International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry


Archive for the ‘Creative pratices’ Category

The Intervention Clock – Arjan van Vembde

Many people ask me how the positive approach of Appreciative Inquiry deals problems. These question inspired me to develop a four phase model to respond in an appreciative way to negative issues in a coach-client setting. In this article I will introduce you to this model.

The Intervention clock is a model that facilitates the transformation of a negative to a positive conception of a situation. It appears as if many people think that AI doesn’t deal with problems, because of it’s positive approach the negative is left to the side. This may be a productive strategy, but sometimes doesn’t deal with the whole, or the core of the situation. I think that it is also possible to address a negative situation in an appreciative and inquiring manner. In doing so we value the situation for it’s worth and I have often seen a magical transformation take place of a negative to a positive conception of a situation. The Intervention clock helps facilitate such a transformation.

For example our client wrestles with a troubled relationship with a colleague, is unhappy with her career or is stressed because a child is difficult to handle. What we are looking for is what the client wants more of. The problem-perception doesn’t answer this question for it only tells us what is not wanted. This is the start of an Appreciative Inquiry and covers the Define phase where the client defines what will be subject of inquiry, often called the affirmative topic.

To be specific on what we are looking for as an end result of this process, the affirmative topic is often formulated as:

  • Describes what we do want, instead of what we don’t want;
  • Touches upon the core of what is important, it’s an end in itself, not a means;
  • Says something about what you want to do or be, not about what others should do or be;
  • Other stakeholders are okay with this mission;
  • It speaks to the imagination and stimulates ambitions and aspirations

Vital in the process of Appreciative Inquiry as I learned it from Robbert Masselink, Wick van der Vaart and others, is the concept of ownership. The client is free to do as he pleases and is in the lead in his own inquiry. I as a coach only facilitate his inquiry by asking questions that open up new perspectives. When dealing with negative issues this subtle intervention style remains the same. This means that the Intervention clock comes in play only after the client makes clear that he wants to do something with his problem and wants to do that here, now and with me as a coach.

The Intervention Clock consists of four stadia, each suggested as the quarters of an hour. The four quarters follow up on each other with the intervention strength increasing. Next I will explain the four quarters.

The first quarter is a minimalistic intervention: all you do is listen to the sory of your client. You acknowledge the issue for what it is and do no attempt in any way to change anything about it. It may appear as if you do nothing in this phase but actually I think that listening is a double edged intervention. First this has an emotional effect: by listening you give your client the opportunity to become more emotionally balanced. Sometimes anger, frustration or insecurity are in play and all those emotions prohibit clear thinking. Just giving him or her the opportunity to speak it all out often makes room for a more rational approach. Second, listening has an intellectual effect: you give your client the opportunity to sort out his or her own thoughts on the subject. Often the issue at hand is not from yesterday and in the past months many thoughts and advice from friends have already passed. Telling the story front to end helps to get an overview of the pro’s and cons and to make resolutions and decisions. So, by just listening we facilitate emotional balance and more clear thinking.

It still surprises me how many times practicing this first quarter is already enough for the client to transform his negative conception to a more constructive perspective. When this happens you can leave the Intervention clock behind and continue the AI process with the Discovery, Dream and Design phases. But although listening is a powerful intervention some people can maintain their problematic perception of a situation for a long time, sometimes even years. So, when your client keeps talking in dismissive words about what he doesn’t want, the time may come that we can move on to the second quarter of the intervention clock.

The second quarter of the Intervention Clock model increases the level of intervention and suggests a subtle positive questioning style. As a coach you subtly ask your client if he also knows what it is that he does want to happen. Also you respond to little signs of positivism. For example your client may suggests that most of the time the relation with the colleague is troubled. This might be an opportunity, for if the relation is troubled most of the time, it suggests that the relation is not troubled ALL of the time. Maybe we can inquiry a little further in the moments when the relation is not that bad, and see if we can learn from those situations in a more positive way what it is the client wants to create more of. Like so the client who is unhappy with her career may examine her career on highlights and the client who is stressed with her child can examine the moments when the child is more at ease.

If the subtle questions appear to have no transformative effect, the third quarter comes in sight. In this third quarter your role as a coach increases further as you start to introduce new perspectives for your client to analyze his situation. A classic question is to ask the client to imagine himself a year from now and to imagine himself successful. What does the situation look like when he is successful: what does he do, what is the effect and what made it possible? Another approach is to ask the client to view the situation from the perspective of other players in the field, for example how does his boss think about the situation or how do other more successful people deal with comparable situations. What you do here is find a way to look at the subject, or verbalize the issue in a way that sets things in a different perspective. Finding this perspective often asks for creativity.

Note that suggesting other perspectives is what many people are quick to do when faced with negativism, often supplemented with advice on what to do. The approach here though is to not give advice and only start suggesting other perspectives after first listening to the story and just responding in a positive way. Leading in this approach is the notion of ownership. Of course there is a time when we need other people to help us break through restraining patterns, but intervention always risks an infliction on ownership. Therefore suggesting new perspectives is not the first, but the third level of intervention.

When the client remains negative on his situation, it is good to double check whether your client feels ready to tackle his issue here, now and with you as a coach. If his answer remains positive it might be time for another strategy. In the fourth quarter the intervention is a quite direct feedback on the process and the stance of your client. I literally give the client the feedback that we are talking on his issue for quite some time now and that I begin to fear that we can remain talking for a lot more time without coming closer to insights that give an opening to do something positive about the situation. In other words I tell the client that it appears that he can keep complaining but that won’t help his situation. This is the first time in the conversation that I give my opinion and note that I only give my opinion on the process, not on the issue at hand. After delivering this feedback I check with my client if he agrees on my observation, maybe he disagrees and does see progress when of course we would continue. Though when I am right we can conclude together that it has little use to continue the conversation as is. That is when I suggests to start searching for an approach to his issue that is more helping. In fact I move back in the Intervention clock to the third quarter where we search for more helping perspectives on the issue.

* * *

Concluding words

Although in practice the quarters often mix and take more or less time, the suggestion of quarters in this model is a good rule of thumb. the Intervention clock works as a reminder to respect the ownership of your client. Take the time to follow his lead and you will find yourself surprised at how fast clients find new perspectives on issues that seemed unmovable.

Arjan van Vembde works as a trainer and consultant on the subject of Organisation Development.


A Deeper Level of Humanity: My Introduction to The Constellation – Birgitta Schomaker

Everywhere you look, you see remarkable individuals and communities that have managed to break through the walls of trauma and tyranny in order to connect to their deep sources of humanity. What are the conditions that make these breakthroughs possible and allow ‘miracles’ to happen time and again?’

Driven to get to know more about Theory U and Appreciative Inquiry (AI), I accepted Joke d’Haese’s invitation to partake in a workshop for change facilitators organised by The Constellation in the small Dutch town of Kerkrade near the German border. The Constellation is a Belgian NGO and network organisation that supports communities in more than 60 countries in responding to local challenges.

Why now? 

The three-day workshop took place exactly a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th, 2015. In the context of this horrifying event, I could not have imagined a more uplifting and promising experience than attending this workshop. I left the workshop with new hope, experiencing the promise of the strong human connection that emerges when using the appreciative perspective. The facilitators of The Constellation inspire communities to find their own truth based on their life experience and through dialogue.

I consider The Constellation’s vision and approach a powerful way to generate the kind of breakthroughs Scharmer and Kaufer refer to in the opening quote.

The Constellation says about their work that: “In a world that needs to confront life challenges on a daily basis (HIV, TB, malaria, reproductive health, livelihood, climate change, peace and reconciliation), every community has the capacity to respond to such threats, to build a common vision, to act and to adapt.” The Constellation believes in empowering local communities: “Every community can become Life Competent: the ‘state’ where it is able to deal effectively with the threats and challenges that it faces. Global experiences reveal that local responses are a critical factor to achieve progress on life challenges. Local responses are the set of actions that communities take by themselves to address a certain concern, first of all using their own resources. These local responses can be facilitated.”

Reflective practitioners

The facilitation approach of The Constellation evolved in an organic way by a process of continual fine-tuning of best practices. Projects are continuously evaluated in an appreciative way through a practice called “after experience reflection”. Lessons learned are shared with other facilitations within the same community or transferred to other communities. Truly a learning organisation, The Constellation. Learning by pointing out what works well, and stressing what can be amplified, exploring what can be improved with an open mind.

From expert to facilitator

The Constellation has clearly defined its vision for interacting with local communities, described in the acronym SALT: Stimulate, Appreciate, Learn, and Transfer. SALT is the DNA of the Constellation. SALT also refers to Support, Authentic, Link, Listen and Team. The facilitators of The Constellation believe in the possibilities of people to solve their own problems. SALT directs the attention to what particpants would like to reinforce or encourage, and reminds practitioners to share their learnings.

During the weekend, the facilitators guided us through the Community Life Competence Process (CLCP), a cyclical model used to assist communities in tackling their challenges:

  1. Who are we? (Our common humanity)
  2. Who do we want to be? (Envision)
  3. Where do we stand now? (Self-assess)
  4. How do we get there? (Prioritise and plan for action)
  5. Act
  6. What have we learned? (Share and learn)

Instead of problem solving there is space for “what wants to be born” – the dream or vision.

What makes us human?

I found the first step in the process – describing what defines us as human – intriguing. This first step creates connection between the people involved: universal values like respect, authenticity, responsibility and altruism are emerge from the dialogue.

The preamble of The Constellation Charter states that:

There is one condition to our journey: we must recognize that we are all human, moved by similar hopes and concerns. In our interactions with others, we leave behind our references to a world made of experts and uneducated people, clerics and lay persons, rich and poor, donors and recipients. We then become free to share our experience and to appreciate others.

From dreaming to planning

What I especially liked about the SALT way of working was the step bridging dream and plan. When working with groups, I often find this challenging: how do you avoid get too much “down to earth” too soon? How do you keep the spirit of the dream alive? During the weekend we explored so-called “practices”, which describe core elements of the dream as if these are happening right now, in clear language. By using concise, tangible statements, the dream is specified without watering down the imagination of the participants. Subsequently the group assesses its current state by taking a close look at the practices: to what extent do we currently “live” or “embody’”these practices as a community?

“The new in any system shows up first at the periphery”, Scharmer states. You could call Kerkrade, located near the border between Germany and Belgium, a city on the periphery, not only because of its geographic location, but moreso because of the transformation this area has been going through in the past decade: the large monastery Rolduc has closed (a stronghold of the Vatican since the 12th century) and the closure of the coal mines. Kerkrade has become marginalised: people, businesses and institutions have left the area. Instead of framing this as problematic, we focused on possibilities. “What is dying, and what is wanting to be born?” is the recurring question in Theory U material. During the weekend we were introduced to local civil initiatives in Kerkrade through so-called SALT visits. These were promising initiatives, characterised by inclusion: offering local community members ways to participate and stay involved. Rather than staying distant during the visits, we learned to engage in personal conversations, meeting on eye-level.

Indeed, now!

Scharmer and Kaufer wrote: “The good news is that the world has enormous unexploited potential in the form of inspired, intentional, and collective entrepreneurship. But we need to be much more methodical about tapping this dormant force to bring about global movements for good.”

With SALT and CLCP, the network of facilitators of The Constellation have developed a tried and true method to activate dormant potential of communities. By sharing success stories and stories of hope within the community of facilitators, The Constellation is one of the compelling worldwide movements for positive global change.

I wrote the first version of this article right after the attacks in Paris, in November 2015. Today, as I am writing the second version of this article, my thoughts go to the mourning people in Belgium, after the attacks in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016. More than ever, the world needs effective methods to stimulate dialogue and to foster harmonious communities, that is for sure.

With gratitude to all participants at the workshop in Kerkrade, and a special thank you to Gemma & Joke for embodying the SALT principles.

Birgitta Schomaker

Amsterdam, March 25th 2016

A Consultant’s Journey: Building Personal Resources for Working in Complex Environments – Mark Lough

This is an account of a transformational learning experience that was designed for consultants, coaches and managers, launched in August 2015.

Our idea was to offer participants the opportunity to come together in a shared experience that drew upon the principles of AI without relying upon the structure of the 5D cycle. We wanted to explore ways of working that honoured the social constructionist principle and to explore a more relationally responsive, dialogical approach, which can be obscured by an over-reliance on method.

Each person was invited to engage their spirit of curiosity to appreciate more fully what they offer as professionals and to explore those things that enrich their capacity to work creatively and effectively, even in the midst of complexity.

We wanted to create an opportunity to explore some of the more challenging elements of process work; namely, those moments when there is no protocol and where more complex dynamics are at play. In this respect, we wanted to invite the development of intuitive capacities that would enhance personal confidence.

We were also interested to adapt the T-group model,2 to see if an adapted form could provide a different kind of learning opportunity for participants – one that was theme-centred and which would create similar opportunities for realtime learning and experimentation. Additionally, we wished to draw upon insights that are emerging from Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) as an additional theoretical lens. Elements in the programme included:

  • Integration of professional and personal development
  • Theme-centred small group experiences
  • Theoretical inputs regarding metaphor, curiosity, intuition and relational practice

Why did we want to work in this theme-centred way? Our view is that there is no magic in the work that we do. Although there may be no easy explanations for “why things work” between people there are capacities that we can each develop to support our engagement with the complexity of professional life. Many of these lie in our understanding of theory and technique, and in the unique way that we integrate and express our personal qualities whilst holding an “in this moment” awareness of the context.

What questions did we seek to explore?

  • How do we think about the narratives that inform our work at an
  • individual level?
  • How are those narratives being recreated in the ‘here and now’?
  • How can we work intuitively with emergent elements?
  • How do we develop a deeper appreciation of the metaphors that shape
  • our sense of identity?
  • How can we use this growing awareness of our work to enhance organisational effectiveness and personal growth?

The unfolding

In August 2015, seven participants arrived at Les Chabannes in France.All were Dutch, aged between 27 and 59, with a range of professional backgrounds including public-service management, safety, management, and organisational consultancy and health. Although the workshop was nonresidential, all participants were encouraged to use the different elements of the programme as opportunities for reflection and as a means of furthering their own professional/personal questions.

The structure of the week was set out as combinations of theme-centred group experiences supported by discussion and reflective processes as well as short theoretical inputs that reflected the topics and themes. Each participant developed images of their own learning paths and goals which were explored and further developed as the week progressed. Opportunities to practise and experiment were encouraged in the group intensives and reflected upon in journals and conversation.

The experience of “being in nature” created opportunities to focus on sensory inputs and bodily awareness as an essential element of intuitive processing. The metaphor of “Lord of the Rings” was identified in our preparation as a unifying story for what we were doing, as it conveys the importance of fellowship in a group as well as the value of a shared purpose and the emergence of shared leadership across the membership.

Although we worked to a particular structure with a range of themes in mind, we also wanted to facilitate the group to develop its own unique process and to follow opportunities as they emerged in order to create a real-time exposure to working with what emerges in a more considered way.

Reflections and learning

By focussing on themes that were relevant to the group, we discovered, during the group sessions, that the conversations were productive right from the start. In this way the group time became a useful variation to the classical T-group, allowing a safe place for powerful exploration of individual and shared development opportunities.

By spending time on appreciative interviews and crafting individual metaphors, we found that the participants had a lot to talk about and reflect upon during the group time. Narratives were identified and explored in a way that facilitated individual creativity.

Mark Lough and Wick van der Vaart

See Calendar for the next workshop in France,  in August 2016.


Back to top