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Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way of looking at organisational change which focuses on identifying and doing more of what is already working, rather than looking for problems and trying to fix them. It makes rapid strategic change possible by focusing on the core strengths of an organisation and then using those strengths to reshape the future.
AI is a participative learning process to identify and spread best practice. It is also a way of managing and working that encourages trust, reduces defensiveness and suspicion, and helps to establish strong working relationships quickly.
AI was developed by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the mid-eighties. His wife Nancy, an artist, educated him about the “appreciative eye” – an idea that assumes that in every piece of art there is beauty. AI applies this principle to business.
How Appreciative Inquiry Works
The key feature of this approach is that it uses existing strengths, achievements and successes – the aspects of people’s work that they are proud of, that motivate them, and that are getting good results – as a foundation for a credible vision of the future, and a launching pad to reach that future vision. It does not ignore past failures, but helps people to collectively get into a more positive and therefore more creative frame of mind to come up with ideas for improvement.
The very act of asking a question influences the state of mind of the person who is asked. Because teams, organisations and societies move toward what they persistently ask questions about, an Appreciative Inquiry is the investigation of those things that are most effective within an organisation or any other sort of human system.
Once we have identified this “positive core” and linked it directly to a strategic agenda, changes not previously thought possible can be rapidly achieved while at the same time building enthusiasm, confidence and energy to get things done.
Comparison With Problem-Focused Approaches
The AI Change Process
Typical AI Project Start-Up
- Choose the topic: combine themes from generic interviews with research questions
- Agree on desired outcomes and critical success factors
- Agree on how to get there
- Develop draft interview protocol
- Practice interviews; develop interview guidelines
- Plan for collecting & “analysing” the data
- Plan for how the process will drive change.
Six Generic Questions To Start
- What have been your best experiences at work? A time when…
- What do you value about… yourself, work, organisation.
- What do you think is the core life-giving factor or value of your organisation –which it wouldn’t be the same without?
- If you had three wishes for your organisation, what would they be?
- What achievements are you (and/or your team) proud of?
- Apart from the money, what makes it worth coming into work?
Why It Works
- It doesn’t focus on changing people, which leads to relief that the message isn’t about what they’ve done wrong or have to stop doing.
- Instead, people get into a positive, energised state because you’re focusing on what’s good about their work.
- It invites people to engage in building the kinds of organisations and communities that they want to live in.
- It helps everyone see the need for change, explore new possibilities, and contribute to solutions.
- It’s easier to see your vision of the future vividly when it has roots in your past experiences, rather than trying to start with a blank canvas
- It means you won’t be throwing out the good stuff that’s already there when you start to build your new organisation.
- Through alignment of formal and informal structures with purpose and principles, it translates shared vision into reality and belief into practice.
- In every human system, something works.
- What we focus on, and the language we use, becomes our reality.
- Reality is created in the moment and there are multiple realities. It is important to value differences.
- The act of asking questions influences the group in some way.
- People have more confidence & comfort to move to an unknown future when they carry forward parts of the past.
- What we carry forward should be what is best about the past.
As part of the “Dream” stage, we take the best of what currently happens and determine the circumstances that made that possible. We then write one or more “provocative propositions” which describe the idealised future in which the best happens all the time, and serve as a reminder to focus on it. Examples:
We anticipate the customer’s needs and we are continually learning about what they want.
My coaching practice is full and growing through word-of mouth recommendation.
Checklist for determining a provocative proposition:
- Is it provocative? Does it stretch, challenge or innovate?
- Is it developed from real-life examples?
- Do people feel passionate enough about it to defend it?
- Is it stated in bold, positive terms and in the present tense?
Provocative propositions resemble answers to the ‘miracle question’ in Solution-Focused Therapy – except that they are explicitly grounded in past successes, rather than being dreamed up from scratch.
Some NLP and Emotional Intelligence Perspectives
Because memory is state-dependent, people may need some time to get into a positive frame of mind to recall their best experiences.
Bear in mind “ecology” (knock-on effects and unintended consequences on the wider system) when choosing the topic – go for optimising the system rather than maximising a single variable.
When people focus on what’s working, they feel more positive. Positive emotions increase energy, creativity and resilience.
Appreciative Inquiry Resources
Download our free ‘What is Appreciative Inquiry?’ briefing paper.
Appreciative Inquiry: A Revolution In Change – PowerPoint presentation by Debbie Morris
The central resource for AI is the Appreciative Inquiry Commons. A Positive Revolution In Change: Appreciative Inquiry is a great introduction.
For Appreciative Inquiry facilitation and coaching, call Andy Smith on 07967 591 313.