Positive Image. Positive Energy. Positive Action.
Imagine bringing your employees together with a special kind of mission.
“Today we are not going to talk about our problems,” you tell them.
“Instead we are going to talk about our strengths. So let’s reflect on what’s going right around here.”
”What is it like when we are working at our best?”
“When do you feel proudest of our organization?”
This process, focusing on what's working – rather than on what's broken – is called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). In our work with clients, we employ it as a powerful mechanism for envisioning a desired future.
It depends, of course, on being careful to listen to responses. As you get a clearer picture of what your organization looks like at its best, you can work backward to create changes that help you achieve that vision.
Ideally, you involve employees at all levels in this kind of conversation. In some cases, you can tap into the perspectives of customers as well.
Appreciative inquiry is related to positive psychology (click here) – where individuals recognize their strengths and practice thinking in ways that maximize their abilities and good feelings about life. Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, one of its key founders, describes it this way: "Using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification."
The energy changes
You may be doing a double-take, thinking, “Isn’t it important to know what you are doing wrong?”
In an effort to affect change, we frequently begin by focusing on problems. We systematically list the issues. Then we go about identifying solutions to those issues.
The problem is that by starting with what is not working, 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.
Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes and builds on an organization's strengths and potential. It is both pragmatic and hopeful. By asking the right questions, it seeks to locate, highlight and illuminate the "life-giving" forces of an organization's existence. We have found it is a successful element in the Work-Outs led by The Wunderlin Company, leading to even better team results.
As David Cooperrider, Diana Whitney and Jacqueline Stavros explain in The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, "Appreciative Inquiry seeks out the best of what is to help ignite the collective imagination of what might be."
Cooperrider, based at Case Western Reserve University, has written widely about Appreciative Inquiry. The university’s Weatherhead School of Management hosts a great website – the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, a resource for AI articles, case studies and events.
How it works
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 entitled, "Change through Appreciative Inquiry."
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? What can we learn from those moments of success?”
Look for examples 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 have the power to stir imagination and generate excitement.
Identify common themes. The most promising and inspiring 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," says Watkins.
Create shared images for the future. Ask employees to describe a future in which the high points identified in the stories are the everyday reality.
Find innovative ways to create that vision. What policies, strategies, business processes, and resources, for example, will help achieve that desired future?
The result: Change is less scary
In “A Blueprint for Change: Positive Inquiry,” published by Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business Review, Terri D. Egan and Ann Feyerherm argue that this strategy is especially well suited to organizations that know big changes are coming.
By inviting employees to share their best visions of the organization, they become engaged with a model for improvement that appreciates their perspective – so they are less likely to resist change.
“What if life and work were effortless so that what we wanted flowed from what we could imagine and then create?” ask the authors ask.
“The process of change need not be one of pain and struggle, but one of stirring the imagination, creativity, and energy of people.”
Want to Learn More?
Here are some books we recommend:
The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, by Sue Annis Hammond.
Appreciative Inquiry, Collaborating for Change, by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.
Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, by Bernard J. Mohr and Jane Magruder Watkins.
The Power of Appreciative Inquiry, by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom.
Encyclopedia of Positive Questions Volume 1: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring out the Best in Your Organization, Diana Whitney, David Cooperrider, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Brian S. Kaplan