Appreciative Inquiry, Complex Systems, and the Four Practices of Open Space

chairsThe Idea: A combination of the Appreciative Inquiry approach, Four Practices skills and attitudes, and Open Space meeting protocols might be the ideal combination for dealing with complex systems — which we are learning most systems are.

I was initially put off Appreciative Inquiry by the name: “Appreciative” sounded too close to “affirmation” and “positive thinking”, while “inquiry” refers to more formal investigations driven by mandate, versus “enquiry” which is a more fluid process driven by curiosity. But I was provoked by blogger Chris Corrigan, with whom I had an astonishing Skype conversation yesterday, to take a closer look. Principal author of ‘AI’ David Cooperrider describes it as nothing less than “the end of problem-solving”. And Cooperrider does indeed use words like “life-affirming” and “spiritual” to describe AI. If you wade through this you get to the approach, described as follows (I’m paraphrasing extensively since I find some of his terminology unhelpful):

  1. Discoveryóexploring and discovering the relationships and patterns in the system;
  2. Visionócreating a clear results-oriented vision in relation to discovered potential and overall objective;
  3. Designócollaboratively creating alternatives, opportunities, possibilities towards realizing the vision;
  4. Realizationóimprovisational and consensual actions, practices, experiments and outcomes that move towards realizing the vision.
  5. At the core of the cycle is Topic Choice, the question that frames the inquiry. This choice is critical since it often carries within it presuppositions, unchallenged assumptions and limiting points of view of what is, and what is possible, in the system.

Cooperrider uses as an illustration an organizational system and a challenge of dealing with rampant sexual harassment in it. The initial problem-focused Topic Choiceó”How do we reduce sexual harassment in the workplace”, is replaced by the more visionary, strategic, human and affirmative “How do we develop a model of quality cross-gender relationships in the workplace.” The process you then follow to explore that topic (or those topicsóthere can be more than one) and realize the vision has evolved substantially since AI was first developed, and is very different from the prescriptive process used in traditional problem-solving approaches. The best way to appreciate the approach (it’s deliberately not rigid enough to be called a methodology) is to look at the four skills/attitudes you need to acquire to facilitate or participate in AI effectivelyówhich Chris explains as the Four Practices of Open Space, citing his colleague Michael Herman (no paraphrasing from me this time):

  1. practice of opening: It’s about willingness. Willingness to see, to know, to open. It’s personal and reflective, but can be felt physically in body and charted in organizations.
  2. practice of inviting: It’s about goodness. Finding benefits TO others, as in what’s in it for them, and also benefits IN others, as in recognizing what they can add to the process of achieving what is desired personally in the first practice. It makes that first practice social, collective, organizational, and cultural, but also documented in invitation emails, letters, posters.
  3. practice of holding: It’s about supporting movement and change. Providing space and time, structures that support without making decisions for people, giving attention, carrying in awareness or carrying forward, holding in one’s heart or home or conference room. It creates room for others to expand, explore, experiment… to bring new things out in the world. It is simultaneously logistical, mental, and emotional.
  4. practice of practicing: It’s about sustaining, returning, realizing, and making real. This is action, taking a stand, making progress, going somewhere, documenting results. This implies the continuation and diffusion of the above. Standing ground, staying the course, seeing things through. It is the personal and individual (I, me, my) pursuit of the good that WE invite, in the space that WE provide. It can look simply mechanical and become deeply meditative, as we go round again, starting with opening. (Note… this might also be called the practice of ‘participating,’ perhaps ‘making,’ or simply ‘doing’ or ‘changing.’

Each of these ‘practices’ can be conducted holistically throughout the four stages of AI. There is an enormous sense of personal responsibility in this, as contrasted with the high level of structure and assignment of tasks in problem-solving methodologies. There must be passion around the topic to keep participants engaged — and permission for those that lose that passion to take time out or move to rekindle it (the Law of Two Feet). And respect is a critical componentó in my discussion with Chris yesterday I was so enthused by his explanations of this that I often interrupted him. He was kind enough not to point that out to me, and he never interrupted me. He was practicing what he was trying to teach me.

And the medium by which most of this is carried out isóand this is criticalóconversation. Chris is an awesome conversationalist. Every word he says is nuanced by and guided by the Four Practices. I learned more in an hour of conversation with him (including learning about myself) than I have ever learned in a week of intensive study. And the critical content of the conversation is never analysis or argument, but contextual stories.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of Open Space meetings, please read this short explanation now. I think you should then be able to see how the Appreciative Inquiry approach, the Four Practices, and the Open Space meeting protocols fit together. I don’t know that there’s an umbrella name for these three components, but let’s just call them The Approach.

My thesis in all of this is that this Approach is brilliantly designed to deal with (not manage, not optimize, not improve, not solve problems inó just effectively deal with) complex systems and environments. And we are learning that most of the systems and environments that we puny humans try to affect are, in fact, complex ones.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not?) this month’s running dialogue on the AOK Knowledge Management forum is led by Dave Snowden of the Cynefin Centre on the topic of sense-making in complex systems.

Snowden argues that systems fall into four categories (ontologies) that each require different methods and tools. Simple systems are those where there is one clear ‘best practice’ that always applies. For example, in disinfecting and monitoring a water reservoir on a regular schedule, there is one prescribed best way to do this. You don’t want authorities using their own judgement to override this best practice, just sense, categorize and respond. These systems are most suited to automation.

Complicated systems are what we have generally assumed we are dealing with in business and in local ecosystems. Methodologies can be developed following sufficient analysis to solve the problems of how to intervene in the system to achieve the desired change or correction. Senge’s ‘systems thinking’, which I have used extensively in these pages, is a wonderful tool for dealing with complicated systems, where the cause and effect of things is not obvious or simple, but is knowable. Sense, analyze and respond.

Complex systems are another matter entirely. In such systems no cause and effect is knowableóthere are just too many, perhaps an infinite number of, inter-related variables. When consultants’ analyses and solutions fail to solve a business problem, or scientists’ prescriptions or economists’ forecasts don’t pan out, it’s often because they’ve tried to use approaches meant for complicated systems to address complex ones, and have (deliberately or inadvertently) oversimplified or overlooked some or many of the variables. Especially since the acceptance of the Gaia theory, that all life (and all matter) on Earth is part of a single, complex system, we are realizing that most of what we thought were complicated systems are in fact complex, not completely knowable. This is galling to scientists, rationalists, business leaders, and the rest of us that are solution-oriented. Even the human body, it turns out, is more of a complex system than a merely complicated one. And each attempt to find a unifying theory or a fundamental constituent of all matter or the precise size and shape and nature and age of the universe leads to the discovery of more exceptions and variables, and realization that most things are more complex than they appear.

This is where The Approach comes in. It is the embodiment of Snowden’s probe, sense, respond method for dealing with complexity. It uses discovery (probing), with an acknowledgment that not all can be known, rather than analysis. It looks at design as the consideration of possibilities and options instead of the creation of plans and blueprints. It seeks to realize a vision through the knowledge-sharing and ideation of conversations, rather than to do so by implementing an action plan and assigning ‘who will do what by when’. It trusts individuals to act upon the emerging understanding of the group and in the collective interest, improvisationally, unhampered by orders and hierarchical channels, rather than prescribing precisely what must be done. The Open Space meeting method optimizes the learnings and teachings of the group instead of hamstringing them with structure and process. And the Four Practices serve to guide and show each individual how they can most effectively contribute to that collective learning and doing process. No ‘command and control’, no ‘solutions’. Just powerful learning, collaboration, and doing.

Of course, none of this is new. It’s been used by aboriginal communities for centuries to guide decision-making and steer communities in their collective best interest. As I keep saying, there are no new ideas, just the (re-)discovery and application of old ones in creative and appropriate ways, and the unlearning of all the myths and misinformation we have been led, quite voluntarily and innocently, to believe.

I had just finished designing and sharing with some of my colleagues a quite elaborate model for a Solution Centre/Think Tank. Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

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7 Responses to Appreciative Inquiry, Complex Systems, and the Four Practices of Open Space

  1. Hi Dave…wow, thanks for the kind words in this post and the great conversation yesterday. A couple of small notes:First you quote of me describing the four practices is actually cribbing a further elucidation of these from my partner Michael Herman. He and I have been tinkering with this practice workshop design for three years now. He’s at and I just wanted to give him the props for those descriptions.Also at one point you call Open Space “Open Source” and although the paralelles are there one is not entirely the other…:-)Thanks again.

  2. Hi Dave…wonderful look at a viable alternative to many of today’s group processes. “It looks at design as the consideration of possibilities and options instead of the creation of plans and blueprints.” This sentence struck me because as a designer, I’ve had to deal with the difference between “process” and “product” continually. The best products come out of a robust process, but many people want a quick result/solution/product, and won’t pay the price of exploring the options available to/within the participants. Time. Time is the precious commodity in this design approach and that’s why I believe collaborations work best when the participants are committed to long-term community building for shared results. :-) Thanks for another window into possibilities that can change the world — or at least our little ecosystem within it ;-)Carolyn

  3. Sandy says:

    Hi Dave,Because of your deep familiarity with Senge’s learning organizations ideas and your emerging interest in appreciative inquiry, I believe you would be interested in learning more about my colleague (and David Cooperrider’s colleague) Hilary Bradbury. Her work advocating for sustainability is very carefully grounded both in theories of organizational and social change, and in exemplary change initiatives. (Her dissertation included some analyses of data from people involved with the Natural Step.)

  4. Derek says:

    Dave,I like the new highlighted paragraph focus. Draws emphasis during reading, and is useful when skimming later.

  5. Craig says:

    Dave,Thanks for your comments on AI. I am part of leadership cohort at Fuller Seminary and we are applying AI principles in the realm of church leadership. I created a link to your comments on our blog based on a referral from a member of our cohort.ThanksCraig

  6. Rick Schauer says:

    Very intersting thoughts and a step in the right direction! Are you familiar with Douglas Englebart…his site is here: seems to be some similarity between your ideas. Have a great day and good luck. -Rick SchauerLakeville, MN

  7. Chris says:

    Hi Dave,An excellent, rational, coherent presentation. You’ve increased my understanding of this subject area considerably. Many thanks.Hwyl!Chris

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