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Appreciative IntelligenceSeeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn
By Tojo Thatchenkery Carol Metzker
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAppreciative Intelligence: The Missing Link
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. —William Blake (1790)
When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, the general public, as well as scientists in the aerospace field, held high hopes. The world waited expectantly for discoveries and answers to riddles of the universe that would be revealed by the telescope's views of space.
But blurry images caused by a flawed mirror sent those hopes crashing down to earth. Congress demanded an explanation for the failure. The project and its creators became the butt of late-night television jokes. Stress was high among NASA engineers, as were health problems.
"It was traumatic," said Charlie Pellerin, the former director of NASA's astrophysics division, who oversaw the launch of the Hubble. Nobody could see how to fix the problem, which many seemed afraid even to address.
Well, nobody except Pellerin. He not only had the initial insight to solve the problem but also found the funding and the resources to repair the telescope, for which he received NASA's Outstanding Leadership Medal. The ultimate reward was that over the next decade, the telescope provided spectacular images and important discoveries of stars, galaxies, and other cosmic phenomena.
What was behind Pellerin's success? There were dozens of other people at NASA with high IQ and world-class technical knowledge—they were, after all, rocket scientists. They could perform the same analysis, use the same logic, and wield the same models and mathematical formulas. So what gave Pellerin the insight to help the telescope get a metaphorical pair of eyeglasses? What made him persist until the telescope was fixed when others felt overwhelmed by the challenge?
Pellerin possessed something more than the others did: Appreciative Intelligence. While he lived with the same conditions and circumstances as everyone else, his mind perceived reality very differently than others did. He reframed the situation as a project that was not yet finished, not as a completed product that had failed. He saw the potential for a positive future situation—a working space telescope. He saw how that positive future could happen as the result of technical solutions—a corrective optics package and repairs performed by a crew of astronauts—that were already possible with a rearrangement of funding and resources that already existed within NASA. By reframing, recognizing the positive, or what worked, and envisioning the repaired telescope, he was able to help orchestrate the unfolding of a series of events that changed the future.
Consider another story. In 1979, after participating in a project to immunize children in the Philippines against polio and reading about the worldwide eradication of smallpox, Clem Renouf, then president of the civic organization Rotary International, telephoned John Sever, then chief of the Infectious Diseases Branch at the National Institutes of Health and a fellow Rotarian. Renouf asked Sever to find out whether Rotary could help eradicate a disease. A month later, Sever recommended pursuing polio eradication.
For the next two decades, a group of key stakeholders, backed by a million Rotarians, overcame challenge after challenge to battle the disease. They reassured the medical community that focusing on polio wouldn't take away from the battle against other diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS. Rotarians raised millions of dollars to buy polio vaccine. They persuaded reluctant government health ministries in many countries to help the cause and invited the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control to join Rotary as its program partners. They motivated volunteers who transported vaccine in developing countries where there were few roads and who found ways to keep the vaccine vials cold where there was no electricity. Rotary provided infrastructure, organization, and helping hands worldwide to deliver and administer the oral polio vaccine to millions of children, many whose parents were impoverished, illiterate, and afraid that the vaccine was voodoo or a disguised attempt by culturally or politically different organizations to sterilize or harm their children. With the audacious goal of eradicating the virus, the program raised awareness of immunization and disease prevention for illnesses beyond polio. It spurred the allocation of government funds for vaccines in certain countries and improved disease surveillance processes. At the same time the program was changing the world's response to disease, it reduced the incidence of polio by 99%, from over 350,000 cases in 125 countries in 1988 to 1,255 cases in 2004.2
What was behind the string of creative and innovative solutions behind the polio eradication project? What differentiated this project from the medical community's attempts to eradicate other diseases such as malaria and yellow fever? What was behind more than 20 years of persistence? If the same vaccine, medical knowledge and expertise, challenges, and conditions existed for others who looked at the situation, what ability made the difference for this group of Rotarians—a volunteer group of predominantly business and community leaders—to face polio and reduce its incidence by 99%?
The opening for a different outcome was created when Rotarians reframed the challenge of eradicating polio. Renouf, Sever, Herb Pigman, and Carlos Canseco, with the help of Dr. Albert Sabin, who had developed the oral polio vaccine, reframed polio as an organizational challenge instead of a medical problem. They focused on Rotarians' organizational skills, leadership, talents, and resources as the key to the solution. They saw a positive future—a world without polio—and envisioned a string of managerial decisions and organizational operations—transportation, refrigeration, finances, communication, and education provided by Rotary's established worldwide network of volunteers—that were already possible at that time.
What did Charlie Pellerin and the leaders of Rotary have in common that led to their projects' success? What is the ability that enables some people to take new or challenging circumstances and turn them into golden opportunities and enriching experiences for themselves and those around them, while others falter at similar situations? It is Appreciative Intelligence, the ability to perceive the positive inherent generative potential within the present. Put in a simple and metaphorical way, Appreciative Intelligence is the ability to see the mighty oak in the acorn. It is the ability to reframe a given situation, to appreciate its positive aspects, and to see how the future unfolds from the generative aspects of the current situation.
Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn offers a new perspective on successful people and provides a road map for those who want to realize their full potential. It offers an explanation of a unique ability of those who formally or informally lead projects and people and who make a difference in their small groups, organizations, the larger community, and the world. It provides a new answer to what enables successful people to dream up their extraordinary and innovative ideas; why employees, students, partners, colleagues, investors, and other stakeholders join them on the path to their end goals; and how they achieve those goals despite obstacles and challenges. It shows how a new type of intelligence, not traditional IQ or other types, links to success. In the next ten chapters, this book introduces Appreciative Intelligence, a new construct that explains a competitive advantage possessed by exceptional leaders in business, education, government, and nonprofit organizations.
Appreciative Intelligence also offers another perspective on what it means to be smart or intelligent. Ask a group of people what it means to be intelligent, and their answers might vary considerably. Several people who spoke with us during our research told us that they weren't sure they were that smart—smart enough to have created such success. They felt that luck was certainly a factor in their progress. Yet in every case, the people we interviewed were leaders or participants in exceedingly effective projects with innovative solutions and far-reaching outcomes. Their definition of smart or intelligent was too narrow to encompass the ability that allowed them to see the possibilities that "luck" provided—a notion described by the nineteenth-century scientist Louis Pasteur, when he said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Their definition excluded the mental processes that resulted in ideas and outcomes that amounted to what others would call "brilliant" or even "genius."
When Carol, one of the authors, was in grade school, her entire class "knew" what it meant to be intelligent. "Intelligent" meant a classmate Chris (not his real name)—sometimes called by his nickname "Brains"—who earned top grades and quickly understood lessons from teachers and from books. He had a solid grasp of academic fundamentals in math, English, and science. Chris grew up to be a successful Wall Street executive. At a high-school reunion the graduates all knew that our old friend was still just plain smart.
In the same grade school, students also considered who wasn't as intelligent. Surely the girl who sat in the back of the class chatting away with her friends, paying less attention to class work than to the behavior of classmates around her, was less intelligent. At a later school reunion, a few alumni overheard her talking about her work. When her father passed away, he left her a piece of property in our small town. She had noticed that as the tiny town grew, more traffic passed by the corner where her property was located, so she opened a convenience store on the corner. Noting new needs and desires around town, she rented her extra space to a startup limousine service. In a relatively short time, she became a successful businesswoman.
Both classmates drew upon their abilities—one upon mathematical, analytical cognitive thinking, the other upon the ability to notice people's behaviors and recognize opportunities inherent in them—to become successful business people. The successful businesswoman used her Appreciative Intelligence to see hidden potential in a piece of property and a situation of changing needs to realize business value.
Defining Appreciative Intelligence
Appreciative Intelligence is the ability to perceive the positive inherent generative potential within the present. Put in a simple way, Appreciative Intelligence is the ability to see the mighty oak in the acorn. Metaphorically, it is the ability to see more than the present existence of a small capped nut. It is the capacity to see a strong trunk and countless leaves as emerging from the nut as time unfolds. It is the ability to see a breakthrough product, top talent, or valuable solution of the future that is currently hidden in the present situation.
There are three components of Appreciative Intelligence:
Appreciating the positive
Seeing how the future unfolds from the present
Like a three-legged stool that cannot stand if a leg is missing, Appreciative Intelligence is not present without all its components. Each part is essential to the construct.
The first component of the intelligence we discuss in this book is the ability to perceive—to see, to interpret, to frame or reframe. Framing is the psychological process whereby a person intentionally views or puts into a certain perspective any object, person, context, or scenario. One of the most common examples of framing is that of calling a glass half empty or half full. Regardless of how the glass is described, the amount of water is the same; it is only the perspective that is different.
In any act of perception or reframing, a person is faced with a series of choices. He or she chooses to pay attention to one stimulus and, at least for the time being, to ignore the remaining stimuli. That decision is a judgment call, value-based in the sense that what gets focused on must have more value than what does not. Consider the scenario of the half-glass of water. Factors, such as whether the perceiver is an optimist or pessimist, dying of thirst or attempting to bail out a boat that is about to sink, will affect his or her value judgment of the amount of water. Using Appreciative Intelligence, the person consciously or unconsciously reframes what is in the present, thereby shifting to a new view of reality that leads to a new outcome, just as the Rotarians reframed polio eradication as an organizational, not medical, challenge.
Appreciating the Positive
Ask several people what it means to be appreciative. Some may refer to rising property value; another may recall that a "thank-you" note or recognition speech needs to be written. But most will have an accurate sense of what the word means and that subjective value is at play. In this book, the term appreciation specifically refers to a process of selectivity and judgment of something's positive value or worth. This is the second component of Appreciative Intelligence.
Consider the following scenario: You are browsing through an art exhibit at a museum while your friend is checking out a few paintings at a nearby flea market. You both see similar paintings by the same artist.
Assuming neither of you is an art critic, you are more likely to have a better appreciation of the painting than your friend has at the flea market. Because you are in the art museum, you have an appreciative mindset. Aware that an expert might have picked the painting as worthy of being displayed in the art gallery, you are intentionally looking for beauty in the painting. As you look intently, you see aspects of the painting you might have missed had you looked with a casual eye. Meanwhile, your friend might be looking for a bargain. She tries hard to discover some fault in the artwork in order to negotiate a lower price. It is reasonable to think that your friend is intentionally looking for deficits while you are trying to appreciate the picture. A cognitive psychologist would say that you are actually interpreting or reframing the details of the painting as beautiful or exquisite because of the appreciative context that has been created. In the end, both your friend and you find what you are looking for.
Similarly, successful people have a conscious or unconscious ability to view everyday reality—events, situations, obstacles, products, and people—with appreciation. Because they are reframing to see the positive, they often see talents or potential that others might miss.
Seeing How the Future Unfolds from the Present
The implication of the second component is that useful, desirable, or positive aspects already exist in the current condition of people, situations, or things, but sometimes they must be revealed, unlocked, or realized. People with high Appreciative Intelligence connect the generative aspects of the present with a desirable end goal. They see how the future unfolds from the present, the third component of Appreciative Intelligence. Many people have the ability to reframe and the capacity to appreciate the positive. Yet, if they don't see the concrete ways that the possibilities of the present moment could be channeled, they have not developed their Appreciative Intelligence.
Consider an instance in the story of Brownie Wise, the marketing genius of Tupperware, who was building a sales force in the 1950s to sell plastic home products through home parties. Once, a poorly dressed woman showed up in a coal delivery truck to talk with Wise about becoming a Tupperware dealer. Wise reframed the context by ignoring the appearance of the woman and intentionally focusing on the positive, the "desire in her eyes." Furthermore, Wise had the ability to see how the future could unfold from the present as she saw what could generate success—the woman's strong determination—and a concrete way to realize it—by booking parties, demonstrating products, and selling Tupperware.
Excerpted from Appreciative Intelligence by Tojo Thatchenkery Carol Metzker Copyright © 2006 by Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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