is Appreciative Inquiry?
how can it be adapted to fit your own environment?
Liz Mellish guides us through the AI
approach, which can result in participants influencing and determining
their own preferred futures.
v., 1. Valuing; the act of recognising the best in people or the world
around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes and potentials;
to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence)
to living systems. 2. To increase in value – for example, the economy
has appreciated in value. Synonyms: VALUING, PRIZING, ESTEEMING and
(kwir), v., 1. The act of exploration and discovery. 2. To ask questions;
to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. Synonyms: DISCOVERY,
SEARCH and SYSTEMATIC EXPLORATION, STUDY.
As organisations have evolved from the
centralised functional hierarchies of the 1970s, through decentralised
business units of the 1980s, to matrix structures of the early 1990s
to increasingly networked and ‘starburst’ arrangements for the new millennium,
participants have experienced unprecedented turbulence and turmoil.
The triggers for these changes aren’t hard to identify: increased competition,
global operating environments, technology enablers and emphases on core
competence, partnerships and customer service.
The context for the application of OD approaches
has changed to a more turbulent and impermanent environment. While there
is still reliance on OD basics, considerable attention is being given
to new concepts, interventions and areas of application. This second
generation OD includes interest in organisational transformation, organisational
culture, the learning organisation, teams and their various configurations,
total quality management, visioning, and ‘getting the whole system on
Training leaders and managers are chartered
with the responsibility of building adaptive and co-operative capability
within, across and beyond traditional functions towards networked, cross-functional,
just-in-time team arrangements to get work done. While corporate rhetoric
about new directions, compelling visions, common values and improved
operating systems is relentless, the hearts and minds of participants
in change processes frequently remain unengaged, non-committed and,
at best, compliant.
Managing change from the participants’
perspective so as to reconnect people to organisational strategy, to
recapture their imaginations, to respect their contributions, and to
energise and sustain the process demands a new philosophy, an innovative
and inclusive approach to change.
One of the challenges, as an OD practitioner,
is to take the best of the past into the future and to encourage clients
to do the same when overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, ‘change for
change sake’, fatigue, cynicism and so on set in. Most OD professionals
will have worked with multiple intervention processes in order to sharpen
strategic focus, and to build individual, group and organisational capability.
The underlying assumption, which has spawned
many of our OD intervention processes (such as gap analysis, SWOT, benchmarking,
performance indicators, process re-engineering), is that organisations
are problems to be solved. Language to describe deficient and inadequate
performance has evolved to define these ‘problems’ (see Table 1 below).
how does AI work?
As we work with the approach, we discover
that AI is a philosophy, a way of life. One assumes the position of
being the detective for ‘good things’. One develops what we call an
‘appreciative ear’. One purposefully searches for and accentuates the
positive. Simple really.
We know that high achievers apply to ‘two
for one’ rule. They generate two positive thoughts for every negative
thought. They choose to respond pro-actively and purposefully to setbacks;
they learn and improve. We also know that people respond to attention
(placebo principle) and to positive expectations (pygmalion effect).
We all have difficulties. However, it is
our line of inquiry, our capacity to unearth what is helpful, our willingness
to discover what we care about and what will sustain us in the future
The AI process therefore commences with
context and topic. The client, the team or the organisation may request
assistance with, for example, supporting a structural reconfiguration,
developing a strategic plan, aligning service strategy to client demand,
engaging the community in government decision making and resource allocation,
facilitating a hostile group of stakeholders, changing a culture, developing
partnering competence and building a team.
the questions to explore the topic
Based on the assumption that something
works, people care enough to have raised the issue, start thinking about
the questions you might ask. For example, questions might include: ‘What
have we got to build on?’, ‘What works best around here?’, ‘Can you
describe a time when you think the team/organisation performed really
well?’, ‘What were the circumstances during that time?’, ‘When are you
most proud to be associated with the team/organisation?’, ‘What’s the
best possible outcome for you; how best may organisational strengths
be employed?’, ‘Who will be impacted by change in/out of the organisation;
who needs to be engaged to make it work?’
These questions help to frame the intent
of the AI and provide a framework for creating questions to facilitate
participants’ positive engagement in the change process.
an inquiry protocol
A wide range of options exist when it comes
to designing an inquiry protocol that suits the context and required
outcomes. These include whole system interventions (100–1,000 participants)
to small-group situations, spread over single episodes or longer-term
phased interventions. The AI protocol is the starting point of the ‘Discovery’
phase (‘the best of what is’, see Figure 1). Useful
guidelines for framing the AI protocol include having five questions
relating to the topic and designed to reflect best experiences, values,
life-giving force, hopes and priorities (see Table 2). This enables
participants to take the best of the past (known) into the future (unknown)
and provides rich experiential and contextual data from which to identify
binding themes and to collectively imagine new and exciting possibilities.
Irrespective of the size of the group,
commencing the process with paired interviews is valuable. Participants
are encouraged to share stories, examples and hopes with their partner.
After the interview, they remain with their partner and form small groups
with three or four other pairs. Each person reflects and shares their
partner’s information with the small group. Together, the group identifies
binding topics, compelling themes and core values with which they want
to move forward.
Again, there are options with regard to
the collation and sharing of data which emerges from the ‘Discovery’
phase (see Figure 1). A small group may be requested
to develop a new vision relative to the topic of the inquiry or the
entire group may (with facilitator support) extract themes and topics
that are used to inform the second of the 4D phases, ‘Dream’ (see
Figure 1) and the development of provocative propositions.
During the ‘Dream’ phase (‘imagining what
might be’), participants are asked to envision results and engage in
future search. Information from the ‘Discover’ phase is used as a platform
to speculate on possible and desired futures for the organisation, system
or team. Participants may self-select, depending on their interest and
expertise, key themes which they transform into statements of strategic
and social intent – that is, positive propositions that excite them,
stretch them and guide them towards a preferred future. The beauty in
this process lies in the connections people see and express in where
they want to go taking what they really value with them.
The process provides people with the opportunity
to exercise their imaginative competence based on their best experiences,
their core human values, their appreciation of interdependencies and
their collective goodwill. The process generates a higher order convergence,
which serves to connect multiple and equally important priorities without
resorting to compliant compromises, parallel and competing visions,
reductionist or subversive specialisations.
Commitment to provocative propositions,
a compelling, overarching ‘flagpole’ statement, or a framework of principles
provides the strategic and social architecture that informs to ‘Design’
phase of the AI (see Figure 1).
implications of dreaming
In the ‘Design’ phase (‘co-constructing
what should be’) participants co-construct their new reality based on
their articulation of direction, principles, strategic framework. Questions
relate to what would be ideal, how we can make it work and what conceptual,
behaviour, operational changes we need to make.
Hard work is willingly undertaken here
as concept teams, project teams, task forces and working parties form
voluntarily to work through ‘making it happen’. The emphasis is on practically
working through the transitions required to achieve the provocative
propositions. In the process, propositions may be recast, the spirit
of intent may be further questioned and infinite iterations may emerge.
The essence is that a positive momentum
has been generated and, underpinned by a shared ‘headset of intent’,
multiple intelligences are legitimised to progress the agenda. Having
been through the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Dreaming’ phases, people see where
they fit, how they’re connected to and valued in the process of achieving
the outcome. This generates a confidence and capacity to contribute
which, in organisations today, is priceless.
The 4D cycle evolves through ‘Design’ to
the ‘Deliver’ phase (‘sustaining, learning, adjusting’,
see Figure 1) as participants affirm their achievements. Reflection
on key measures of effectiveness, ways of knowing, recognising and acknowledging
what has been achieved are encouraged.
Simple scorecards with key performance
indicators linked to original propositions may be tabled and endorsed.
New quantitative and qualitative benchmarks may be proposed so participants
progressively validate their improvements. Positive shifts in strategy,
structure and culture are marked and used to inform new questions and
conversations as the 4D cycle is revisited for ongoing planning and
so special about AI?
For those of us involved in working with
groups, large and small, in turbulent contexts where, increasingly,
we experience the diminishing marginal returns of traditional practices,
AI offers a new dimension in OD consulting.
The approach, principles and model provides
an integrating framework within which multiple strategies, tailored
to context may flexibly be applied. More fundamentally, as OD practitioners,
change agents and leaders we are encouraged to acknowledge our own assumptions
about professional practice and embody the spirit of AI in our lives.
Appreciative Inquiry is not a technique;
it cannot be applied as a mechanism for change, it cannot be contrived.
The approach requires willingness on behalf of the advocate and the
client to search systematically for possibilities and potential, and
to provide scope for diversity and synergy to co-exist in the pursuit
of collective interest based on mutual understanding.
The potency of the approach lies in the
frames of positive inquiry and the realisation that change and inquiry
are simultaneous. A genuine curiosity, preparedness to listen and relentless
reframing of issues into opportunities is grist to the appreciative
inquiry mill. The outcomes are sweet in terms of participant generated,
positive and sustainable change.
In Australia, we have used AI extensively
in government, in the higher education sector, in schools, with community
organisations and in professional service firms. Effectively, it has
provided an energising and participative dimension to complex planning,
supporting structural changes, working collaboratively across business
units, engaging communities and external stakeholders in matters ranging
from policy development to resource allocation.
Results have been achieved in terms of
improved service cultures, structural realignment without industrial
disputation, community renewal projects, integrated government service
delivery, reduced costs of duplication and in-house competition, school-based
management, resolution of cultural conflicts.
We are convinced that the AI approach to
change is suited to environments characterised by impermanence, turbulence,
multiple and competing agendas, ideological diversity and cultural conflict.
AI offers hope and space for participants to influence and determine
their preferred future. The connections between macro and micro strategies,
strategic and operational matters and individual fit within the system
become clear. The approach generates focus, creativity and goodwill.
These capacities are self-sustaining, build adaptive competence and
sustain complex systems in change.
1. Job instruction, behaviour modelling,
action learning, project management, coaching, mentoring, problem-based
learning, business planning, change management, team development, network
management, visualisation theory, imaging, futuring, scenario planning
and so on.
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