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Opening our Minds to Opportunity: Appreciative Inquiry and Complexity Science in Multiple Disciplines

Creating a Context

For over 27 years I have been a mediator, facilitator, trainer and user of many problem solving models.  During that time, I have looked for models and approaches to help me be more effective.  In this article, I am pleased to introduce and share with you two exciting techniques that have strengthened my work and may enhance and improve your own efforts, too. 

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strength-based approach to creating change, with a primary focus on the assets of the system.  It addresses desired change by recalling, exploring and focusing only on past and present achievements, times of exceptional accomplishments, and moments of insights and pleasure associated with the topic. 

Traditionally, there are four “phases” of AI: 

  • Discover: people recall stories of exceptional achievements associated with the topic.
  • Dream:  people articulate the behaviors, attitudes, and resources that contributed to the memorable stories of success. 
  • Design: people write out present tense lofty and ideal statements of how the examples from the Dream phase are working. 
  • Deliver: people openly acknowledge specific processes, procedures, programs and behaviors that lend themselves to needed or desired change-addressing change from the lens of the earlier “phases” .

Applying the phases  of AI to thinking and behavior  results in surprising ,novel and desired out comes..This focus on strengths assets and  what one wants more of, not what is missing, leads to knowledge  of AI’s  universal application, its challenge and its beauty (Watkins/Mohr 2001).  

Complexity Science 

Complexity Science (CS) consists of the research and insights  from the study of the natural world, e.g. eco systems, the human brain, waterfalls, coast lines, bee hives, etc.  CS is the hidden pearl, metaphorically explaining how systems work, and the interdependence and connectedness of their parts.  CS identifies and addresses known and unknown patterns of thinking and behavior –CS asserts that there are patterns everywhere within any system..  For more than 25 years, organizational theorists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, the military and others have applied complexity concepts to their disciplines. 

Three main pillars of CS are Chaos Theory, Complex Adaptive Systems and Dissipative Structures (Stacey 2003.) 

  •  Chaos Theory (CT) is defined as a “sensitivity to changes in initial conditions,” where even the smallest variation or shift can lead to significant consequences.  In addition, CT maintains that all systems exhibit patterns that are seemingly governed by simple rules.  Think about the impact of rumors in the workplace, punctuation errors in an important report, or slips of the tongue during critical conversations.  Another familiar illustration is what is commonly known as the “Butterfly Effect”:  a butterfly flapping its wings in South America starts a flow of air that will grow and eventually influence the weather in a city in another country. 
  • Complex Adaptive Systems: A complex adaptive system (CAS) is a collection of “agents” or individuals who act in a variety of predictable and unpredictable ways, and whose actions are interconnected.  Examples of a CAS include families, workplaces, unions, church choirs, stock market, bee hives, organizations and political parties.  The individuals within the system – professors at a university, cells in a body, and traders on the Stock Exchange – work together to create interdependent reciprocal behavior that leads to self-organization.  Self organization occurs when “agents” in a system choose to interact in ways that create discernible, meaningful patterns over time. 

We can influence how a system self-organizes by setting the conditions for change. These conditions are:

  • The Container:  the boundaries in which the system operates, e.g. mind sets, physical space, affiliations, objectives
  • The Exchanges:  how interaction occurs within the system, e.g. gestures, business processes, emails, phone calls, budgets
  • The Differences:  here lies the potential for movement, interaction, learning, and change within the system, e.g. power, gender, education, outlook, philosophy, worldview

In short outcomes emerge within a system based on the mutual interdependence of the activity of the agents; the kinds of exchanges occurring, and the degree to which the objectives of the system are met.  (Olson/Eoyang 2001).

  • Dissipative Structures (DS) explain the transition of operational, psychological, and practical stages involved when the status quo is challenged by new thinking and behavior. In a Dissipative Structure there is a chain of events in play:
    • We start with a current state of thinking or behavior – what’s happening right now. 
    • There is an introduction of new information which invites modification to the status quo in some way.
    • That information pushes out aspects of the status quo and this allows new information to be integrated
    • This information is incorporated and a new status quo emerges (Prigogine 2003)

For example, during a workplace conversation, harsh feelings may emerge and can lead to responses that bring different perceptions about the issue into play.  That new information gets incorporated into the situation, and the result is a new view of the original feelings and the situation.

“ Special thanks to Dr. Mallary Tytel for her contribution to this article:


Timothy Germany

Timothy Germany has worked for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since l984.  He mediates labor disputes in a wide variety of industries: auto, steel, health care, chemical, and national media in the private sector as well as mediations and trainings in the Federal  Sector. He establishes and maintains Labor Management… MORE >

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