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Reading the excellent book Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, I was struck on the very first page* by this story of how an appreciative approach can get results without having to go through a formal 5D or 4D process.

In the story that opens Chapter 1, the acting director of a unit in a medical center in New England responded to a report of declining patient satisfaction by sending the report to her nurse managers and emailing them an assignment for their next management meeting:

Pay attention. Look for what staff members are doing that contributes to patient satisfaction. Come prepared to share a story of a best practice you’ve seen during the week.

From Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres

The previous director had tried to deal with the problem by finding fault and telling them to do better or else. Meeting after meeting had focused on the problem, but nothing ever changed.

So initially the nurse managers were confused by the change in approach. But when they met and started sharing their stories of best practice, something changed. They became excited by possibilities, and analysed the stories for strengths and best practices they could replicate.

This was the start of a new approach – essentially, looking for and having conversations about what was working, even though the overall picture was poor. The renewed enthusiasm of the nurse managers, coupled with identifying and sharing replicable factors that contribute to success, led to improved quality, morale, and patient satisfaction results in the subsequent quarters.

So if your team is facing a problem that conventional problem-solving methods can’t resolve, and you don’t feel you have the time or perhaps the confidence to conduct a full-blown 4D Appreciative Inquiry session, try these steps:

  1. Assume that some things are working, no matter how bad the indicators shown by an ‘objective’ assessment. This assumption is important – it means you will ask people ‘What is working?’ rather than ‘Is there anything that’s working?’ – to which it would be all too easy for them to answer ‘No’ if they don’t think of something straight away.
  2. Ask your team to bring in and share stories of best practice and what’s working.
  3. Have them analyse the stories to look for common themes, ideas and best practices that could be replicated more widely, and the factors that support success.
  4. Implement the ideas coming out of this process, knowing that some of them may work better than others. Drop the actions that aren’t working and build on the ones that are.

Above all, change the conversations that you have with your team so that they’re about what’s working and possibilities, rather than problems, failure, and blame.

* After you get through the introduction

Get the book – Conversations Worth Having

Next in this series: Conversational Appreciative Inquiry!

How To Use Appreciative Inquiry Without A Formal 5D Cycle (1): Ask For Best Practice Stories

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