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Driving Positive Change With Positive Inquiry Published: Sunday, June 14, 2009

This is a time of tremendous call and promise for business, government and society for a different approach to produce results; an opportunity for positive organizational change. Every organization has a core of things that work right – things that give life when it most alive, effective, successful, and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities. Positive Inquiry (PI) is a meta-theory and practice for approaching innovation and change of all kinds with the following logic: organizations are living, breathing entities that stay healthiest when they are focused on their positive life-giving characteristics, rather than their problematic aspects.

PI theory suggests that human systems, including organizations, are the reflection and product of the dominant stories that people tell about the organization – and that these stories are created each time any organizational member asks questions about the organization’s performance.   PI suggests that we create the world by the language we use to describe it and we experience the world in line with the images we hold about it. By aligning systems and practices with the organization’s positive, generative and creative core, PI builds on the values, aspirations, ideas for innovation, assets, strategic opportunities and best practices of the system.

Philosophically and scientifically the PI theory is rooted in the new sciences (i.e., Complexity Theory/Complex Responsive Processes, Quantum Physics etc), the Sociology of Knowledge (i.e., Social Constructionist thinking), and most significantly, breakthrough research in the power of words, images and positive emotions.  Rather than the old “what’s wrong and how do we fix it?” framework, PI invites us to focus upon and learn from the “positive deviant” – moments of exceptional performance at the individual or system level. 

PI is about inquiry and learning and using what we learn to create futures we all prefer. The core PI approach and processes are:

  1. Define:  Clarify the topics into which we want to inquire and figure out the practicalities of involving the whole organizational system in the overall process.
  2. Discover:  The positive core of the system – its opportunities, core values, assets and competencies, ideas/aspirations for innovation, hopes and best practices (which exist both within and outside).
  3. Dream:  Fully envision the impact or results (for employees, customers/clients, shareholders, and society) of taking the positive core and expanding it, building upon it 
  4. Design:  Create vibrant, actionable descriptions of the high leverage items in the organization’s social architecture, i.e., the roles, relationships, people processes, strategic structures and practices – changes which when implemented will catapult the organization into the future described by the dream and changes which when implemented will serve to sustain the momentum of positive transformation
  5. Deliver/Destiny:  Invite inspired action (rather than the burden of imposed action plans) and ongoing inquiry into the positive as an implementation strategy 

Often confused with positive thinking, PI focuses on the power of questions to create both the energy and knowledge and images that allow significant transformation. Because it is question based, PI continually takes into account the evolving world we live in and continuously creates new visions of possibility. The focus is not on reasons for problems, but on how things would look if we built upon strengths and best practices.  It is a powerful way of approaching organizational problems; a case for change; and clarity about the reasons for changing. 

The methodology is an emerging approach to learning and innovation which emphasizes the art and practice of engaging the whole system in discovering what gives life; dreaming about what could be; designing the cultures, structures and processes which will nourish the future we most want; and living our destiny - gaining sustainability through ongoing inquiry. 

It doesn’t mean denying the issues.  It means discovering what it is that gives life to your organization. If you know what you’re good at, what would happen if you built on that?  Consider the 5% of the time when everything works great; the processes, the people, the feeling, the outcomes.  What would happen if you made this happen 30% of the time?  Discover what makes your organization great when it is great and then expand on it.  Design an infrastructure that focuses on strengths.

Positive Inquiry is the discovery of the best in people, their organization, and the word around them of all sorts. Research as to why it is a powerful methodology for reducing human errors and for developing a culture of engagement indicates that, among other things, it gives people the experience of personal and collective power, and the exercise of that power for the good of the whole. It enhances self-esteem and self-expression. It gives people the freedom to be heard and to make a positive contribution. Indeed it addresses most of the causes of resistance to change as experienced in the traditional approaches to change.

As the management guru Peter Drucker stated: “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths making our weaknesses irrelevant.” 

Copyright 2009 QBS, Inc.


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