Appreciative Inquiry As a Practice

Implementing transformational change in an organization can be a daunting task. Current statistics indicate that nearly 70% of all change efforts fail. That's an extra waste of resources. So why is it that so so many fail? There is no simple answer to that question – it could be lack of planning, poor communication, no…

Implementing transformational change in an organization can be a daunting task. Current statistics indicate that nearly 70% of all change efforts fail. That's an extra waste of resources. So why is it that so so many fail? There is no simple answer to that question – it could be lack of planning, poor communication, no sense of urgency, no clear direction, or all of the above.

There are a myriad of change models from which to choose, many of which have proven to be successful. Success, however, may depend on individual organizational circumstances. There is one model, though, that seems to work every time, and that is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). And while AI is often used in strategic planning or in designing and implementing organizational transformation, it can also become an overall organizational practice.

Appreciative Inquiry is essentially an approach to change management that focuses and builds on the strengths of an organization, rather than focusing on what is wrong. It is based on the following assumptions:

  1. In every society, organization, or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

There are five phases in the AI ​​process, typically called the five D's. The five D's are:

  • DEFINE – Choose the positive as the focus of inquiry: Healthy organizations begin the process of change by inquiring about and building upon the positive aspects of its people and their experience. Building on the positive leads the organization to focus on what it does well and to create an image of a future based on its own best practices and highest values.
  • DISCOVER – Unexpected meaning and purpose through storytelling: AI begins with a conversation in which people share stories about those things within an organization that they value – things that they want to expand and extend in the future. Through those stories, people identify the themes that connect with their most deeply held beliefs and values.
  • DREAM – Create shared images of a preferred future: Building on the themes that emerge through these conversations, people in the organization create both a visual image and a written statement (potential statement or vision statement) describing how the organization would look and feel at its best. These shared images act as a guide for creating the organization's preferred future.
  • DESIGN – Innovate ways to create that preferred future: Organizations identify specific action steps to take individually or in groups. These action steps are specific, concrete, and do-able, designed to move the organization towards its preferred future. The steps may be small and incremental, building on each other, or link to larger, more encompassing actions.
  • DESTINY – Making it happen: Once the people of an organization create a shared image of their preferred future, dialogue about ways to align the functions and people of the organization with that image, and act in ways which are congruent with the image, the organization becomes that image.

While you can use this process to tackle a major change effort, what's great about these assumptions and the model of AI is that you do not have to be involved in such a big project or change effort in order to put AI into practice. Here are some ideas for creating an appreciative approach to everyday work:

  • Use the first few minutes of a meeting to have everyone share success stories and ask what made that possible.
  • When problems arise, ask what's missing or what do we need to do more of, rather than asking what's wrong.
  • If changes are expected, ask what is currently working well that needs to be transported forward and then be sure to bridge that gap.
  • Lead conversations by asking open, positive, and provocative questions.
  • Stay focused on where you want to go, not where you've been.
  • Explore and embrace differences and find the common ground or the new territory.

These are just a few ideas that can shift to more positive energy in organizations. There is nothing more contagious in organizations than feeling successful.