Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an alternative, human-centric positive leadership philosophy which can be applied to change management, strategic project development and HR. It was first introduced to the literature by David Cooperrider and Susan Srivastva of Case Western University in Cleveland (USA) during the 1980s to encourage employees and stakeholders to engage in self-determined change. AI seeks to not change the processes, or models of organisational change, but instead to alter the perspectives of individuals so that they can begin to appreciate the interconnectivity of human and organisational systems and to use their strengths to develop effective change. It acts as a way of improving performance, by finding the best in people, systems and organisations, rather than identifying problems and weaknesses. It also encourages innovation, which can evolve from simply building on strengths and current good-practices – often ones which individuals were not previously aware of. It also promotes organisation-wide collaboration and engagement, and by bringing to light the strengths of the company, it often improves motivation and self-worth of employees.
The Typical Approach
Generally, individuals and organisations approach issues in a very regimented way. They analyse what is not working, examine any possible causes, generate a bunch of solutions, and pick that which seems the most appropriate at any one time. This is not a very human-centric way of approaching issues – a deficit-based mindset will eventually cause a decline in the energy, motivation and satisfaction of people within the organisation, and may lead to individuals unfairly interpreting performance decline as their individual failures. This will subsequently lead to a decline in performance, or an adverse reaction to any changes or new projects implemented to encourage perceived greater performance.
AI: A New Approach to Change
As mentioned in the introduction, AI seeks to identify what the organisations best qualities are and use them to create meaningful change and results. Below is a general outline of how to approach AI; however, it must be remembered that it is more of a philosophy than a physical model.
The first step, Define is to identify the purpose and immediate focus of the current inquiry into performance. Once this has been clarified, the group or individual may enter the main section of the process.
The main section of the process starts with Discover . In this stage, inquiries are made of the organisation’s members – particularly the longer-serving employees – to ask them their experiences of the business when it is operating at its best. The strengths of the company should become noticeable, and it should be highlighted what is already being done well.
Dream , the third stage of the process is when the insights made during Discover should be used to develop a unified vision of what the organisation could be if it improved in certain areas, utilising the strengths already at its disposal. If it is good now – just how good could it be with a few minor adjustments?
Design – this is where you develop all the necessary systems and structures required to encourage and facilitate the growth of your already-strong faculties.
Finally, Deliver (also sometimes called Destiny) – this is where all the planned structural and systemic changes are implemented to produce real change and performance growth. The process is cyclical – once these changes have been implemented and tested, the process can be repeated to produce yet more improvements.
Why does it work?
Appreciative Inquiry works because it facilitates individual engagement, growth and acts as a confidence boost whilst identifying areas which may be improved. Individuals enjoy talking about their successes – they will always actively engage in discussions which focus upon their strengths, or pieces of work which they pride themselves upon. This, in turn, works to improve their confidence as they often will gain self-awareness of successful projects, or successes which they may have previously appreciated.
They are not working to someone else’s best practice methods, instead they are gaining confidence in their own approach and their ability to deliver meaningful results. Because employees are gaining confidence and engaging in positive conversation, it facilitates the participation of many individuals in the change process. They all can feel as if they have taken part in bringing about any future workplace improvements.
Furthermore, having a positive image of the future of the business in everyone’s mind produces more results in the present. Motivation can go through the roof if all believe they can do something to contribute to their vision of a long-term goal. Because they have bought into the organisation’s project, they will begin to build on their already-present strengths. And finally – celebrate and reward your team’s successes, they will lead to more.