Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an attractive approach to change for many reasons; it generates results fast, it engages people, it liberates creativity, it moves away from ‘blame culture’, and – not least – it feels good to focus on the positive.
Even so, AI requires a considerable investment of time and resources, and perhaps a shift of attitude on the part of senior management, if it is to succeed. For simple problems it can be overkill, and a more traditional ‘problem-focused’ approach (diagnose the problem, find the cause, design a solution, and implement it) may be all you need.
So when should you choose Appreciative Inquiry as your problem-solving approach? When one or more of these circumstances are present:
Traditional problem-solving works well in simple systems, or for problems where there is a single, easily-identifiable cause. Where there are multiple causes, or the system is complex, it becomes more productive to identify what is already working, and build on it.
The problem keeps coming back
Recurrent problems suggest that the fixes already tried are not addressing root causes, or that some causes have been missed. Even if all the causes are identified, the interactions between them may be too complex to predict that any given fix could guarantee a lasting resolution.
Attempted fixes make things worse
In complex systems, the fix designed to solve a problem in one area can cause worse problems to emerge later, or in other areas. Systemic effects and time-lags can lead to unforeseen consequences. For example, when New Labour came to power in the UK in 1997, one of their campaign pledges was to shorten hospital waiting lists. They set targets for the times that patients should have to wait for operations. These targets were met – but unfortunately, by focusing on the targets, hospital managements took their eye off other untargeted factors that were at least as important, such as keeping the wards clean. The result was a surge in ‘hospital superbugs’ such as MRSA and E. coli. In some cases the focus on targets even distracted some hospitals from keeping their patients alive (as in the Stafford Hospital scandal that came to light in the late 2000’s).
No clear diagnosis or course of action emerges
By their nature, complex problems are harder to diagnose. Where no single cause can be identified, this suggests that a different approach is needed. Similarly, where every proposed fix seems to be outweighed by potential downsides, it’s worth turning attention away from the problem and looking for the places where the problem isn’t happening. These will be where the seeds of solutions are already starting to grow.
Something else to watch out for
Given that we have a tendency as human beings to not look beyond the first answer to the question “What is causing this?”, we need to bear in mind the danger of jumping to ‘premature solutions’ and missing other contributing causes. So whenever you think you have identified ‘the’ cause of a problem, it’s worth asking “What else has to be present for this problem to exist? What other contributing causes are there?”
If the problems your organisation is facing meet more than one of these conditions, a facilitated Appreciative Inquiry approach may be what you need.