Get your Appreciative Inquiry process started off right with this quick and easy guide to defining an affirmative topic

problemspaceThe affirmative topic for an Appreciative Inquiry is important – ‘fateful’ as many books about AI describe it – because the topic sets the frame for what you will be inquiring into. So it’s important that it’s defined in the right way. We’ll look at the criteria that a well-defined topic needs to meet, and then suggest a quick and easy way to turn a problem statement into an affirmative topic.

What is an affirmative topic? It’s a statement or question that defines the area you want to improve, in a way that is most likely to engage people, get them thinking in productive and creative ways, and lead to a successful result.

When to use an affirmative topic?

Even when you’re not embarking on a formal Appreciative Inquiry process, and even when you just want to improve something as an individual in your personal life, you will find affirmative topics can transform your view of problems that have previously seemed unsolvable, and open up paths to solutions you would not otherwise have thought of.

Simple problems are easy to solve by traditional methods – trace the causes of the problem back to their sources, and fix them. But for problems in complex systems – and anything involving human beings is a complex system – very often the attempt to fix a problem will cause other problems elsewhere in the system.

By contrast, defining an affirmative topic directs your attention to anywhere but the problem – and it’s outside the ‘problem space’ where you are going to find your solutions. By making you think about your desired future rather than zeroing in on the (assumed) problem with narrower and narrower focus, it directs your attention to what the system as a whole will look like when you achieve your solution.

So if every attempt to fix a problem has ended in failure (or caused other problems elsewhere), or if your standard methods for improvement are hitting diminishing returns, maybe it’s time to try defining the opportunity for improvement as an affirmative topic.

These are the characteristics of a good affirmative topic:

They are positively stated, so they are about where you want to get to rather than what you want to get away from. You should take any ‘problem language’ out of the topic, and use ‘solutions language’ about the desired future instead.

So if your team meetings are universally agreed to be time-consuming and unproductive, your topic wouldn’t be “Why are our team meetings so rubbish?” but rather something like “How do we hold productive team meetings?” or “How do we use our time for team meetings better?”

This is not (as naive critics of Appreciative Inquiry sometimes think) about pretending that problems don’t exist. Rather, it’s about addressing and thinking about the problem in a way that is most likely to generate solutions to it.

They are relevant and engaging, and matter to all the people involved in the AI process – not just senior management. Ideally, affirmative topics are expressed in simple language that everyone can understand (“as simple as possible, but no simpler” as Einstein is supposed to have said).

So if you want your company to be more competitive, you probably wouldn’t define your topic as “How do we better leverage our assets to increase shareholder return?” but more something like “How do we become the most respected company in our field?” or “How do we become the best company to work for?”

They don’t presuppose a solution, and leave open the possibility of many possible ways to the desired future. If a particular anticipated solution is already built into the topic, it excludes other paths to a solution – which might actually turn out to be better.

So if you want to reduce production defects, you wouldn’t formulate your topic as “How do we raise quality levels by improving the inspection process?” (or “by sourcing better components” or “by training the workforce better” – each of these only addresses one potential source of problems while neglecting others).

Such a format for your inquiry assumes that you already have an idea what the problem is. If the source of the problems is currently unknown to you and in some other area that you haven’t considered, you will never find it with a topic that just looks at the inspection process.
If you make your topic “How do we raise quality levels?” instead, it leaves open many possible routes to improvement and doesn’t prejudge a solution.

The quick way to define an affirmative topic

If you’re starting with a problem, ask “What do we want instead of that?” and put it into a question starting with “How can we….? or “How do we…?”

Make sure it has the qualities of a good affirmative topic listed above, and you’re done!

Examples of how to turn a problem statement into an affirmative topic:

Problem StatementPossible Affirmative Topic
High level of customer complaintsHow do we delight the customer?
Low staff moraleHow do we become a place where people are proud and excited to come to work
Reports of bullyingHow do we promote harmony among all our employees?
Losing market share (where you've identified an ageing product line as a definite cause)How do we innovate to leapfrog our competitors?
Poor quality productsHow do we achieve world-beating quality?

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Appreciative Inquiry: How To Define Your Affirmative Topic Effectively

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