Read almost any textbook on Appreciative Inquiry and you will find a frustrating vagueness about what to actually do in the Design stage. This stage, which follows on from the Discovery of what is already working well, and the Dream about how the organisation could be at its best, is generally agreed to be about designing the “organisational architecture” – the new systems, groupings and information flows which will make it possible to have more ‘peak experiences’.

But how to go about it? The advice is generally to keep the Dream in mind, think about what systems etc will be needed, and then devise one or more “Provocative Propositions” – inspirational, stretching, present-tense statements which describe the organisation at its best, and give people something to live up to.

Actually doing this in practice, especially in a whole-organisation “AI summit” where there is limited time and most of the participants are not trained AI practitioners, is challenging. Particularly as if taken literally, the textbooks would have you come down one or two levels of detail from the big-picture vision described in the Dream stage to the nuts and bolts of systems design – and then soar up again to the realms of metaphor to craft your provocative proposition!

Here’s an alternative that we have been playing with – I expect there are other AI practitioners that do something similar already, but you wouldn’t know it from the published books on AI that I’m aware of. I’m talking specifically about how to set up the Design stage in the AI summit format – whether this is for a Positive Engagement event for the whole of an organisation and its stakeholders, or for a small teambuilding away day.

1. Possibility Statements

After the creative expression of the Dream (as a collage, presentation, living sculpture or whatever – people can get very creative), ask the participants to craft a “possibility statement” (an alternative and I think more user-friendly name for “provocative proposition” – you can call it whatever will best convey what it’s for and will best fit the organisational culture). Here are the criteria that we used for a recent event for the fine social enterprise and recruitment consultancy Vedas in Burnley, UK:

To me, it makes sense to craft Provocative Propositions right after the Dream – people are still inspired, and the Propositions are at a similar big-picture level of abstraction to the Dream vision. The Propositions can then act as a bridge into the more detailed work of the Design stage, as participants collaborate in designing what has to be in place to make the various elements of the Dream actually happen.

2. Using “Fishbone Analysis” in the Design stage

Usually, fishbone analysis or “Ishikawa diagrams” are used to find the root cause of problems – as in this illustration from

Please restrain your horror at the use of the word “problem”, because we are going to use it for pretty much the opposite – an inclusive process to find the route to the Dream.

For each table of 4-8 people in the AI summit, we give them a blank fishbone diagram on a sheet of flipchart paper. In the ‘head’ of the diagram, they write the part of the Dream that they want to bring into reality.

In the boxes at the end of each ‘spine’ of the fishbone, they write an area for which action needs to be taken to make the Dream happen. You can leave this up to the participants, or you can give them preprinted ‘classic’ Fishbone categories like: Equipment, Process, People, Materials, Environment, and Management.

Along each spine of the fishbone, participants place post-it notes with the actions that have to be taken, or the things that have to be in place, to make that area support the Dream goal. Our tip is to use a different colour post-it for each area, and use small notes so there’s enough room for them on the diagram. The process will go faster if smaller groups of participants take an area or two each – but make sure everyone gets to see the end results for each area, to make sure nothing is missed.

Appreciative fishbone diagram
The beauty of this process is that it’s inclusive – everyone gets to contribute – and it’s fast. A team can rough out what’s needed in a very short time.

3. Turning the fishbone into an action plan

At this point the design elements have been identified, but dependencies have not, and the elements will probably not be in time order. To turn the fishbones into plans, we stick several sheets of flipchart paper to a wall, and establish a series of horizontal lines – one for each area on the ‘spines’ of the fishbone.

Participants can then transfer the sticky note for each element they have identified onto a timeline, in the order dictated by any dependencies that they identify between the design elements. When the timeline for each Dream component is laid out, it’s easy for participants to see dependencies between the different timelines too, and adjust the placing of the individual actions accordingly.

"Swim lanes" diagram

Timescales and milestones can be added later, probably by a smaller team with responsibility making the goals happen.

I hope that’s given you some ideas – if you use them, or something similar, please share your experiences by leaving a comment.

Appreciative Inquiry: better ways of doing the Design stage

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