‘Accentuate the Positives — A Brief Guide to Appreciative Inquiry’
This is a companion piece to ‘Build the Habit & Change for Good’ which is also available on Medium and in this piece, inspired by the view that life is complex and Organisations & Businesses no less so, I want to take a closer look at something that may help us all cut through the complexity in all areas of our lives.
I’m talking about Appreciative Inquiry and I find this to be an extremely effective Change technique that is surprisingly straight forward to apply & it is certainly something which every skilled Organisational Development Consultant & Coach, or what Ed Nevis might call a “Skilled Intervenor”, should have in their Tool Box!
It offers an exciting way to work with complexity, rethink and make sense of the world.
Appreciative Inquiry is a Change technique that approaches things from a positive vantage point and is predicated on the belief that focusing on positive events energizes and engages individuals.
For any Change Intervention in the workplace to be successful & at whatever level, this is precisely what you want to see happening as it will ultimately lead to more effective and enduring change: And although Appreciative Inquiry is more often presented as an Organisational intervention, it can also be extremely powerful when working with small groups and teams, &, more recently it has increasingly been used by myself in both Leadership Development and in personal Coaching contexts.
Appreciative Inquiry (or AI) was developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the 1980’s and is based on a belief that, “Organisations change in the direction in which they Inquire”.
So, for example, if an organization Inquires into problems, it will keep finding problems and ultimately that experience is debilitating and demoralizing and provides no guidance on how to grow an Organisation out of this mindset and into the mindset of becoming a Super Performing entity — But if that same Organisation attempts rather to appreciate what is best in itself it will discover more that is excellent, which in turn it can use to build the foundations for sustained & powerful change and success.
I think you might already start to see how powerful this could also be in a personal context, n’est pas?
So what’s the Story?
AI at its’ core is a fundamentally different way of looking at things — Turning things on their head, in fact.
Cooperrider & Srivastva illustrated this subversion by contrasting the view that,“Organising is a problem to be solved” with the Appreciative Inquiry proposition that,“Organising is a miracle to be embraced”.
So, AI is the cooperative search for the best in people, their Organisation and the world around them & this is very much part of the approach I take in my work with Organisations, Businesses, Individuals, Teams, Executive Boards and complex Multi-Agency Partnerships.
As regular followers of my pieces will know, I believe the practice of Organisational Development is about ensuring that the Organisation (a Complex Adaptive System) or a Businesses’ Whole System works in a balanced, coherent and optimal way. Also at AI’s core is the systemic discovery of what gives a system life when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological and human terms, &, I would very much see this as underpinning an Individuals, a Team, Board, Organisation or Businesses’ ability to be agile, resilient and Super Perform!
In contrast then to traditional Change Management strategies that focus on systemic deficiencies, AI provides liberating, far-reaching and sustainable change by focusing on liberating human energy and motivation.
Deficit-Based Change Strategies on the other hand place the emphasis on what is not working, seeking to identify problems that need to be fixed and often involve conducting a thorough analysis of key problems, together with isolating the root causes, developing strategies to address the deficiency and then executing the action plan.
A major problem with Deficit-Based approaches though is that they often fall far short of their intended target because of their inherent tendency to be backward looking and fixing the wrong things that happened in the past.
Little wonder then that people have difficulty being energized or engaging, when the focus is on fixing things that haven’t worked, rather than building on and future proofing things that have!
In the companion piece referenced at the start, I talk about Transformational Leadership & Transformational Change and suggest that Appreciative Inquiry techniques have a very important role to play in building the conditions for the success of any change initiative.
A Transformative Experience
According to proponents of Appreciative Inquiry the very act of discussing positive events is a transformative experience & by tapping into the narrative of an Organisation that is functioning at its’ best, Appreciative Inquiry unleashes information and commitment which combine to create a real energy for positive change. It also stimulates thinking on how to grow an Organisation into a thriving Super Performing entity.
In practice, because the execution of Appreciative Inquiry is always specific to the respective organisation, there are few hard-&-fast rules; the most basic rule however is that the process is keenly focused on positive events and experiences with the ultimate goal being to make these experiences more conscious, deliberate and prevalent.
Whilst any Inquiry into organisational life should be structured to include four key characteristics: Appreciation; Applicability; Provocation & Collaboration!
Richard Steel’s book, “Introduction To Appreciative Inquiry” offers a concise insight to the theory and practice of Appreciative Inquiry, &, Gervase Bushe has also written some useful stuff on using the technique with teams.
However, it is Diana Whitney and Amanda Trotsen-Bloom who offer a four-step model for implementing Appreciative Inquiry in their book, “The Power Of Appreciative Inquiry”.
So, what are these four-steps?
- Firstly there is the Discovery Stage: This is where the AI Champions meet both individually & with a broad cross-section of employees; Semi-structured 1–2–1 (or small group) interviews are used to gain insights into the, “Moments of achievement, creativity, operational best practice, core competencies and traditions/values” — The Artifacts and the Architecture of any culture that I’ve talked about in previous pieces on Authentic Leadership and the power of narrative & story telling in driving organisational, business and personal success: Both of these are also intrinsic to the culture of an Organisation and can be used to motivate and drive forward change: These interviews are used to isolate and elaborate on the,“Best of what is” and get participants orientated to the positive organisational attributes that define their Organisation and provide the Thematic Data (in common with Gestalt practice) to frame discussions in down-stream activities.
- Next is the Dream Stage: Ed Nevis in his book, “Organisational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach” argues that to be a skilled Organisational Development Intervenor, you need an ability to appreciate the importance of fantasy and imagination, &, to be able to work with dreams and narrative: The Dream Stage in the AI process involves getting participants together in large groups to share their individual stories, but it is more than just a collective sharing of achievements; this is an opportunity to envision possibilities that are big, bold and beyond the boundaries of what has been in the past and the goal of this stage is to crystallize all the stories into a bold, collective narrative of what participants want for the future through their working relationships, organisational relationships and relationships with the wider world.
- Third is the Design Stage: This is where the collection of stories, dreams, aspirations and best practices are synthesized into succinct statements of what participants want the Organisation to be as well as discussing what changes need to take place to realize the desired future; & finally
- The Destiny Stage: Which is where the actions identified during the Design Stage are acted upon and participants work together to determine what needs to be done to turn the dream into reality: The outcome of this stage should be to a set of high-impact strategies that will help the organisation move towards its envisioned future.
I think that Appreciative Inquiry is a highly effective tool for acting as a catalyst, enabling and supporting organisational and personal change and growth. It is a technique that liberates the hidden reservoir of positive energy in an organisation and shifts thinking from a retrogressive, necessarily limiting & energy-stealing deficit-based mindset.
It changes the nature of conversations and interactions which I believe is vital to achieving successful and enduring change, &, it strengthens social bonds and expands the web of relationships people have both within their organisation and beyond.
Paul Mudd is the author of ‘Uncovering Mindfulness: In Search Of A Life More Meaningful’ available on Amazon and www.bookboon.com; the ‘Coffee & A Cup of Mindfulness’ and the ‘Mindful Hacks For Mindful Living & Mindful Working’ series. He is also a Contributing Author to The Huffington Post and a Contributing Writer to Thrive Global. Through The Mudd Partnership he works with business leaders, organisations and individuals in support of change, leadership excellence, business growth, organistional and individual wellbeing and well doing, and introducing Mindfulness. He can be contacted at email@example.com and you can follow the continuing journey uncovering Mindfulness on Twitter @TheMindfulBook and at @Paul_Mudd