiming Our Imaginative Competence: Appreciating
People's Contributions to Organising
Liz Mellish and Brigid Limerick
In this paper we address the issue of discontinuous organisational change
through asking the question of consultants as to whether they are professionally
preparing themselves for the changing needs of their clients in a world
of discontinuous change. We suggest that a way to do this may be through
the Co-operative Model of Appreciative Consulting. The paper then develops
our argument as to why such a change in approach may be necessary, discusses
the principles underpinning appreciative consulting, outlines the Co-operative
model and concludes by starting the process of developing the model
in the Australian context through presenting personal case studies on
the use of appreciative consulting.
Increasingly in the 1990s, consultants
are feeling the need to somehow bring together, integrate, in a way
interpret, their clients experience of organisational change. There
is an expectation that the consultant will bring the latest trend or
a new way of knowing to what they are going through and provide a pathway
towards the future. Commonly, the consultant is required to respond
to specific briefs which the client feels represents the ‘issues of
the moment’. These briefs, over time, may reflect a cumulation of the
clients strategic change needs, a specific intervention to address an
operational dilemma or an ‘injection’ of professional development to
motivate staff who are confused, fatigued, cynical, overloaded or simply
needing a fresh perspective. The consultant sets about gathering ideas,
and designing a process, typically for a one or two day intervention,
to assist the client group achieve their required outcomes.
Over the past few years clients briefs
have become more focussed on interrelated components of organisational
change such as leadership, team development, power redistribution, collaborative
competencies, communication strategies, time management, information
management, client service, performance management and motivation. The
‘snapshot’ approach no longer suffices. Clients expect the consultant
to deliver intellectual competence (knowing their issues and providing
frameworks to deal with them), logical competencies (offering a project
management approach to systematically pursuing the change management
agenda at hand) and processual competence (facilitating the client group
towards group decisions about practical approaches to resolving differences
and ‘moving ahead’. Clear examples of the changing demands to meet changing
organisational demands can be seen in requests in two areas: the demand
for women-only management courses (Limerick, Heywood and Ehrich, 1995)
and professional doctorate programs (Limerick, Daws and Clark, 1996).
In short, clients have ridden the roller
coaster of the last ten years, the decade of disorder, experiencing
a wide variety of ‘solutions’ to their problems. These change management
initiatives have included, since 1986, Customer is King (Albrecht, 1989)
Environmentalism, Quality Circles, Self-directed Teams, Benchmarking,
Workforce Diversity, Learning Organisations (Senge, 1990), TQM, re-engineering
(Birchall and Lyons, 1995), Speed as Competitive Advantage, Globalism,
Open-book Management, Virtual Organisations (Hames, 1995; Limerick,
1993; Quinn, 1992) to name a few. In government, the principles of entrepreneurial
government and political philosophies of ‘reinventing government’ (Osborne
and Gaebler, 1992) have driven a relentless reform agenda towards smaller,
cheaper, more commercial and business like government. So, as a consultant,
where does one go with all this? One option is to become a specialist
at certain organisational ‘treatment’ technologies such as quality assurance,
performance management, business diagnostics, process re-engineering,
market and customer research, activity based costing etc. Alternatively,
a consultants’ response may be to collaborate with other providers,
forming a consortium, to address the client's needs with a multiskilled
consultancy team. Whilst some negotiation of the client brief may be
undertaken, the consultants are ultimately limited by their own specialist
competence or their ability to access a collaborative and complimentary
consulting expertise. Given the nature of consulting, there is a constant
pressure to articulate and get client agreement to a project specification
which forms the basis of the consulting contract upon which basis the
consultant will be paid for their services. Time is money in consulting,
so each ‘assignment’ needs to be scoped and costed. Ultimately this
way of working reinforces the problem diagnostic and treatment mindset
that the consultant brings to the interaction and, indeed, what the
client expects and is accountable for ‘signing off’.
The trend towards more contractual work environments and the outsourcing/buying
in of specialist expertise is eroding the traditional notion of organisation.
It is no longer relevant to see organisation as a ‘problem to be solved’,
indeed ‘organisation’ is difficult to define as in some cases contractual
employees make up 70% of the structure compared to the core group accountable
for co-ordination and direction setting. The lines between consultant
and client are increasingly blurred as these roles shift depending on
the nature of the interaction often emerging as strategic partner, operative,
informal advisor, customer representative, broker, spokesperson and
Organisations and Organising
There is no doubt that technology is providing
people and organisations with unprecedented choices as to forms of organising
in what, today, is a global market place. Limerick (1994) posits two
organisational paradigms for consideration:
||Post Corporate paradigm
|tightly integrated hierarchies
|within factory walls
||lifestream compatibility and support
|male stream concepts
||gender compatibility and embracing difference
|the good corporate citizen
|the high performing organisation
||the socially sustainable organisation
Limerick (1995) argues that within these
two paradigm five working situations are observable; traditional corporation,
neocorporate bureaucracy, post corporate organisation, small business
and self employment. Where as there is a plethora of literature regarding
consulting approaches, technologies and techniques to support traditional
corporate structures operating in the corporate paradigm, the field
is less cluttered with approaches, technologies and techniques that
work in the neocorporate bureaucracy and few, if any, exist to serve
the post corporate organisation. The trend of graduates from business
schools to seek employment in small and medium sized enterprises and
self employment is growing as dissatisfaction with differences in rhetoric
and reality in neocorporate bureaucracies forces people to ‘outer’ both
psychologically and physically. Taskforces such as the Karpin (1995)
report bring to our attention ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigms of management
as reflected below, however the critical issue of managing the transition
between paradigms receives less attention.
|product development driven by strategic
||product development driven by core competencies
|strategic learning occurs at the apex
of the organisation
||strategic learning capacities are widespread
|assumptions that most employees are
||assumption that most employees are trustworthy
|most employees are disempowered
||most employees are empowered
|local knowledge of all employees must
be disciplined by managerial
||local knowledge of all employees is
critical to success and creativity
||creates its own prerogative
The question arises as to how consultants
reframe their concepts and practice to assist their clients in transition
engage in messy, complex consultancy assignments regarding organisational
change where, in most instances, the outcome is ambiguous and unpredictable
and yet the client holds on to an expectation that the consultant
will provide certainty in a chaotic world
usefully appreciate and impact the clients experience of the change
from one form of organisation to another
In light of the increasingly high expectations
that clients have of consultants coupled with the fluidity of emergent
forms of organisation, a dramatic shift is required in consultancy practice.
Consultants (and their clients) have to go behind the way they think,
and acknowledge and question their assumptive models of organisation.
Questions to be asked may include:
Is organising a problem to be solved or a mystery to be embraced?
Why are we all still here?
How does what we inquire about impact where we put our effort?
What are our provocative proposals for the year?
As leaders in our communities, how do we define what is possible?
How do we make it happen?
What works for us and how can we do more of it?
These, and other, questions, we choose
to ask define how we make decisions, identify our priorities and cope
with obstacles. As consultants, we need to stand back from our remedies,
technologies, quick fixes and appreciate the multiple realities of our
clients worlds. We need to appreciate and understand their world in
order to usefully attempt to interact with their realities of organisational
change so as, together, to work towards sustainable adjustments in strategy
and operational practice.
Both consultants and clients operate in
the chaotic and impermanent world of organisational life. How we choose
to define power and possibility is infinitely reframable. How we manage
meaning and interpret ideas is increasingly significant as access to
information is widespread and the range of ‘interested parties’ continues
to grow. Together we construct what’s possible, we transmit values,
we create group building language and we extend visions of what’s possible.
Most of us ‘follow the light’ - we receive inspiration and are energised
by fresh perspectives we feel we can accommodate, new ideas which help
us make sense of what we’re trying to do. In the process of organisational
change, this ‘helioptropic affect’ occurs when we are able to appreciate
and celebrate our capacities, our success stories, our strengths, the
positive aspects of our work that reinforce us and legitimise our effort.
Assuming the driving notion that organisational
effort follows the line of inquiry, both leaders and consultants have
the capacity to influence organisational effort in a positive or negative
manner. Appreciative consultation represents an approach to organisational
change which has the capacity to capture what organisational participants
are doing well, what they feel proud about, what is important to them
and how they can continue to perform best. The assumption here is that
organisations are social systems defined by the way their participants
think, feel and perform together. The dynamics of imagination, inquiry
and discourse define what’s possible in organisational direction as
do the dynamics of hope, motivation and energy impact what’s achieved
in organisational output.
The group was encouraged to apply an interview protocol with a partner
to inquire about and discover stories about their ‘most impactful’ moments/experiences
in organising. Key values were derived from these stories, and ‘life
giving forces’ identified from the values. The process attempted to
uncover for each participant ‘the best of what is/has been’. These stories
were then recounted by each partner to a larger group of 6 people.
During the second stage, participants worked in the larger groups to
identify key topic areas in common. Once these topic areas were identified
participants were encouraged to dream of ‘what might be’ if organising
was underpinned by these topics. We were encouraged to formulate provocative
propositions around each of the topic areas and to envision results
of our endeavours in terms of strategic and social intent. Each group
member then applied their agreed interview protocol (provocative propositions)
on members from other groups and reported back the findings to the core
group. A rich data base of stories was accumulated and an appreciation
of individuals areas of expertise and organisational circumstances emerged.
Preliminary aspects of the design phase were undertaken as group members
further refined topics and proposals in search of ‘what should be’ in
the ideal organisation. The process involved co-constructing through
dialogue and shared meaning what possibilities existed to translate
‘what might be’ into practice. Reference was made to the implications
of proposals such as ‘people will be supported and encouraged to take
risks’ for ways of organising such as shared values, strategy, structure,
systems, staff, skills and style.
The group moved to review approaches to sustain the preferred future
of ‘what will be’ in our notional organisation.
Ultimately, the model provided the group
with a social architecture within which we could explore, uncover, share
and reframe personal and organisational issues. The process of inquiry,
with its emphasis on appreciative inquiry, providing new insights into
possibilities and ways of organising that grew out of individual contributions.
Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative inquiry as an approach to
organisational consultation is informed by four key principles:
1. Appreciation: The consultant
views organising as a mystery to be embraced and appreciates the narrative
and dialogue that frames participants’ experiences. Shared meanings
evolve through the process of story telling in such a way as to move
beyond functional, geographical and even national boundaries. Diversity
is acknowledged and celebrated as multiple realities emerge to stimulate
thinking, ideas and ways of being. Compelling topic themes which the
group is genuinely curious about may be identified as the core factors
which inspire and ‘give life’ to the process of organising.
2. Application: The purpose
of the inquiry is to discover what works and to do more of it so as
to generate energy and organising capacity which emerges from the group
itself as opposed to an ‘external solution’. The process of inventing
the future emerges from applied appreciation of ‘what counts’.
3. Provocation: Provocative
questions are crafted and asked so as to stimulate possibilities regarding
‘what if?’ and ‘maybe?’. Group members are willing to experiment as
their own unique contributions have been appreciated. The zero-sum notion
of change is transcended and provocative proposals emerge from multiple
quarters without the debilitating feeling of ‘giving something up’ or
the neutering effect of compromising.
4. Collaboration: Organising
requires the collaborative input of multiple stakeholders. Once unique
contributions are appreciated, stories unfold, interdependencies become
clearer and a compelling way forward emerges, individuals are willing
and able to operate in a collaborative environment which is both personally
and collectively meaningful.
A diverse body of research in the organisational
behaviour field lends compelling weight to appreciative inquiry as a
powerful approach to facilitating sustainable organisational change
efforts. The findings from six familiar change studies will be briefly
overviewed to support the affirmative outcomes of positive thinking.
1. The Placebo Effect - lessons
learnt from the experimental and the control groups in this famous study
indicated that the internal expectations of the group given the ‘sugar
coated pill’ facilitated their improvement to the same or greater extent
than the group given the ‘real medicine’. If people expect to succeed,
within themselves, they are likely to do so.
2. The Pygmalian Effect - if a supervisor
expects their employees to succeed and manages the environment in such
a way, it is likely that their work unit will perform to these expectations
just as Eliza Doolittle became the lady in George Bernhard Shaw’s famous
3. Positive Effect - countless studies
have revealed the impact of the ‘halo effect’ on selection decisions
and on teaching practice. One positive attribute which a candidate or
a student may have, influences the relationship in a generally positive
manner, often to the extent that weaknesses are ignored.
4. Imbalanced Dialogue - motivational
studies, observations and experience indicate that to the extent that
people think two positive thoughts for every one negative thought, they
will achieve their goals.
5. Rise and Fall of Cultures - the
power of the human spirit to transcend seemingly insurmountable obstacles
was illustrated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Band Aid phenomenon
and Nelson Mandela’s leadership in South Africa. In each case individuals
collaborating brought about fundamental change and forever redefined
what was possible and acceptable in global terms.
6. Affirmative Capability -
the process of appreciating and acknowledging individual and group capability
and effort generates confidence which in turn, reinforces and sustains
further positive demonstrations of performance
Extensions of the 4-D Model to the Australian
of case studies
Over the last 6 months, aspects of the
Appreciative Inquiry approach have been applied in a variety of client
contexts including strategic change plans for a university faculty and
a community health organisation, setting up self managing and customer
focussed team structures in two large government bureaucracies, professional
development for early childhood educational consultants and women in
educational management, and in two organisational review projects.
learnings from this experience: Reactions, reflections of the
process in use
Based on reflections of the utility of
the model in process, participants feedback and anecdotal evidence to
date, we have modified the model in a number of ways to better suit
the Australian context.
Firstly, the model has been positioned
with clients as a way of integrating and making meaningful the plethora
of organisational change initiatives and challenges that preoccupy them
daily. Together, we have used the approach to ‘ground’ ourselves, take
stock and reflect on why we’re pursuing so called ‘organisational imperatives’.
This has been very useful as a way of tying things together in an overreaching
context and linking multiple initiatives to the larger outcome sought.
Clients at different levels of their structures appear to experience
appreciative inquiry differently; senior executives appear relieved,
middle managers benefit from the cross functional communication opportunities,
and operational people see the process as a way of being heard.
Secondly, clients have been encouraged
to explore, in some cases rediscover, why they started off doing what
they’re doing and why they continue to do it with particular emphasis
on what they feel passionate about and why. The idea here is to get
a sense of ‘goodwill’ in the group so that they give each other the
benefit of the doubt and are prepared to openly disclose what’s important
to them. The key issue I have found here is that we appear to have lost
the art of sharing stories. I have found it particularly important to
assist groups develop their appreciative questioning skills, sometimes
struggling myself for ways of framing questions to illuminate rather
than stifle. There has also been a tendency to embarrassment and self
deprecation in responses to questions such as ‘what has been your most
impactful moment in your career to date?’. We constantly reframe questions
more along the lines of ‘When have you felt most confident, most worthwhile?
Why? What were you doing? Who else was involved? What difference did
your actions make?’ The processes of identifying stories to share, sharing
the stories and the affirmative effect of having one’s stories replayed
to a larger group has prompted a number of my clients to seriously question
their roles in their employing organisations. In some cases, the appreciative
inquiry process has contributed to radical decisions to change personal
and organisational circumstances! I'm not sure that this is a beneficial
outcome for the client organisation or whether, if reported more comprehensively
would generate a repositioning of the organisation to better meet the
value driven needs of individual members.
Thirdly, in some circumstances, the word
‘develop’ has been coupled with ‘dream’ for stage 2 of the 4D model
as some clients have difficulty coping with expressions such as the
‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ of organising, let alone dreaming the future!
In contrast, I have also received feedback suggesting that the language
used in appreciative inquiry is so different to the usual strategic
planning, benchmarking, problem solving and action planning language
that it changes participants mindsets and is more inclusive of life
issues as opposed to the narrow perspective of organisational or work
Fourthly, it has been found that the links
between each of the phases is critical, difficult and complex to facilitate.
Moving from initial story sharing to topic definition, moving from topic
definition to crafting provocative proposals, exploring provocative
proposals and broadening the dialogue, moving from fine tuned proposals
to design parameters, keeping a collaborative and reflective energy
across a wide group and making tough decisions about implementing some
proposals and dropping others. There is no doubt that if time and resources
permit, the initial discover phase can lay the foundation for affirmed
collaborative competencies and shared understandings and indeed, cultural
change, which is necessary to achieve the design phase changes. If the
discover phase is rushed and incomplete, a trap awaits as the rest of
the process is perceived as politicised or ‘pie in the sky’.
There is a dilemma then, as the consultant
may be perceived to be encouraging a ‘talkfest’ as opposed to producing
tangible results for the client. What is attractive to the client is
the prospect of the appreciative inquiry process being a high impact
low cost organisational change intervention as client participants can
snowball the inquiry process after developing the interview protocol
with the consultant. Of fundamental use to the client is the process
and output of the Discovery phase as a common perspective and profound
appreciation of what’s important, what people enjoy about the organisation,
is shared. Based on this simultaneously unifying and diversely appreciative
platform, participants can move with confidence to identifying compelling
topics/themes to underpin the Dream phase of what would be ideal. Stimulating
the use of imagination and developing provocative propositions is exciting
and fun whilst being grounded in participants’ experience of what works.
The group is able to go ‘out on a limb’ to imagine ‘best case scenarios’
in this future search process and, in the process, identify provocative
and energising proposals. In today’s climate of cynicism and fatigue,
this process is powerful, creative and energising. The key is to ‘give
voice and space’ for multiple realities experienced by participants
at all levels of the organisation. In my experience the process is generative
with participants passionately ‘owning’ their output and propositions
at this stage.
Moving from Dream to Design requires the
consultant to have a sound working knowledge of organisational arrangements
so as to lead the group in consideration of the implications of their
provocative proposals for design and intent of organisational strategy,
structure, systems and culture. Often, common sense impacts at this
point, where participants query the relevance of traditional practice
and propose more meaningful ways of organising ( e.g.. self managing
teams, revised collaborative performance indicators, flexible work practices,
shared accountabilities, closer customer contact processes, specific
skill building programs etc.) to achieve THEIR dream. The interdependencies
between group members and their clients are highlighted and frequently
the group resolves to use appreciative inquiry to explore and discover
their client priorities thus extending the process across and out of
the organisation. With respect to the Destiny phase, I have found that
groups’ willingly commit to and endorse how their performance will be
assessed, how their accomplishments will be measured as their input
and contribution has been appreciated. There is no need to exorcise
commitments to the ubiquitous ‘action plan’ at the end of the process
as the appreciative process has evolved and participants have been heard
and influenced the direction. They own the output and have been party
to the decisions made. My experience to date has been that groups ‘can’t
wait’ to get on with it. This sort of energy, focus and widely distributed
commitment is priceless in today’s organisations!
Fifthly, the appreciative inquiry process
has added a valuable dimension to the manner in which focus group processes
have been designed and to the manner in which focus group participants
have responded to, shared and interacted with each other and the consultant
on two ‘program review’ projects recently completed. The underlying
assumption in a traditional review is to identify shortfalls and implement
corrective action. Using appreciative inquiry, the emphasis shifts to
establishing what works, and strategies which would further enhance
program performance. The participants, reportedly, are more inclined
to offer strategies and be less defensive about proposed changes and
new approaches as they ‘own’ the data of the appreciative inquiry process
as opposed to having a ‘best practice model’ thrust upon them. This
was particularly relevant in a cross cultural valuation completed with
aboriginal participants in a higher education setting. The appreciative
inquiry approach to recognising multiple realities and unearthing stories
about what works has also been useful in employee consultation groups
positively exploring the issue of diversity as a business strategy.
Appreciative Consultation - an Heuristic Model
themes that have emerged
Perhaps the most useful aspect of Appreciative
Inquiry has been the ability of the process to reconnect people to their
organisations. The process provides a framework for managing and reinforcing
the interplay between novelty, continuity and transition in organisational
change. As opposed to feeling the daunting and depressing need to leap
from one way of being to a new way of doing things (usually discarding
all that went before in the process) every time clients see a consultant,
appreciative inquiry helps to value and celebrate what people bring
to organisations and from this strong basis, make the adjustments they
believe are necessary. Continuity is precious in tumultuous and uncertain
times. Responsible consultants assist clients identify and continue
what they do well, discontinue what no longer serves their purpose and
develop new approaches to meet new needs. In these times of discontinuous
change, it is vital to acknowledge continuities and transitions, the
psychological adjustments people need to make to accommodate changes.
Appreciative inquiry provides a framework for promoting continuity dialogue
in terms of founding stories, innovations, turning points, proud achievements,
best practices, empowering traditions, intergenerational wisdom, moments
of courage/integrity, things to pass along etc. The power of appreciating
continuity in times of novelty and transition is illustrated by the
benefits to individuals and organisations reflected below.
|Functions for the individual
||Functions for the organisation
|Pride, Hope and Joy
||Facilitate interpretation and decision
|Confidence to act
| Maintenance of self esteem
||Maintenance of mission
| Long term thinking
||Long term thinking
||Inter organisational collaboration
5.2 A useful
The ABC’s of Appreciative Inquiry
A - Appreciative understanding of your
organisation (from past to present)
B - Benchmarked understanding of other
organisations (exemplary models to learn from); and
C - Creative construction of the future
(sometimes called the Future Search Conference)
Our approach to designing and facilitating
organisational change and planning processes generally has three steps:
Step 1 Organisational balancing
The concept of balancing the triad of novelty,
continuity and transition is introduced. It is important to be able
to use specific, relevant organisational examples here so that the group
appreciates that the consultant appreciates their circumstances.
Step 2 Emergent forms of organisation
Encouraging the group to think about where
they’ve been, where they are and where they might be going from an organisational
perspective provides a framework for appreciating the variety of organisation
forms in which they have worked and are likely to work in the future.
Once again, specific stories with which the group can identify are useful
here to give poignancy and impact to the presentation. The consultant
needs to be conscious that everyone experiences organisations at least
three levels; individual, group and organisational.
Step 3 Appreciative consultation
The principles of Appreciative Inquiry
are introduced. An overview of the 4D cycle of appreciative consultation
is provided and the process commences with paired interviews, followed
by small group interaction, followed by large group consultation, followed
by self selected small group focus, large group sharing etc. through
each of the 4D’s.
The outcome achieved is that over 1 or
2 days, groups ranging in size from 6 to 80 can effectively map their
strategic intent and operational contributions for a period of their
choice. Once again, the low cost high impact potential of appreciative
consultation cannot be overemphasised. The heuristic model used in the
Australian context looks something like this:
Step 1 Balancing the triad: novelty,
continuity and transition
Step 2 Emergent forms of organisation
|closer to customer
economies of scale
3 Appreciative consultation: process
Appreciative consultation is a philosophy.
Once one starts to use the approach and associated processes, it impacts
every aspect of consultation work. As a matter of course, the consultant’s
line of inquiry becomes positive (what has worked in the past? what
is working now? what would and could work in the future? How can we
make best use of the talent and resources available? What are our success
stories? When have we been most proud? etc.). With respect to facilitative
expertise, the consultant consciously guides the group to explore what’s
best? what’s possible, how we can make it happen? Groups derive a sense
of good will and energy from the approach which empowers them to do
the best with what they’ve got. Executives begin to appreciate the contribution
their people can make, managers can get on with what they do best, co-ordinating
the efforts of others and staff get a stake in the future. Appreciative
consultation presents as a process which has the capacity to build collaborative
and affirmative competencies within and between organisations. It is
exactly these collaborative and affirmative competencies that will facilitate
the personal and organisational transitions currently required to sustain
people and organisations in the next millennium. Finally, appreciative
consultation provides the HR consultant with an opportunity to demonstrate
their key competencies: business knowledge, HR state of the art, change
and process, and credibility (Ulrich, 1996)
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Mellish is a Brisbane based management consultant. She is also the
Federal President of the Institute of Management Consultants.
Dr Brigid Limerick is an Associate Professor
and Head of the School of Cultural and Policy Studies,
Queensland University of Technology