Appreciative Inquiry – A Positive Approach to Change

Appreciative Inquiry

AI is not a new technique in the field of organization development (OD) having been introduced in a seminal article by Cooperrider and Srivastva in 1987.  AI is a dialogic approach to OD with links to strength-based and positive organization studies in human development and organizational change, which focus on what successes and strengths an organization has which can be harnesses to drive the organization forward.  This contrasts with contemporary change management techniques based on problem solving or a deficit-based processes which focuses on what is wrong that needs fixing..  A key element of AI is the utilization of powerful development methods based on appreciative questions and story-telling as effective ways to engage stakeholders in change efforts.  Key skills required include the ability to conduct appreciative interviews and harness a positive impact from ‘best past’ questions.  This article will review the AI change method in the form of the 4-D cycle: Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny phases explaining how these steps can be used to tap into the core strengths of the organization.  This article will examine the foundational principles of AI and the research that demonstrates impact on organizations of positive questions and the relationship between positive possibilities of the future and the resulting actions.

“Appreciative inquiry refers to a research perspective that is uniquely held for discovering, understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and processes.”

Cooperider and Srivastva (1987)

A dialogic method of organization development

AI and dialogic methods of OD are often ignored in favor of process-orientated approaches to change management.  The utilization of a technique that gets relevant parties in a room to talk about what is going right in the organization and focus on what strengths can be built on is often dismissed as a major change intervention because change is needed because something is going wrong that needs to be fixed.  In many ways this premise of change, that the organization is a problem that needs repairing, is why many change management interventions fail.  Identifying what the problem is, analyzing the causes of the problem and possible solutions and developing an action plan to treat the problem keeps the focus on what the organization is now, how to fix it to keep it where it is and is backward looking. 

AI offers an alternative to a patch up and mend mentality, instead embracing the organization as an asset which can be harnessed proactively as a positive force within the marketplace.  It is a productive rather than reductive premise, which has evolved from organizational research and field experiments, conducted by consultant/researcher.  There are several core questions which AI facilitators will support the participants to find answers to, including:

  1. Peak moments: What are the high points of a person’s experiences in this organization?  When has a person/group felt most been the peak moments of life in this organization?  What period of time did people feel most dynamic, committed, engaged and fulfilled?
  2. Value: What do employees value most?  What is significant about themselves as individuals contributing to the group and organization?  What meaning do they find in their job tasks?  What sense of purpose does the organization as a whole bring to their existence?
  3. Excellence: What areas and activities of excellence has the organization demonstrated?  What organizational factors, such as structure, leadership, values, systems etc have enabled excellence to become a reality?
  4. Possibilities: What possibilities exist within the organization which have yet to be realized?  What developments, however immature or rudimentary, are latent within the organization system?  What indicators do these undeveloped possibilities have for the creation of an even better organization in the future?

AI in organizational change

When it comes to organizational change, the power people have in creating an positive image of the future has an immediate impact on the success and effectiveness of an organizational change intervention.  The psychological and physiological responses of individuals, teams and the organization as a system allow the human system within the organization to positively affect the creative and innovative response to change.  AI offers a method, which enables the proactive and positive creation, and development of new strategies, processes, technology, products and service as well as responses to market demands in direct contrast to the resistance experienced in problem solving change management methodologies.  

How the human system shapes the organizational future is an important aspect of understanding how change processes happen within the organization.  The traditional paradigm of change is that of a process, which begins with a demand from the environment, is transformed through a process and ends when change has happened.  AI is a continuous process of dialogue and co-creation; it is an ongoing conversation and inquiry and introduces a culture of optimism about what has been and what is, with a deliberate process of mental imagery toward the best future for the organization.  It is in many ways a philosophy of knowledge that the human system knows the organization and what the organization wants to become.

The strengths based approach to organizational change, using the theories from the fields of sociology; psychology and behavioral science explored in the last chapter utilize image, language and dialogue to drive transformative change through being deliberate about the social construction of the organization in which people are working.  Rather than culture, process innovation, and relationships with stakeholders being something that is a by-product of unknown forces, and accident of fate if you will, it becomes a deliberate working through of what the organization wants to be.  It frames issues through a lenses which says the organization already has the solution because of the best of what the organization is, rather than the organization has find a solution because it is somehow lacking or missing something vital to its survival.  The choice to use AI as a change methodology itself is a decision, which draws a line in the sand to say that the answer to the organization we need to be to move forward already exists, and dialogue and inquiry is the tool with which we will discover it.  The inclusivity of the process also provides the opportunity for the organization to expand the capability of its people to innovate, adapt, develop team effectiveness, increase diversity and become agile. The flow of dialogue helps the organization to develop a holistic approach to change focused on delivering sustainable optimal performance rather than making decisions on a snapshot or momentary occurrence that only delivers a short term benefit.  AI is powerful intervention which uses dialogue consciously, to inquiry into what now and what next to think beyond this situation and into the future organization that needs to be created.  Therefore the focus is long term rather than short term.

Crafting Appreciative Inquiry Questions

The quality with which an AI practitioner crafts their questions will drive the success of the AI process.  Do not under estimate the time that it takes to develop a question which will drive the desired response of curiosity, appreciation and action.  When developing questions for AI sessions the AI practitioner must keep the participants in mind, and examine the question critically from the perspective of whether the questions will prompt the group to move toward a positive and life-giving direction, both individually, as a team and as a participant in the organizational system. Mohr and Watkins (2002) offered a host of foundational questions that should be asked, which can be modified to fit the needs of the organization and the change situation. The four generic questions (adapted from Mohr and Watkins, 2002) include:

  1. Best Experience: Describe the best times that you have had with your organization (team, group or community). Reflecting on that experience, what point during that experience did you feel most awake, most engaged, or most excited about being part of the organization. What made it such a dynamic experience? Who was part of that experience? Describe the experience in detail.
  2. Values: What things do you value most deeply – specifically, what things do you value about yourself, your family, your work, and your organization (or group, or community)?

  3. Vital component or Value: What do you think is the component that is vital to the being or value of your organization? What vital component if it did not exist, would make your organization (team, group or community) completely different than what it is currently?
  4. Three things: If you could wave a magic wand and change three things for your organization (team, group or community), what three things would they be?

When planning a facilitated AI session these generic questions are the launch pad from which you will draw the participants focus to develop them and delve deeper into the topic, theme or change situation that is being examined.  It helps when planning a session to be prepared to ask probing questions which enable to participants to paint a clearer picture, to fill in the spaces of knowledge that are often overlooked or misunderstood. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem Six Honest Serving men;


I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I know

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who


These probing questions can be constructed in a positive way e.g. What is good customer service? Or in a negative way e.g. What is not good (or bad) customer service?  Within an AI context it is important to note that probing questions will work effectively when they are framed positively to drive appreciative inquiry.   


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