Be bold, be provocative, be out there!

Last week, I delivered an Appreciative Inquiry workshop for a group of staff and service users who had come together to consider how they would deliver a seemingly impossible agenda around mental health equality.

Appreciative Inquiry, as some of you know, is a way of identifying the ‘best of what is’ and discovering assets within communities that may not be initially obvious or evident. It takes a hopeful and optimistic view based on the possibility of creating a new reality. At its heart is a fairly systematic process to create a unique and bold provocative statement of intent, which in turn shape actions and ultimately a preferred new destiny. Its sounds profound, doesn’t it? Indeed, most people who are subject to this kind of approach love it, feel very refreshed by it and often remark at how little we use it in other areas that are challenging in our world of work.

Last week was no exception to previous workshops, the efforts, the passion and willingness to engage made the day a success and as expected we came to a set of radical and decisive actions that provided a new and exciting reality for the group – the approach has never failed me yet. People left feeling uplifted, hopeful and eager to progress the next steps.

However, one area was a bit more of a struggle and at one point in the afternoon I had that sinking feeling and a little seed of doubt that we may not achieve our goals for the day. The need to create a Provocative Proposition is key and without this you struggle to progress further. As already described the Provocative Proposition is a clear statement of intent, it is your bold statement reflecting your values and assets, strengths and innate abilities. It’s the opportunity to dream about a new reality! We were struggling and I was trying to understand why?

At the point of needing to generate a statement, the group’s discussion became increasingly diverse and moved away from their objective. People were coming out with lots of new points, not previously considered. Also, participants were generating statements, using tried and tested language, that quite simply put wasn’t provocative or bold enough and would easily get lost in the sea of similar statements. Of course, we did eventually get to a statement, but not everyone felt that it was provocative enough and some still weren’t sure about the process (or possibly the point)- I needed to reflect, what had I missed or not noticed in my effort to move people through the process?

My first observation was that to develop a bold and provocative statement needs time – it doesn’t just happen. Heaps of dialogue is required, good facilitation, the ability to capture ‘quotable quotes‘ and plenty of false starts are required for a statement to emerge. When you do hit the right statement everyone generally gets quite spontaneously excited – you certainly know when you’ve got there!

Similarly, the ability to suspend your own preconceptions and cultural expectations of words, phrases and statements you should use is critical. To be truly radical and bold require you to create a form of words that are not widely used in other areas. In fact, it’s my experience that over familiar words and statements often leave people feeling they’re revisiting a rather well worn story and narrative rather than considering a new one for themselves. I clearly needed to place a stronger emphasis on this.

Finally, it is important for me and others to ask the question, who is the Provocative Proposition for? Many think it needs to be a mission statement or a marketing slogan, that it will have some public facing purpose or be used for a communications strategy or plan. All of these things may be the case, but actually in the moment, at that particular point in the process, all the Provocative Proposition is for is for the community developing it! It is theirs to own, to hold close to their hearts and to use to drive their actions and destiny. What happens to it after that of course is anyone’s guess.

So in summary, the one thing I do know about Provocative Propositions is that the seemingly simple statement on first glance can in fact develop huge significant through the dialogue it engenders, often to the point where the term becomes implicitly understood and used in common parlance. Take for examples words like Parity of Esteem – the words now used in England to achieve mental health equality with physical health or the slogan ‘just do it’ – we all know what underlies these statements!

Someone remarked at the end of the session last week – (my paraphrase) we need new words, new bold statements to describe how we are going to deliver mental health equality. If people don’t get it at first they soon will. “Let’s face it Brexit is now a word!”

Tim Coupland, The Wellbeing Collective.

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