The Positive Principle: Building Your Capacity for Improvisation and Appreciative Inquiry

The Positive Principle(D. L. Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaeger, 2000: 20) is a central and guiding principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), as well as its theoretical foundation [NOTE: For fuller introduction, download Organizational Improvisation & Appreciative Inquiry:] Not based in deficit thinking, rabid searches for “problems” or organizational challenges, AI looks for “that which gives life to the organization.” For legions of executives and MBA graduates this is indeed a radical, even heretical concept. Many business people build their credibility and careers on their ability to identify and solve problems. Even I, as I was starting my consulting practice, was counseled to identify “the problem to which I was the answer.”

My experience bears out this ingrained “problem focus.” Working with clients and students using the AI process, I have noticed how often they are tempted to shift into “problem-solving” mode, or to ask deficit-focused questions once the appreciative inquiry is underway. Here, additional competence in the practice of principles of improvisation can help AI participants leverage the positive, forward movement of the inquiry toward its positive potential.

AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential (Cooperrider, Sorensen et al. 2000: 5).

Improvisation, like AI, is founded on a positive principle—the principle of Say, “Yes, and . . .” (Meyer, 2000: 63). Improvisers must accept (or say, “yes”) to anything they discover on stage, receive from another player or the audience. They cannot stop at acceptance, however, they must move the action forward by adding their own discoveries (saying, “and . . .”). This positive orientation is the foundation for improvisation success, as it is for all creative collaborations in business and life.

The conceptual framework of AI is most often translated into practice as the 4-D process (D. Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000; Hammond, 1998; Watkins & Mohr, 2001). AI, not only supports positive organizational change, but helps individuals build some of the skills necessary for successful improvisation in the workplace. The practice of AI also contributes to organizational memory via storytelling and while giving individuals opportunities to cultivate their improvisation competencies and foster a culture where improvisation is more likely to be successful. Additionally, the inquiry process is grounded in the lived experiences of organizational participants. To discover the positive core of these experiences, AI participants must listen closely and without judgment—essential competencies for improvisation.

At the center of the “4-D Process” of AI is inquiry into personal positive experiences related to the topic. Concert pianist and consultant, Michael Jones writes Creativity involves living in the question—Improvising involves a living inquiry into what is. When our conditioned knowledge and theories no longer serve us, we need to inquire more deeply into things as they are. This creates a space for more subtle insights to emerge (1997: 60).

An inquiry of quality and depth, grounded in individual experience also promotes organizational learning as framed by Crossan, Lane and White (1996) as including intuition, as well as interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing new discoveries. Individual learning, within this framework, includes changes in cognition and/or behavior. Integrated learning represents a change in both cognition and behavior. An inquiry that invites participants to share their experiences and make (sometimes new) meaning of them, then, may enhance this integration process while building individual experience, comfort and capacity to “live in the question” and improvise.

Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (2000). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. In D. L. S. Cooperrider, Jr., Peter F.; Whitney, Diana; Yaeger, Therese (Ed.), Appreciative inquiry (pp. 3-27). Champaigne, IL: Stipes. Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, J., Peter F., Whitney, D., & Yaeger, T. (Eds.). (2000). Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes. Crossan, M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1996). Organizational learning: Toward a unifying framework.Unpublished manuscript, London, Ontario. Hammond, S. A. (1998). The thin book of appreciative inquiry (2nd ed.). Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing. Jones, M. (1997). Getting creativity back into corporate decision making. Journal for Quality & Participation, 20(1), 58-62. Meyer, P. (2000). Quantum Creativity: Nine principles to transform the way you work. Chicago: Contemporary Books. Watkins, J. M., & Mohr, B. J. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Follow the Energy

One of the consistent themes I have seen in everything from improvised scenes on stage to creative collaboration sessions and entire organizations is that when people follow the energy of what is most compelling and engaging they are more successful. Appreciative Inquiry is based on the principle that in every human system something works, and if we tap into the energy of what is working we will likely tap into what people care about and their generative capacity to create positive futures. Just as plants grow toward the sunlight so, too, do human systems grow toward their generative core. This does not mean that we ignore obvious problems, or put on rose colored glasses that only reveal the positive. It means that we use the generative energy of what drives us to co-create new and better possibilities.

In an improvised scene generativity is fostered by the practice of saying, “Yes, and . . .” or accepting a fellow players idea (or “offer”) and building on it with something that heightens and explores what is most interesting. In creative collaboration, it plays out similarly when people come together to generate new possibilities by building on each idea, rather than finding every flow, and in organizational systems it means following the people, processes and products that are generating most interest and attention, as well as revenue. In our personal and professional lives, it also means not laboring over relationships and projects that simply are not coming to life, or life-giving. I regularly have opportunities to relearn this lesson, and each time I have discovered that when I move on from a situation that is no longer generative, it frees up additional energy and resources for even more fruitful possibilities.

For more on the relationship between improvisation and appreciate inquiry, see my article at http://www.meyercreativity.com/articles/.