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Monday, August 24, 2015

Appreciating 'Appreciative Inquiry' (Part 1 of 2)

In order to plan and look forward in a meaningful way, we need to first look back, appreciating the things we do well. It is those things that we excel at that gives us a strategy for a bright future. In a rapidly changing world, traditional approaches to planning often don't work. We assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, developing strategies to address a multitude of issues, only to have wasted resources and time trying to address issues that are difficult to control. Instead of this long exercise in planning, we need a much more rapid and direct approach to getting the organization and its people mobilized for the future. When we focus on the “positive” things that we do well, not only do we galvanize our resources better, but we also energize our people around things that they can accomplish. This simple and powerful approach to planning and change management is called Appreciative Inquiry.


Appreciative Inquiry is one of the most effective techniques for transforming companies since it tends to be very direct, very positive, very inclusive, and very real (rooted in past performance that works as opposed to untested fads that management forces upon the organization). Appreciative Inquiry is a way of thinking – acting on the “power points” of the organization, recognizing that if an organization wants more of something, it already exists! All you really need to do is to identify the things that currently work, what conditions allow this to happen, and how can we cultivate this to build a more sustainable future.

One obvious starting point is to get people engaged in a conversation about what's working. This is the “inquiry” part of Appreciative Inquiry. In every individual, team, department, and organization, there is something that works. What works becomes the reality or culture of the place. The act of asking questions (making inquiries) will create the positive influence on getting people to make progress. This can be extremely important for managing change since people tend to be more comfortable trying to execute things they currently do as opposed to forcing a whole set of new mandates upon people, not rooted in past performance.

If we expect to have a serious “inquiry” take place, then we need a viable learning environment. We can apply many concepts from the so-called learning organization, first pioneered by author Peter Senge in his landmark book The Fifth Discipline. Learning organizations provide the right catalyst for Appreciative Inquiry to work:

- People are more aware of what works and what doesn't.
- The organization becomes more aware of what works and what doesn't, providing the baseline for knowledge management.
- Visions bubble up from the bottom since we now have people engaged in a dialog of what to do. Senior managers who typically design the plans are now spending more time collecting the visions, developing strategies from these “mini” visions and putting a strategy in place that naturally fits with what people can execute on.
- Everyone has a strong opportunity to learn and freely ask questions. Nothing is sacred in the world of Appreciative Inquiry.

Learning organizations lend themselves to Appreciative Inquiry for a very simple reason – they communicate and share the “excellence” that takes place within the organization. This becomes the baseline for Appreciative Inquiry to work and if we can encourage this excellence, we have a real strategy for growth.

Sometimes a common theme may emerge, establishing the baseline – such as an organization that comes to realize that it has very strong brand appeal in the marketplace or perhaps, we learn and appreciate that our organization is perceived as a leader in quality customer service. Whatever the excellent themes are, the key is to recognize them and magnify them to lock-in a viable future. And one of the best things about Appreciative Inquiry is that the bad stuff (the things we don't do well) gets de-emphasized. This frees-up limited resources, redefining a reality that we can sustain.

“Appreciative Inquiry was the catalyst for a positive step change in customer service at British Airways in North America . The use of Appreciative Inquiry transformed the entire organization in ways that we could not have imagined.” – Dave Erich, Executive Vice President, British Airways

Given the inherit difficulties with so many other approaches to strategizing, such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis and Scenario Playing, Appreciative Inquiry is posed to become a main-stream approach to strategic planning. And when combined with concepts associated with the learning organization, Appreciative Inquiry is a potent force for change management. In Part 2 of this article, we will outline the 4D Model of Appreciative Inquiry and link it to the learning organization.

“Appreciative Inquiry is both a process and a philosophy. It represents a frame of mind and a fundamental approach to life that is grounded in the positive, while being a process by which to appreciatively see and co-construct the world. In other words, as people share with each other what they believe and think, they influence each other's views of the world. Together, people socially construct the worlds they live in creating meaning through social interaction. In an organizational context, as people talk to each other and share their views of the company, their work together, and their compensation plans, they create a shared understanding of the company – fundamentally the company as they see it.”
- Appreciative Inquiry: An Alternative Lens for Rewards in the New Economy by Lia Bosch and Gervais Goodman

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