Appreciative Inquiry is a positive model for helping people, teams and organisations to develop. AI focuses on what works. It invites people:
To clarify when they have performed brilliantly.
To clarify the principles they followed to perform brilliantly.
To clarify how they can follow these principles – plus add other elements – to perform brilliantly in the future.
This approach can involve thousands of people in an organisation. They are asked to share their ideas – not simply participate in ‘training’ – to help shape the organisation’s future.
People like the approach. They build on when they have performed brilliantly and aim to keep developing. AI has a track record of delivering outstanding success.
David Cooperrider helped to pioneer AI in the early 1980s. He is now a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
At that time he was a 24-year-old doing his doctorate and was focusing on organisational development work at The Cleveland Clinic. David began with ‘traditional change management’ questions, looking at ‘deficits’ and ‘gaps’ in performance.
Then something happened. Impressed by the positive co-operation and innovation he found in the hospital, David changed tack. He began focusing more on people’s strengths.
He asked employees about their best experiences in work. People found that revisiting their successes ignited their desire to create an even better future.
David and his team had discovered a gold mine. He asked the Clinic’s Chairman, Dr William Kiser, if he could focus totally on this positive approach. The Chairman encouraged him to go ahead. David and his project supervisor, Suresh Srivastva, would later write:
“Human systems grow in the direction of what people study.”
This proved the case at the Cleveland Clinic. The staff loved learning from their past successes and wanted to follow these principles in the future. They translated this into tackling specific challenges and produced concrete results.
Diana Whitney also helped to shape the framework that became Appreciative Inquiry. Working with David Cooperrider, Diana co-authored the first book on the topic called Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change.
Since then she has became a leader in the field and authored or co-authored many books, several with Amanda Trosten-Bloom. These include The Power of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership.
The AI approach starts by defining a challenge that people want to tackle. For example:
How can we provide great customer service?
How can we develop successful new products?
How can we communicate well inside our organisation?
People then follow the 4D cycle that goes through the stages of Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny. (Some people call this last stage Delivery.)
The starting point when tackling any challenge is to formulate certain questions. These help:
To define the challenge and the direction in which people channel their energy.
To define the real results they eventually achieve.
The art of Appreciative Inquiry revolves
around the art of asking the right questions
“But you can’t frame every challenge in a positive way?” somebody may say. Some situations are difficult, but this is where AI excels. David believes it is vital to define the topic in a way that inspires people to want to achieve the goal.
The ‘Definition’ process is one that some people see as the ‘Fifth D’ in the AI framework. It comes before focusing on Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny.
Defining the topic
This is the process that AI calls ‘Affirmative Topic Choice.’ Creative people, for example, often frame their challenges in a positive way. They may move from saying:
“How can I stop feeling bad?” to: “How can I start feeling good?”
“How can we stop arguing?” to: “How can we, as far as possible, find a ‘win-win’?”
“How can reduce sexual harassment?” to: “How can we encourage women and men to work together successfully?”
David was actually confronted by this final topic. One day he received a phone call from a consultant who was helping a company to tackle sexual harassment.
During the previous two years the employees had been attending training designed to eliminate this issue: but the levels of sexual harassment were actually increasing, as were the lawsuits against the company.
The consultant in charge of the gender and diversity training asked David:
"How would you take an appreciative approach to sexual harassment?"
David asked about the real results to achieve. The reply was:
"We want to dramatically cut the incidence of sexual harassment. We want to solve this huge problem."
Going deeper, he asked what this would look like. The consultant said:
“What we really want is to see the development of a new century organization – a model of high quality cross-gender relationship in the work place!”
Though this wording was somewhat awkward, it clarified a positive picture of success. So eventually the questions posed to people during the following Discovery stage were along the lines of:
“When have women and men have worked together successfully in the company? What did they do right then? How can we follow those principles in the future?”
The company introduced a small pilot programme on this theme. This exceeded everybody’s expectations. Hundreds of pairs and teams nominated themselves to provide stories illustrating men and women working together successfully in the company.
Defining the topic is crucial. It creates the framework within which people can channel their positive energy.
Once the topic is chosen, they can then embark on the ‘Discovery’ part of the AI process. Here are some themes for defining the topic.
The Discovery phase taps into the positive core – the life-giving forces of a team, organisation or community. AI can be applied in teams or across literally thousands of people. (The latter is sometimes called an AI Summit.)
AI invites people to discover what works. It explores the stories, strengths and successful principles already within the system. Here is a framework you can use during the Discovery stage and, if appropriate, to present these findings back to the team.
AI is different from most ‘visioning’ approaches in a crucial way. It builds on the stories, strengths and successful principles that have already emerged. People are then doing several things.
They are building on what they already know works. They are building on the organic soul of the organisation.
They are then more confident about extrapolating these principles into the future – seeing how these might be expressed in the picture of success.
People may be dreaming but, because they are following successful principles, they have a hunch they can deliver. This is because they have ‘started from within’.
They know what works: something which is rooted in both their intellect and intuition.
AI practitioners find the Dream and Design parts sometimes start to overlap. This is okay, because there is often a moving forwards and backwards between the two elements.
Here is a framework you can use during the Dream stage and, if appropriate, present these findings to the team.
The Dream is the ‘What’ – the real results to achieve – and the ‘Why’ – the benefits of achieving the goal. The Design is the ‘How’ – the strategies and systems for achieving the goal. People ask questions such as:
“What are the key strategies we can follow to give ourselves the greatest chance of success? What support will people need to do the job? ‘Who’ will need to do what and ‘When’? What structures and systems need to be in place? How can people get some early successes?”
Sometimes this calls for radical approaches to redesigning an organisation. David explains:
“People are encouraged to ‘wander beyond’ the data with the essential question being this:
‘What would our organization look like if it were designed in every way possible to maximize the qualities of the positive core and enable the accelerated realization of our dreams?’
“When inspired by a great dream we have yet to find an organization that did not feel compelled to design something very new and very necessary.”
Here is a framework you can use during the Design stage and, if appropriate, present these findings to the team.
Destiny – Sometimes called ‘Delivery’
The Destiny phase translates the dream into reality. People throw themselves into the work and get some early wins. Maintaining the momentum is crucial: so it is vital to have follow-up meetings.
If you are running such follow-up sessions, for example, start by giving the big picture.
Remind people of their ‘Discoveries’, Dream and Design. Then invite people to present the following:
The specific things they have delivered in, for example, the past two months towards achieving the goal.
The specific things they plan to deliver in the next two months.
The challenges they face, their plans for tackling these and the support they would like to do the job.
The other topics they would like to explore regarding how to achieve the goal.
Celebrate the successes and develop the habit of constant improvement. People will then get into a virtuous circle.
Encourage them to generate more stories, build on their strengths and follow their successful principles. This will increase the chances of fulfilling the organisation’s Destiny.
Does AI work? The answer is: “Yes.” Starting from the work in Cleveland, it has spread far and wide. Its philosophy has been translated into action in both the commercial and ‘not-for-profit’ sectors. The results have been outstanding.
Contribution to the strengths approach
AI has made an enormous contribution to the strengths philosophy. For example:
It has applied the strengths questions – such as revisiting one’s best performances – to working with teams, organisations and communities.
It has enabled many thousands of people to build on their strengths, follow their successful principles and achieve their picture of success.
It has shown great generosity of spirit in the way it has shared the knowledge and tools with other people – particularly in vehicles such as the Appreciative Inquiry Commons web site. This has enabled millions of people to access and apply the knowledge in their own ways.
David Cooperrider and his team started something special at the Cleveland Clinic. Appreciative Inquiry shows us how to build on our strengths, follow our successful principles and achieve our picture of success.
Here are some links to more information about Appreciative Inquiry.
* The Appreciative Inquiry Commons.
This site provides an excellent overview of AI.
* David Cooperrider.
Here is a link to David’s biography and work.
* Diana Whitney and the Corporation for Positive Change.
You can find out more about Diana’s work and that of the Corporation for Positive Change at the following link.
http://www.positivechange.org/* Interviews about AI.
This link leads to interviews with Diana Whitney and others about AI.
* The AI Practitioner.
This site provides information about The International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry.