In an effort to affect change, we frequently begin by focusing on what’s broken. We systematically list the issues then go about identifying solutions to those issues. By starting with what is not working, though, we can make the job of change more difficult. Focusing exclusively on what is wrong or broken can drain the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism from a group in its earliest stages. There’s a new way of approaching the change process that has caught the interest of organizations around the world. It involves bringing employees together to talk not about problems, but rather about their greatest successes. What is it like they are asked, when their organization is at its best? Employees are asked to share stories and review them together to glean common themes. Together they then conceive a vision of what it might achieve when the organization works at its best and, working backward from that, they devise the changes that are required to achieve that vision.
Positive Image; Positive Energy; Positive Action
This new approach to organizational change, called Appreciative Inquiry, emphasizes and builds on a company’s strengths and potential. It asks the question: “What is working around here?” Organizations around the world find that the answers create tremendous positive energy.
Here’s how a typical Appreciative Inquiry session might look, as described by leading practitioners and authors Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard J. Mohr in a Harvard Business School article by Tom Krattenmaker, entitled, “Change through Appreciative Inquiry.”
- Make the focus of inquiry positive. Seek out what is good and right about your organization. A company interested in improving client relations could ask: “When have customers been most pleased with our service, and what can we learn and apply from those moments of success?
- Elicit positive stories. Use interviews to evoke stories that illuminate an organization’s distinctive strengths. When the organization is functioning at its best, what characteristics are present? Unlike data or lists, positive stories stir the imagination and generate excitement about the company and what it is capable of accomplishing in the future.
- Discover common themes. Through the shared stories, find what elements are common to the moments of greatest success and fulfillment. Look for the ones that are most promising and inspiring as components of the desired future. According to Watkins, “The themes become the basis for collectively imagining what the organization would be like if the exceptional moments uncovered in the interviews become the norm in the organization.”
- Create shared images for the future. This stage in the process asks employees to create a future in which the high points identified in the stories are the everyday reality. The team then designs the structure – the policies, business processes, resources, etc. – for achieving the desired future.
- Find innovative ways to create that future. Finally, the employees identify specific ways to bring the preferred future to life.
Want to Learn More?
You can read more about Appreciative Inquiry. Here are some books we recommend: The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, by Sue Annis Hammond. Appreciative Inquiry, Collaborating for Change, by David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney, Berrett-Koehler. Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, by Bernard J. Mohr and Jane Magruder Watkins. The Power of Appreciative Inquiry, by Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom. Lessons from the Field, Applying Appreciative Inquiry, edited by Sue Annis Hammond, & Cathy Royal, Ph.d. Encyclopedia of Positive Questions Volume One: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring out the Best in Your Organization, Diana Whitney, David Cooperrider, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, and Brian S. Kaplin.