What is Appreciative Inquiry?

January 25th, 2011 by Sarah Green Leave a reply »

What Problems are you Having? …Versus …What is Working Around Here?

These two questions underline the difference between traditional Change Management theory and Appreciative Inquiry. The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasise and amplify them. This approach is consistent with a historical attitude in American Business that sees human systems as machines and parts (people) as interchangeable. We believe we can fix anything and there is a right answer or solutions to any organisational problem or challenge.

In the mid-seventies, David Cooperrider and his associates as Case Western Reserve University, challenged this approach and introduced the term Appreciative Inquiry. David’s artist wife Nancy brought the “appreciative eye” perspective the David’s attention. The idea of the appreciative eye assumes that in every piece of art there is beauty. Art is a beautiful idea translated into a concrete form. Cooperrider applied the notion to business: to the appreciative eye, organisations are expressions of beauty and spirit. Furthermore, organisations are views as organic, which means that all parts are defined by the whole; thus, you cannot take an organisation apart to study pieces.

Appreciative Inquiry suggests that we look for what works in an organisation. The tangible result of the inquiry process is a series of statements that describe where the organisation wants to be, based on the high moments of where they have been. Because the statements are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.

Through a workshop format, the participants stir up memories of energising moments of success creating a new energy that is positive and synergistic. Participants walk away with a sense of commitment, confidence and affirmation that they have been successful. They also know clearly how to make more moments of success. It is this energy that distinguishes the generative process that results from Appreciative Inquiry. There is no end, because it is a living process. Because the statements generated by the participants are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.

The idea, then, is to approach organisations with an appreciative eye. A senior manager at GTE described Appreciative Inquiry and cautioned the group that he wasn’t advocating mindless happy talk. But he asked them, when you get a survey that says 94% of your customer are happy, what do you automatically do? You probably interview the unhappy 6%, instead of asking the 94% what we did to make them happy.

At this point the cynic in all of us kicks in. Isn’t this a rather simplistic way to face an organisation’s incredible challenges? Isn’t this a naive approach? You may hear that dismissive voice. If so, I challenge you to suspend cynicism and experience Appreciative Inquiry. There is no other way to discover how it works and, indeed, how practical it is, until you do it. You do not have to have a major change program in order to experiment. You can start with something as simple as asking a question at the end of a meeting.

What Did We As A Group, Do Well In This Meeting?

You will get a stunned silence. Then people will begin to throw out some very carefully worded responses. Depending on your position and title, they will try to figure out the politically correct response. Responses will quickly turn into a discussion about what didn’t work. We are very good at talking about what doesn’t work. We have all had years of practice in the art of problem-solving and in being exhorted to be part of the solution. It is my opinion, that we have little practice looking for what works and finding ways to do more of that. It never occurs to us that we can “fix” an organisation or even our society by doing more of what works. We are obsessed with learning from our mistakes. But, why not allow our successes to multiply enough to crowd out the unsuccessful? Why not follow-up with our happy customers and ask why we made them happy?

An Example

Many different cultures now meet regularly in the workplace. In the seventies this created a demand for sexual harassment prevention training, which evolved into diversity training. The objective is to improve human relationships in the workplace while recognising that individuals from diverse cultures have more common methods used in sexual harassment prevention training focused on learning checklists of what not to do. I can still recall conducting EEO training that was intended to make participants aware of all the practices that were illegal.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on such training of Japanese managers about to be sent to the US. Many articles and books in the management press have documented the wide differences between the Japanese and US corporate cultures. In preparation for their move to the US, the managers were given checklists of taboo behaviours such as reading pornographic magazines at work, staring at female colleagues’ legs, and hugging employees. The Japanese managers were bewildered as to what they could do. One can almost envision them reviewing a little card with a list of don’ts on a daily basis.

If you’ve ever conducted or attended this type of training, you know it has potential to produce a rather negative environment. Also, there have been studies demonstrating an increase in the number of sexual harassment complaints in spite of, and perhaps as a result of, the training. That makes sense, because participants are educated to be more aware of what not to do and are more sensitised to finding that behaviour.

When the appreciative approach is applied to the objective, participants are asked to share examples of what it feels like and looks like to be treated with dignity and respect. Participants determine the circumstances that make dignity and respect possible are articulate statements to express the common themes. Instead of taking away a list of don’ts and a policing mentality, participants leave inspired to re-create those circumstances in as many situations as possible.

The Obvious

It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Most change management consultants I know wonder why they did not think of this before. When I first learned about Appreciative Inquiry I spent a lot of time replaying many situations in which I had unwittingly infected groups with negative energy. I thought I was the neutral observer, helping my clients get “better”. Instead, I left them more focused and eloquent on what was wrong. Asking appreciative questions, I still get the information I need but the difference is, the organisation has the confirmed knowledge, confidence, and inspiration that they did well, and will continue to do well with a heightened awareness of what works. Not only do I have the gift of new eyes, but, hopefully others do too.

For further information about how you can implement the Appreciative Inquiry methodology to assessment, development, coaching or engagement methods please contact the Zircon office 01737 555 862.

Source: Taken from the ‘Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry’, Sue Annis Hammond
Blogged by Sarah Green.

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