The “elephant in the room” that we need to banish

On Monday night this week we held our latest #supperconversationatffresh and we were part of the “National Conversation” initiative with Peter Davies (Commissioner for Sustainable Futures) on behalf of @TheWalesWeWant. Great people, great food, great wine and great conversation – that’s what #supperconversationsatffresh are all about and that’s exactly what we had on Monday night. Brilliant!

Peter gave a really helpful introduction and very ably set the scene ahead of us tucking into our starter. Over the starter, the main and the dessert our tables discussed each of the 3 main conversation questions relating to Welsh Government’s draft goals underpinning the building of The Wales We Want and the Future Generations Bill. The questions we discussed were a) Are these the right goals? b) How might challenges facing Wales affect these goals? c) What will success look like in terms of the goals? Over coffee we pulled the different conversations together and collated our key thoughts to feedback into the larger debate. Very many thanks to Colin Heyman for all his help as a co-facilitator.

I’m going to upload our shared responses as a separate blog entry and simply stay with just one important element of what emerged for me from our supper conversation which is:

The “elephant in the room” that we need to banish

In the spirit of our conversations we were indeed really appreciative and overwhelmingly committed to seeking out Welsh success stories (from every walk of life and sector) and using stories of Welsh successes to engage pride, develop belief and aspirations in a Wales that really is not just the land of our fathers, but truly develops into the land for our grandchildren. It came out strongly that we all really wanted to see “One Wales” where everyone is properly united and engaged with hearts and minds in shared pride, belief and aspirations that we really can and will build success and a sustainable future. We suggested that building on our Welsh success story of how we as a nation respond to our rugby and how it engenders pride, belief and real unity and inclusiveness would be a great place to start an appreciative inquiry helping us to really create the Wales We Want.

This thinking though helped me personally to consider again that we are a land full of “elephants-in-the-room” still – those elephants are all the things that we don’t believe we can change, that we don’t discuss or resolve, the conflicts and jealousies that we allow to flourish under the surface but never name or acknowledge, the type of language (Public Sector “speak” I call it) that is used to effect change and other things too.

For me our most important “elephant in the room” is:

Our cultural and societal “obsession” (i.e. belief) that in order to manage change we must look for problems to fix (and at the same time apportion blame) rather than look for what is successful, celebrating that and then doing more of it.

Going back to my previous blog post of: I have decided that this is the elephant at which I am going to “take aim and fire”!

Appreciative Inquiry is in itself a really simply concept as a change management tool. In essence it is about looking for what is working successfully, working out how it works and then doing more of that successful approach in other areas. It is a thought process that is about engaging everyone in a structured conversation with clear purpose. Once begun, it will continue as a way of working; it is a generative process.

However, the very real issue we face in approaching change management in this way is that we must challenge and change our deep-rooted beliefs (assumptions) from the ones that are currently and strongly in place and which drive our behaviour to “look for problems and to try and fix them”.

Our assumptions (beliefs) drive our behaviours – so to change our behaviours we must examine, make visible through conversation and debate our current assumptions (beliefs) and in so doing collectively agree and change our beliefs. Without this conversation the best kind of change cannot happen, since we will simply fall back into “problem solving” mode and approach change management in our usual way.

In the table below I have listed in the left hand column the underlying Assumptions (Beliefs) of Appreciative Inquiry (source: The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond).

In the right hand column I have listed what I believe are the underlying Assumptions (Beliefs) of “Finding a problem to fix” as a change management tool i.e. the beliefs that most often drive our current approach to change management.

The Assumptions (Beliefs) of Appreciative Inquiry The Assumptions (Beliefs) of “Finding a problem to fix”
žIn every society, organisation or group something works ž In every society, organisation or group something is wrong or at fault
žWhat we focus on becomes our reality ž What we focus on becomes our reality
žReality is created in the moment and there are multiple realities ž Reality is created by the “powers-that-be” and there is only an organisational / country reality
žThe act of asking questions of an organisation or group influences the group in some way ž The act of asking questions of an organisation or group assists the “powers-that-be” to effect the change they want to see happen
žPeople have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known) ž People have less confidence and more anxiety to journey to the future (the unknown) when they have been “told off” for what they were doing in the past (the known)
If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past žWe will not carry parts of the past forward, instead we will axe them and the people involved because they are part of the problem we are trying to fix
žIt is important to value differences žIt is important to say we value differences, but important to make sure we don’t actually do that
žThe language we use creates our reality žThe language we use will help us (the powers-that-be) achieve what we want

Change, as they say, is the one certainty in this world, so how we approach change management is so important – whether it is in terms of Welsh Government looking to describe and legislate for the sustainable Wales We Want in 2050, whether it is organisational change or whether it is relationship change.

So if Appreciative Inquiry is such an important and effective change management tool, why is it so little known, considered or used or maybe is simply dismissed as an approach to use?

Well that is because of our “elephant in the room” i.e. our obsession (belief) with looking for problems to fix and apportioning blame that causes us to look at Appreciative Inquiry and suggest to ourselves things such as “this won’t work”, “too airy fairy”, “a load of “fluffy” nonsense” etc

This belief literally drives our behaviour and we follow our tried and trusted approach to change management which is:

  • We set targets
  • People work to deliver those targets (rather than necessarily the true objectives of the business, organisation or public service or government)
  • We then measure the targets
  • We then find the “problems” where the targets haven’t been met
  • We then blame the people for not delivering on the targets
  • These days we now add a public apology and then promise to “fix the mess” of the service, business or country
  • Everyone believes they have then done a good job, sanctions have been meted out, heads have rolled, new targets have been set and this is change management.

But it doesn’t work (we know this) because it creates negativity, negative emotional responses, disengagement, “babies thrown out with bathwater” and nothing really changes and in a while there will be another round of blame, apologies, sanctions etc

So, to the elephant-in-our-room of our belief that we can only do effective change management by “looking for a problem to fix” I am taking aim and firing (and with luck it will fall into Room 101 forever) by saying instead:

Let’s adopt Appreciative Inquiry as one of our change management tools

Let’s change the stories in our heads, our conversations, in Government and in the media and let’s create better legends with which to inspire everyone including our young people whose stories we also must add to the mix and learn from – stories of our many successes to inspire creativity, confidence, hope, aspirations and realistic ideas too of how to do more of it. Building success stories and spreading them can be incredibly effective measures of success, and will change the stories and thoughts for individuals too.

This ever-growing archive of stories could change our country to be “The Wales We Want”.

How to do an Appreciative Inquiry – it’s really not that difficult

  • žBegin with a topic which the group decide on
  • Identify, agree and articulate clearly that topic, which is about building on success
  • The group discuss and agree key questions for their inquiry
  • The group follows through their inquiry
  • They bring the discoveries together i.e. define clearly “what is”
  • They identify the “rules” that brought success
  • They discuss and dream (visualise) about “what might be”
  • They create “provocative propositions” which describe an ideal set of circumstances that will foster the climate that creates the possibilities to do more of what works i.e.” what should be”
  • The group innovate i.e. clarify and articulate “What will be” – the tangible result of the inquiry
  • The group act on their innovations, unified, engaged and committed since they have developed it and shaped it
  • The group go on to create more stories of success from what has been done
  • They continue the process ………….

Let’s banish our elephant in the room of “we believe we must fix problems” and adopt Appreciative Inquiry as one of our change management tools

The we could indeed ensure we develop effective behavioural change and build The Wales We Want for our grandchildren.

A huge thank you to everyone who took part and also to @ffreshCardiff

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5 Responses to The “elephant in the room” that we need to banish

  1. Clare Davison says:

    Totally agree with all this.


  2. Jess says:

    Thanks for sharing this really interesting discussion. Can you provide the evidence base that the Appreciative Inquiry is more effective for change management than traditional “Finding a problem to fix” using targets please? Would also be really keen to learn of examples of where this has worked in a public service setting.


  3. Hi Jess – I’ll put you in touch with a colleague who will be able to share some Public Sector success stories of using AI as a change management tool with you and as a change management person he will be able to discuss “evidence base” with you too.

    Ultimately I believe it is about applying leadership skills to a management process and so better engaging and motivating staff to create the change they need and want.


  4. Jess says:

    An interesting example of change management which uses targets within a framework of goals, targets and indicators are the Millennium Development Goals. This arguably is an international change management task which has successful delivered large scale change. These included the creation of goals through engagement therefore there was buy in and commitment to the vision. The targets are a useful way to help people along this change process. I therefore think that the example you gave of targets in the blog of not being useful may need to be considered in the wider context of if the targets are set in collaboration and are meaningful they can be part of an effective change process.


  5. I agree with you that how targets are arrived at is critical to how they are used – arriving at them via collaboration, engagement with buy in and commitment is the approach of AI.Targets or goals absolutely help us individually and organisationally help progress because we can measure success and feel more motivated to continue.

    As you say, the issue is therefore more about how we co-create the targets and how those targets are used in an engaging way (as well as pragmatically measuring progress).


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