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Involving the Whole System

The process of whole system change requires the participation of all executives and large numbers of employees during different stages of the process. Various techniques are available for whole system participation. These include, among others, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and Open Space Technology.

Appreciative Inquiry: Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a process or philosophy for involving individuals that form part of a group structure in a dialogue that focuses on renewal and change.  The process is widely used in organisations to involve the “whole system” in meaningful discussions about the vision, mission, and performance improvement strategies of the organisation. The same process is also widely used outside the organisational domain in communities of interest.

I frequently use this process for helping groups to determine the behaviours that support their values by working with focus groups and having members of the group recall individually their positive previous experiences of a particular value, and describe what was happening when that value was being lived. These individual positive experiences are then harvested, and the whole group decides which of the behaviours are most relevant to the value they are discussing and their present situation. 

The following excerpt from A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by the originator of the process, David L. Cooperider, and one of the most experienced exponents, Diana Whitney, encapsulates what Appreciative Inquiry is about.

Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

Appreciative Inquiry involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. It centrally involves the mobilization of inquiry through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question” often-involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.

In Appreciative Inquiry the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiralling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design.

Appreciative Inquiry deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core”—and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

World Café: World Café is a simple, innovative process that allows groups of people to carry out conversations about questions that matter in a way that taps into the collective intelligence of the group.  The process takes its name from the café style environment in which the conversations take place.

The process was first developed and used by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995. The process involves groups of four or five people gathering around a table and talking about a carefully crafted question that they are all interested in. After the facilitator/host has welcomed the participants, he or she reminds them of the question they have to explore, and gives them 30-45 minutes for discussion.

After the allotted time, one person remains at each table and the rest move to other tables. The person who remains at the table shares with the incoming group the ideas and questions that were discussed at that table, and the others share their previous conversations. The new group at each table then continues with their dialogue. The process continues for several rounds.

The whole group is then asked to share significant insights and questions that have emerged. The results of this discussion are posted in front of everyone, and used by the group as a basis for further action.

Brown sees this process as mimicking the way in which whole systems work and think together. Members of small groups spread their insights to larger constituencies, carrying the seeds of new ideas and insights into new conversations in ever expanding groups. The process activates collective intelligence, creates new knowledge and helps to birth desired futures.

Open Space Technology: Open Space, as it is popularly known, is a process for hosting meetings, conferences, and community events focused on a specific purpose or task. Open Space Technology has been used in meetings of up to 2,000 people.  
One of the most distinctive features of Open Space is that it starts with no specific agenda. The agenda is crated during the first 30-90 minutes by the participants. For this reason the process operates at its optimum when representatives from the “whole system” are in the room.

Typically, an Open Space meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor (the official or acknowledged leader of the group) and usually an Open Space facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the "self-organizing" process of Open Space.

The group as a whole creates the agenda by inviting people to sponsor particular issues or topics that are relevant to the purpose of the meeting on a bulletin board. When all the topics have been identified, each person who felt moved to post an idea on the bulletin board is invited to say a few words about why they believe their topic is important. This person becomes the convenor of a group to discuss that topic and assigns a place and time to meet.

The convenor kicks off the conversation and takes notes. Participants can choose which groups to join, and can, if they choose, flit between groups to cross pollinate conversations. The proceedings from each group are collected and “instantly” electronically published for the whole group to see. The group assigns priorities and actions based on the findings of each of the groups. The facilitator holds the space for the participants to self-organise rather than manage or direct the conversations.

Harrison Owen, the originator of this process, states that the approach works best when four conditions are present:

  • High levels of complexity, in terms of the task or outcomes to be achieved.
  • High levels of diversity, in terms of people who would be involved in making any solution work.
  • High levels of real or potential conflict around the core purpose of the meeting.
  • High levels of urgency.

For a more comprehensive treatment of the subject of dialogue and the processes that are available for co-creating through collective intelligence, I would encourage you to read The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee.


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