If you know about Appreciative Inquiry, the chances are that you’ll be familiar with its five guiding principles (the Constructionist, Poetic, Simultaneity, Anticipatory, and Positive principles as set out by David Cooperrider in, for example, the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook). Some more principles have started to emerge as AI consultants have refined their ideas in the light of practical experience. These are usually known as ’emergent principles’. While I’m wary of ‘principle creep’ and of over-theorising what is in essence a very simple, useable method, it’s worth examining these new principles for the value they add.
This principle says that people and organisations thrive when people are free to choose the type of contribution they make, and how much they want to put into it. Treating people as volunteers like this liberates their enthusiasm, their passion and their desire to contribute to something bigger than just themselves.
It also adds an element of democracy to work culture – a participatory democracy that goes beyond the somewhat tarnished representative democracy model that is the best that is on offer in the political sphere.
Why does free choice liberate motivation and enthusiasm? It fulfils the human desire to participate, contribute and make a difference that author and activist Rebecca Solnit finds in activist movements and in the way communities self-organise in the face of natural and man-made disasters:
“In those moments, I’ve discovered in myself and in others a deep happiness, an unknown desire that’s finally fulfilled to be purposeful, to be a part of history and society, to have a voice.”
Conversely, where people don’t have free choice, and particularly where they are forced to participate in changes that they don’t necessarily agree with, we find resistance, either active or passive. The brightest and most energetic people leave for more congenial workplaces, and the rest mutter under their breath and dig their heels in.
Of course, allowing people free choice demands a degree of trust in their ability to choose wisely that will feel uncomfortable, conditioned as we are by the command-and-control ethos that still governs most of the education system, government, and corporate culture. But when implemented well, the Free Choice Principle can enable spectacular results.
The classic example is probably Brazil’s Semco group, where there are no set working hours or job descriptions, workers choose their supervisors, and employees choose to work on the projects that interest them – if their co-workers will have them. Semco’s ‘seven-day weekend’ approach sounds like a recipe for chaos to observers raised on organisational structure charts and five-year plans, yet it reports revenue growth of up to 40% annually. Trusting people pays dividends.
As with any change, most people will want to start small and see what results a cautious implementation of the Free Choice Principle will bring, becoming more ambitious as your confidence grows. Where could you start implementing the Free Choice Principle?