Appreciate Inquiry (AI) is the study of what breathes life into organizations, teams, and individuals when they are functioning at their very best. AI is the brainchild of organizational psychologist David Cooperrider: By definition it rests upon the principle that an organization will grow in whichever direction its members choose to focus and direct their attention.
Here at Adventure Associates, we like to use AI in our team building and workshop events to uncover what is working in an organization, instead of solely focusing on what isn’t. Often this focus on strengths can create the type of growth that organizations are after more effectively than trying to fix weaknesses.
And while it sounds like a lofty, metaphysical quest (and at its heart, it is), AI is an approach grounded in a guided process of discovery and discussion. Here’s how the process works—and how it can spark positive change in the workplace.
Change the Questions, Change the Organization
Appreciative inquiry begins by changing the questions, so as to discover a positive organizational “core.” Instead of approaching change through a critical lens of “What are the problems that must be solved?” AI prioritizes appreciation over criticism. The goal of AI’s discovery questions is to bring to light the best of what already is. Imagine you’re a logistics company trying to maximize profits. Instead of focusing on the leasts profitable routes your
Storytelling is the primary tool in this initial stage. Members are directed, for example, to recall and recount organizational success stories. Stories may be general, or they may highlight focus areas like peak moments of leadership or an outstanding team effort.
“We often feed the critic gourmet meals and starve the rest,” the anthropologist Angeles Arrien wrote. AI recognizes the human (and particularly the Western) tendency to “feed the critic” by turning a naked light bulb on what is flawed and what is broken. The habits and systems that are the weakest will always be the first ones to grab (and hold) our attention. Yet, by instead crafting an “unconditional positive question” that focuses on strengths and successes, the AI approach seeks to fortify a system’s positive potential.
Stop Solving Problems. Imagine What Could Be
What we focus on tends to grow. The next step of Appreciative Inquiry is to seek to grow the successes by generating insights about why they occurred.
We live in a society that demands concrete, scientific answers for why things go wrong. The Western mindset applies rigorous scientific inquiry to learn the causes of a disease, the structural weakness in a failed levee, or the reasons for a plane crash. And we must use such methods to determine the causes of disease and disaster. AI, however, offers an alternative approach.
Most problems in workplaces and communities are not in fact life-or-death issues that cry out for clinical analysis. When individuals dedicate their primary focus to studying all that’s not working and why, the result can be a cynical and demoralized community. Appreciative Inquiry directs organizations to turn their appreciative fact-finding process into a guided exercise of envisioning potential (based on past successes) rather than relentlessly unpacking problems.
The question at the “envisioning” stage is this: “Now that we’ve identified the best of what already exists, what are we capable of becoming?”
Have a Dialogue About What Should Be
When you know what’s possible, you can design the future. After members of the community or team envision what might be, the discussion shifts to what should be. AI’s notion of collaborating in the design of an ideal replaces the traditional problem-oriented approach, in which a host of possible solutions to problems is presented and sifted.
At this stage, members dream together about the future direction of the organization. But the dreaming comes with a “construction” process as well: Participants develop clear statements identifying specific elements they wish to see in their idealized organization. Because of the prior stages, members recognize the elements they wish to introduce are both possible and feasible. And the democratic nature of the design process nurtures a sense of ownership among all members.
Innovate What Will Be
With a model in place, collective experimentation can begin. Delivery is the goal in this final stage of the AI process—and the guiding question becomes, “What will make our plan sustainable?” The AI innovation stage replaces the traditional concluding “action plan.” It is the culmination of the shared discovery, visualization, and co-creation process—and the AI methodology guides members in making the model they have consented to sustainable.
Appreciative Inquiry in the Workplace
Appreciative Inquiry is used most commonly in the workplace as a change management methodology. By its very nature, AI is interventionist and consensus-building—and it has been used effectively by many organizations to pave the way for strategic change. AI also has important applications, though, in leadership development, team-building, and mentorship.
Discovering Leadership Potential
AI, in its focus on individuals at their best and proudest, leads naturally to identification of leadership potential—an area that may be overlooked during problem-oriented discussions.
The Appreciative Inquiry model is used often for team-building, especially in retreat settings. The discovery process can make it an eye-opening process for coworkers who have only a superficial knowledge of one another. Organizational psychologist and consultant Gervase Bush recounts a retreat experience in which a group of eight employees who had spent 30 years with their organization shared stories of their peak experiences. Despite their long work history together, the members had been unaware of one another’s proudest accomplishments.
Remember that AI can be applied to employee feedback as well. Instead of using feedback sessions to focus on weaknesses or areas of improvement, make a concious effort to discuss areas of strength. Consider the positive ramifications of employees playing to their natural strengths within your organization. Motivation and engagement will surely improve.
AI enjoys growing popularity as a foundation for mentorship programs, due to its focus on reinforcing talents and strengths. The methodology is used in workplace situations as diverse as academic advising, student teacher training, nursing programs, and corporate leadership development.
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