The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them.
– Sue Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry
The bike was the key. It was liberation. It was the only way to get to the shopping centers with all their pre-teen allure: Montgomery Donuts, the movie theater, dark alcoves and roaming packs of boys. By way of the broad and quiet neighborhood streets, I could meander up to the busy stretch of what passed as “town,” spend a few bucks on comic books and Twix, and feel like I had really gone somewhere.
I have never been very good at riding a bike. I wobble widely. When another rider calls, “On your left,” I throw a gaze over my left shoulder and end up veering directly into her path. This is still the case, despite several decades of practice.
At 11, I was as already a full-grown klutz. For some reason on this one particular day, my sister and I chose to take the more direct yet less forgiving route to the edge of our neighborhood. We turned ourselves out along a roaring stretch of Old Georgetown Road. Six lanes of frenzied traffic whipped past as we made our way to Wildwood Shopping Center for our sanitized version of adolescent mayhem. We rode on the narrow sidewalks, confident in our immortality and in the protective capacity of those three inches of curb.
At every intersection, a handy little dip in the curb for folks on axles – strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards and the like – ferried us smoothly down to the road and back up again. I am sure the sidewalk engineering choice was not intended for cyclists, but considering how few pedestrians actually frequented those loud and dangerous thoroughfares, we made happy use of them. I could zoom down the sidewalk, slowing just enough to make sure no one was turning off the main road onto a neighborhood street, and buzz right through the intersection up onto the opposite path. I was too poor a cyclist to learn how to “pop a wheelie,” as it was called. The sidewalk design saved me slowing to a stop, walking, and lifting my bike up over the curb.
I was zipping joyously along, picking up speed as I became more confident in my ten-speed prowess. I looked ahead. One of the intersections neared. My stomach leapt into my throat. An enormous telephone pole was rammed right into the sidewalk just beyond the opposite ramp. I saw it. I could not slow. I took its measure, and I knew I had enough room to veer around it. I watched it and I locked my gaze on it, calculating the distance, determined to miss it.
My bike flew out from under me. I body-slammed into the pole, face pressed against the splintered wood and old staples. My arms wrapped around its girth as my poor bicycle wobbled and fell into the gutter. My sister screeched to a halt, whipped around, and burst out laughing. “You are so weird! How could you not see that pole?”
I slid down and did my best not to burst into tears. We rescued my bike and made the rest of our limping way to the strip mall.
How could I not see that pole? That was the wrong question. I did see the pole. I was looking right at the pole! My question was this: how could I crash into something I was working so hard to avoid?
Anyone who has put a kid on training wheels or taught a teenager to drive knows the answer. You do not look at where you do not want to go. The gaze is more powerful than any of us really understands. Look, and your mind, posture, and even behavior will veer in the direction of your vision. For this reason, any student of the road learns to look at where she intends to go. She looks ahead.
My sister, with her natural physical aptitude and addiction to speed, had learned this without knowing how to articulate it. She focused on the gap and squeezed herself through it. I fixed on the obstacle and met it.
Today, in the face of several mounting so-called problems at work and at home, I needed a reminder of how to direct my gaze at the open road instead of the flashing lights and gaping potholes. I dipped back into Appreciative Inquiry’s fount of refreshing thinking.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a tool that has gained its foothold in the worlds of Organizational Development and leadership practice, offers up practical approaches for drawing upon the power and possibility in people and systems. Work, love, parenting, friendships – hell, life itself – all are riddled challenges. This is especially true if they are seen as such. Pulling from AI’s handy toolbox is a great way to training the mind away from problems and towards capacity when trying to build a way forward.
AI 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. . . AI 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.
– David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change
Through a series of questions about the system when it is at its best, AI allows participants to give voice to stories that generate power and animate dormant resources for building towards a vision. Instead of a problem to be solved, the task at hand is a mystery to be explored full of opportunities to be discovered. The people involved are rich sources of insight. It is a choice to perceive of things this way.
Today, I began again to wean myself from panic, and returned to the practice of asking the generative question. Little by little, the answers offer up source material for telling a new kind of story. Learning how to do this takes intention. I am as much a klutz here as I am on two wheels, but, as ever, learning is exhilarating. (More on the specifics of AI and the questions can be found here.)
Dissect a fear and watch it thrive. Describe despair and feel it spill out of its container. Delineate the barriers to your greatness, and notice how quickly they harden into cinder-block and razor wire.
In the inverse lies solace: You can make real the very thing to which you attend. Ask the right sorts of questions, and watch the future bloom.
Be careful where you set your sights. Yours is an awesome power. That telephone pole is there, for sure. But so is the gap. The open path has been there all along. Hop back on the bike. No matter how you wobble, the way ahead is waiting to meet you.