I Like Growing With Friends

Quick intro

I like learning, more than that I like growing and I like doing it with friends. I never thought I would say that. I never took the time to record and observe the process before, but through the Organisational Development Capability Programme I got to do just that. I also had to document it, in a formal structure, which was daunting. The structure is called an Organisational Development Question (ODQ). I heard back yesterday that I passed. I now have 20 credits as part of an MSc. Crippy.

So here it is, in it’s original structure: may it be an interesting window into what I do. For me it’s a stake in the ground as to where I was at 31 August 2018 as viewing the last 6/7 months.

I have changed 1 word.

1. Purpose and objectives of your ODQ

The key question I sought to address through my Organisational Development Question (ODQ) was: How can I explore my internal relationship to power and beliefs in an appreciative way as I take on more duties in the organisational development and design expert services, particularly as I lead on an appreciative inquiry for culture change in Defra group?

In terms of my self-development ,the objectives I had were to understand more how I operate at my best and how I react, so as to develop myself as an instrument, and in particular, what my relationship to power is or, as I would put it now possibly, the perception of power.

My intention at the start was simply to understand organisational development as a practice, given that I had only been in the Organisational Development team for a couple of months. Though the opportunity arose with the support of my appreciative inquiry guru and my action learning set not just to learn a new intervention — Appreciative Inquiry, but to learn more deeply about me and my organisation and, possibly modern society which was unexpected, and in the latter, something which I hope to explore further.

The framework of the Appreciative Inquiry Define, ‘Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny’ Cooperrider, D, Whitney, D & Stavros, JM (2005) gives a structure to the key stages in completing my ODQ, however my learning around them in particular through themes explored in my action learning sets meetings also proved to be key moments.

2. Knowledge Mapping

I’m lucky in that my Appreciative Inquiry guru uses a 5D approach in which the additional step to the 4D approach ‘Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny’ Cooperrider, D, Whitney, D & Stavros, JM (2005) is Define, which in essence is knowledge mapping. The Define stage is included in Discover in the 4D approach but, in pulling it out slightly separately, it allows for the definition of the areas of focus of the Appreciative Inquiry to be seen as separate from the stories that are gathered. I’m also lucky in that I have been gathering data that I used in this definition that spans multiple organisations from within the system of government.

The two ground sources of data that I used came from two open space events that I helped run; though writing it like that saying that they are two ground sources seems to dumb down the complexity of the data and the first-hand experience I had from running the events. The first was #DefraPerspectives, which brought together the senior leaders from across Defra group (Department for Environment and Rural Affairs and all 33 organisations) and the second was #Reimagine2017 which was for the Senior Civil Service Group, which brought together the senior leaders from across the Civil Service and keen reformers from OneTeamGov. Both events were deliberately open in their framing to allow for a variety and depth of discussions. After the events we pulled out the key points/themes from each session, there were 66 sessions, and summarised them into overarching themes. From these themes I defined the areas of focus of the Appreciative Inquiry: We are practical leaders, we are adaptable, we are the best of humanity.

What I didn’t have at this stage was knowledge of what Appreciative Inquiry was or even what it meant to be appreciative was; it’s something that I brought up at our second Action Learning Set meeting. The comment was “I presume you have read everything on Appreciative Inquiry” — and the truth of the matter was I hadn’t, I had lost my focus. My initial reading on the subject was Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Linda Holbeche (2015) and my reflection was that I was lucky to have a guru (who had done the process before in other organisations and is an experienced OD practitioner) as she had told me everything, maybe not the interconnections to other theories such as social constructionism but I was lucky that way, and still am, as I am best creating spaces and doing. After completing the Design stage in the Appreciative Inquiry process I had started to read more.

I also had the fortune to attend a seminar from Tong Yee on “Gaining Emotional Distinctions”. What was interesting for me here was not just about his explanation of emotions but about how we show it, how we as OD practitioners can move people through it, and it’s something I had been doing already, but not consistently thinking about. More than anything this helped me frame my narrative when explaining the method to others — in essence to find my own way.

The final piece of the jigsaw for my ODQ (but so much more than that) was again something that came up at our second Action Learning Set meeting. I got quite emotional, at the start of the day I reflected during check in about a nightmare I had the night before. I don’t have them often and haven’t had one that deep for many years; it was very visceral. But having shared it meant that I got some really good feedback on me, how I show up, and some things which reside in my underground particularly about control. It’s something that I started unpacking and have in my diary lots of notes about now which I have just read over again, it’s a little bit of a tough read but good to have captured so much detail. Around this time I think I was getting a bit lost in unpacking me and my relationship to control, choice, freewill and privilege, though it’s something I have every intention to continue looking at as I develop my practice, particularly around stoicism. But I had lost the advice from that Action Learning Set meeting to notice, note, decide, something which I was reminded of later.

3. Methods of Inquiry, Research

The primary method I used was that of Appreciative Inquiry, though within that I had choices to make and methods to choose. In researching the “me” bit, especially when lifting the lid on the emotional paint pot, I kept a diary, listened to podcasts and used understanding from both to look back at past events in an appreciative way.

As well as the definition of the focus areas, which I have explained, I needed to recruit and then guide volunteers, define the questions to conduct the interviews, provide support to volunteer interviewers to gather the stories, work through with the volunteers what they were telling us about and find the focus. Which is described in great depth by Lewis, S, Passmore J & Cantore, S (2011) one point that I took to heart was that ‘everyone can be a ‘good enough’ appreciative listener’ the assentation is that it’s guidance which is needed, so that’s where my efforts were focused.

To train my volunteers I used WebX because they are a geographically dispersed group of organisations. I did some research into the best way to do that, and the advice was to allow time at the beginning and end for technical setup and to allow people to continue the discussion if they wished. This also helped me as I was quite nervous before the first WebX although I found presenting in this way actually suits me, usually I’m overly keyed into what I think people are thinking, simply by noticing what’s going on with their faces (which is a problem for me when presenting to large groups of people I don’t know). I also had a script to remind me of the key points to cover in any section of the WebX, and who was leading at any point, as I did it as a double act with someone from my team,

to allow breathing and thinking space to ensure the best guidance was provided.

As part of the WebX I would give an introduction to the topics, in one session it went a bit wrong, not overly so. My slip up did affect some of the volunteers. I think I was tired from traveling from Glasgow and had set the WebX to the morning. In essence I started to go down a negative path of a story in my introduction and was unable to bring it back so cut it short. In this case I felt that individuals affected, through their work in continuous improvement, tend to see an organisation as a machine ‘the body as a machine that links Cartesian thinking to organisational functioning’ D Lewis, S, Passmore J & Cantore, S (2011). Appreciative Inquiry doesn’t take this approach, not to say the either is right, just that it’s not the approach that is taken when doing an Appreciative Inquiry. As the Appreciative Inquiry developed I was more mindful of this different approach, to ensure I could help guide individuals. My Team Leader made a helpful point that during the Dream session it could be something we would need to be directive on. Learning the balance between holding a space and being directive is still new to me, my natural stance is one of collaboration.

As part of the preparation in defining the type of people to interview, which I suggested as open for challenge and adaption by the volunteers, I provided this framework:

Don’t prejudge where to look for good
Someone you know well (in a different setting in a different way)
A couple of people you don’t know
A leader
Someone that delivers with us
Someone not in your office / region/ org/ system

My reasoning for doing this was that if my volunteers were going to become good listeners they needed a safe place to start, after the 1:1 interviews that we did on the WebX, so I suggested they started with someone they knew well. I also wanted them to find other people to make new connections and to hear different stories or at least to feel that they could. To understand that though, there is a relatively neat explanation of Defra group that there are people that we work with such as volunteers delivering our outcomes through grants who could be considered for interview. More than anything, more than being prescriptive, I wanted to try and expand the framework in which they operated. We kept a google sheet with all the different people that we were interviewing (without the name of the interviewer) as the conversations needed to be held in a safe place; its primary purpose was to ensure we were getting different voices/stories. One of the volunteers noticed that most of the people being interviewed initially were leaders and contacted me to ask for permission to seek out other voices, which I readily supported.

In the work of the Appreciative Inquiry I found it a strange balance of giving space and providing permission, given that it was all new to me. Though it has been discussed in terms of the need to give space and balance with the need to give some permission, it isn’t the way I experienced it but that could be to do with the system in which I operate. As permission is now not something I readily seek, even though I felt my position had not changed, giving permission from me felt almost quite foreign. The closest description to the balance I was making comes from Barry Oshry (2007). I just think the lived experience of being a top or a middle is much more complex, more blurred but I’m aware now it’s important how you present.

4. Findings and Analysis

This is tough to explain, but Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Linda Holbeche (2015) describe it best ‘It’s important we do not sweat hard to ensure they give us the outcome we think they should achieve’ when talking about acting as dialogic OD container, something which through this process of discovery I seem to affiliate to. I mention this now because not sweating is something that I noticed doesn’t come naturally. I think it’s something that I have learned during the process. A good example of this is that when I was asked by people outside of our team what the appreciative inquiry interviews were showing me, what was my analysis, my reply was simply that I hadn’t looked. It’s something that my guru either advised or reinforced (I’m never sure which it is), that I shouldn’t look at the early interview responses as in doing so would start to put my biases into what we find. I’m glad I had another big project, which needed regular attention, otherwise I could have been tempted.

So I’m glad we are at a point where I have read through the stories in interviews. It’s something that four of us in the OD team did the day before we held the Dream session with the volunteers. We each read through about a quarter of the interviews and all was going fine, I was taking notes putting them up so we could later look across and de-duplicate them. Then I found one story that resonated really hard with me; I got hot as I held back the tears, I showed it to my guru and she cried. I guess experience warns her not to hold onto the emotion, but this is something we are yet to discuss. I had to take a walk.

The story resonated with me not just because of the similar circumstances but also the resulting attitude that the individual would ‘do anything for work’ as a result of kindness of their managers in a time of need. It still resonates with me very deeply, and when I was done thanking the volunteers for their efforts I wrote an email to my guru, our Deputy Director and the senior leaders that gave me the opportunity to do this work. In doing so it made me cry (I was at home) I’m not sure if I could have written such an email at work. Not just because it would be hard for me, it’s such the opposite of our work culture, maybe this is something to test if the opportunity arises again. When my guru said that I should lead on the Appreciative Inquiry and do this course and gave the impression I would be emotionally affected back in February, I just went with the flow and took the trust fall that I would be. If I had expected it (what I found in myself and in our organisation) I don’t know if I could have gone through with it.

But I’ve jumped ahead and focused on me for a bit. The findings from the Appreciative Inquiry interviews were interesting, what we noticed is that through the first 10 or so interviews we were all writing lots of notes (it was all new) but as we progressed there was duplication (which is no bad thing) but I had worried that we didn’t have enough data. From these we then outlined the values that we saw, backed up by stories from across Defra group and took these to the Dream session to work on with the volunteers. . We spent a while on some of the stories they had found and how they fitted or not, some of which was about the things that they would like to see, so we kept having to reiterate the need for the stories to back up any changes and the need not to dive into things as a problem solving exercise. These are themes for Defra group that we developed at the Dream session.

We are at our best when we:
achieve our purpose
build and maintain effective networks
are connected
work openly
trust and support each other
are accessible and purposefully engage our people and customers
are flexible
value difference
learn and grow
appreciate each other and are recognised for our achievements

Though they seem sensible, and anyone could have devised them, the power in understanding them really does lie in the stories that they come from — that explain them, in the conversation. Though we are not there yet it will be interesting to look back and see if/how they are adopted ‘in the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality’ Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Linda Holbeche (2015), though this is the power of Appreciative Inquiry in that already some of the keenest volunteers are already sharing them before we engage the senior leadership team, something which is important to do in participative change.

5. Conclusions & Action
In terms of the work in the Appreciative Inquiry now we have finished the Dream stage we are starting to build our Destiny, the actions for this were created by the volunteers at the end of the Dream session. We are at the very early stages of that. It’s very nice to see that some volunteers are already building the destiny without any further guidance/space, however there will be a need to create space for the conversation. I am worried that people won’t have the time or tools to listen, it’s something which we will need to draw out as we establish the next phase of work.

The shape of what that is will be determined by what we found in the stories, I can also see it being my job to ensure that this remains to be the case. But also what is possible for teams such as internal communications to deliver? And how conversation with the senior management team goes (how much buy-in and support to creating more space we have)?

We have already started to engage the senior team through conversations that we (my Guru and our Team lead) have been having. We invited the Director of Defra group HR to the end of the Dream session, not just to give support to all the volunteers but so that she was bought into, and would help, the volunteers in championing the outcomes. As I mentioned earlier, I exposed the findings to the people that gave me the opportunity to join Organisational Design, I’m maybe lucky or foolish but one of those is our Permanent Secretary and another a Director General.

I think one of my biggest conclusions is that I’m enjoying learning, that entering a new field of work is fun and I appreciate how much I already knew about myself but still how much I have to learn. Understanding how the work that I had done relates back to theory is something I find easier to do than just reading through theory and implementing it, so having a guru to guide me through the Appreciative Inquiry was and still remains to be invaluable.

I’ve also learned that though I may think that I know what’s going on inside other people I don’t, and this also means they don’t know what’s going on for me — if I remain calm. I’ve found out I get hot when I get defensive, or feel threatened; this happened on four occasions that I have noted. Initially I didn’t recognise it, but having now sensed it and documented it I can feel when the heat starts and can choose to take different actions as a result. My next step will be to lean into it and let it wash over me, in public, but I’m still very early on in this process.

6. Learning Summary

For me it breaks down into a number of parts or chunks. But I have learned so much, I have grown so much in my practice as a result.

The first is that I love action learning sets and the ODQ approach that supports them, I don’t think I have ever looked back at my work and me in such a way before and actively sought to learn and focus on it. It’s an approach that I’m hoping to use to support the development of both my Defra group and OneTeamGov work.

When I started the whole process I had little knowledge of the sky surrounding OD though as it turns out I had been using some of the skills. Some things I have learned the hard way, by making mistakes and falling hard and floundering. Knowing now that there is, it seems to me, an endless body of knowledge seems daunting at times, but also comforting to know that if I wasn’t blessed with a guru, that I could find some pointers and things to consider from the sky and friends to help me think it over.

I’ve started to learn Appreciative Inquiry as an intervention for culture change, I don’t think I could say I’ve truly learned until I have done more, but what has happened is that I’ve learned more what it is to be appreciative and to appreciate and have been able to look back over past events with an appreciative lens looking at situations from other people’s point of perception (or just a little bit nearer — to imply I could fully appreciate would be to misrepresent what I have learned).

I’ve learned that focus is only something that I can control, everyone else will bring distractions but that I truly enjoy these and going with both my flow and the flow of others. But crucially through my action learning set I’ve learned how to control my focus a bit more by ‘bringing the shutters down’.

I think I knew already that my openness was a gift, that I have my own style, and I was fortunate enough to use our last action learning set meeting to explore how I may use that in the future whatever my focuses may be. In terms of my personal development, more than anything it’s about maintaining the focus in the moment, more than on a project as I described above.

Maybe now I know a small slice of what OD is, that learning can be something to be cherished, I look forward to the ride in my continued growth, maybe with a little bit of apprehension. But knowing that it’s a journey I want to take, to continue, to explore.


• Cooperrider, D, Whitney, D & Stavros, JM (2005) Appreciative Inquiry Handbook
• Lewis, S, Passmore J & Cantore, S (2011) Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management Kogan Page, London
• Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, Linda Holbeche (2015) Organisational Development
• Barry Oshry (2007) Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life
• Tong Yee (2018 Seminar) Gaining Emotional Distinctions


• European Appreciative Inquiry network www.networkplace.eu
• Lewis, S, Passmore J & Cantore, S (2011) Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management Kogan Page, London
• Barrett, FJ & Fry, R (2005) Appreciative Inquiry: a positive approach to building co-operative capacity Taos Institute Publications, Chagrin Falls, OH
• Cooperrider, D, Whitney, D & Stavros, JM (2005) Appreciative Inquiry Handbook
• Richard Hale (2014) Fundamentals of action learning
• AI Commons ai.case.edu — 5 march 2018
• STBY empathic conversations — 19 March 2018
• Bushe, G.R. (2012) Appreciative inquiry: Theory and critique. In Boje, D., Burnes, B. and Hassard, J. (eds.) The Routledge Companion To Organizational Change (pp. 87–103). Oxford, UK: Routledge — 19 March 2018
• Shane Parrish https://fs.blog/the-knowledge-project/ — May 2018



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Working from Defra in the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, OneTeamGov and UKGovCamp. Government romantic and lover of tea