How to Unleash Our Collective Genius: Appreciative Inquiry

Something is trying to be born. We can feel it. The old ways of the industrial growth society are crumbling, and the new ways of a life-sustaining civilization are emerging like grass through cracks in the concrete.

Everything we need is already here.

Kate Sutherland’s latest book, We Can Do This! 10 Tools to Unleash Our Collective Genius, is about unleashing our immense potential by harnessing the power of “group work” through tried-and-true frameworks for working together better.

Following is an excerpt from the book’s first chapter.

See Kate Sutherland speak at Bioneers 2018, where she’ll discuss Navigating Emergence: Perspectives and Practices for Responding in Real Time.

I love each of the frameworks in this book, so it has been like planning a delicious meal for much loved friends to choose which “dish” to serve first. I have picked Appreciative Inquiry because it offers a brilliant entry point to virtually every context, and because it is simple and stunningly transformational. I also welcome how it infuses everything with a joyous sweetness. When we appreciate something, not only does it help us amplify what we have appreciated, we, the appreciators, are uplifted and energized and connected to our wisdom and passion.

At the core of Appreciative Inquiry’s transformational power is one of the most fundamental inner shifts we can make: from seeing problems to seeing possibilities.

Most of us, and most groups, tend to focus on what is wrong. We relish cataloguing what is not working and we glory in analyzing root causes and how things might get worse.

The same is true for the voices in our heads. “You didn’t do that very well.” “Don’t be so stupid.” “Who do you think you are?” Seldom does our self-talk affirm our strengths or honor our accomplishments.

All this negative focus is debilitating. The bigger the problems we face and the more overwhelmed we are by the weight of what is wrong, the more important it is that we shift our focus to seeing what is right.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to life and to working in groups that turns our default setting on its head. Instead of fixating on problems, the focus is on what is life-giving. The shift is that simple, and the implications are profound – for morale, innovation, creativity, getting things done, and more. See the following Bright Spots sidebar for one vivid example.

Appreciative lens

Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the “positive core” – the factors and characteristics that are present when an individual, group, organization, or community is at its best.

By asking, “what do you value?,” or “what works well here?” – even in the most toxic of communities, workplaces, or teams – the conversation changes in profound ways. The appreciative focus surfaces people’s wisdom and goodwill. In place of negativity, despair, and overwhelm, people’s latent decency, wisdom, and engagement are unleashed. Authentic appreciation, and its close cousin, gratitude, shift the energy. For both individuals and groups, that energy shift is like wind in the sails for positive change.

Energized by having discovered something to appreciate, the next questions become, “What are the conditions that supported this wonderful thing to happen? How can we have more of what is working? Can we translate what is working here to help us over there?”

Inquiry helps us understand how the “bright spots” came to be, and points the way to having many more.

What conditions, for example, contributed to the best meet- ing you have ever had with your team or board or staff? Was the agenda framed in a positive and inspiring way? Was everyone comfortable to say what was real, thanks to a high level of trust? Was there a dynamic cross-section of people participating? Did it start on an upbeat note?

Looking back at times when your company or organization was performing at its best, was there excellent information flow between sub-groups, or a compelling sense of shared purpose, or people supported to try new things?

If your goal is to help team members to be more punctual, or better informed, or more engaged, get curious about the people who are already punctual, informed, and engaged. Or ask team members to reflect on their best experiences of whatever you want to cultivate. The wisdom on how to have more will be in the group, and when people come up with their own solutions, they are far more likely to implement them.

At the personal level

Over time, working appreciatively becomes a way of being. We change our default setting from focusing on what is wrong to seeing what is right. The more we do this in our personal lives, the better we are able we to respond appreciatively in our relationships, groups, and organizations.
In our personal lives, an appreciative focus can include how we see:

• ourselves;
• our parents and siblings;
• our children;
• our neighbours;
• our circumstances;
• our potential;
• and so on.

Take a moment right now to reflect briefly on some aspect of your personal life from an appreciative perspective. Pick something that is challenging or difficult, and let yourself “rip” with complaining, blaming, or negativity. Then choose to shift from seeing problems to seeing possibilities. Do you notice a shift in your energy and outlook? For example, I recently shifted feeling overwhelmed by my workload into feeling excited by and grateful for emerging possibilities and all that I am learning.

Similarly, in the group and organizational aspects of our lives, bringing an appreciative lens has profound impact. Consider framing issues appreciatively when:

• defining the agenda for a meeting, workshop, conference or social movement;
• conducting a performance review;
• setting strategic goals;
• building capacity in teams and organizations;
• creating collaborations and partnerships;
• dealing with crises.

The list of potential applications is endless because focusing on what is life-giving is a stance we take toward all of life. It is a way of being as much as it is a way of doing. As such, we can bring an appreciative lens to virtually everything!

Since most of us are conditioned by the prevailing negativity and problem focus in society, it takes a bit of practice to strengthen the appreciative “muscle.” If you want to be more focused on what is life-giving, you might ask for help from your spouse or a workmate, or you could put a note in your daytimer to explore using the appreciative lens on a daily or weekly basis until you have formed a positive habit.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 (Appreciative Inquiry), We Can Do This! 10 Tools to Unleash Our Collective Genius by Kate Sutherland. Other chapters introduce nine other similarly potent frameworks including Theory U, Process Oriented Psychology, and Integral Theory. For more info, see

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