Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Implementing an AI project

Like great jazz improvisation, each Appreciative Inquiry is a new creation – an experiment that brings out the best of human organising.

Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom,
The power of appreciative inquiry: a practical guide to positive change

If you have chosen Appreciative Inquiry as the way forward for your team or organisation, the first stage is to decide on your change agenda. Every Appreciative Inquiry is different. Your implementation will be shaped by a number of factors:

  • The changes you are aiming to accomplish

Are you starting from a problem that needs to be fixed, or are you wanting to build on success? What will be the benefits and consequences of these changes? What will the changes do for each of the stakeholders, and how will they be viewed?

  • The scope of the inquiry

How many people are involved? What are their roles? Are you working with a team, a division, an organisation, or a whole community?

  • The timescales

Are you aiming for long-term and ongoing transformation, or turning around an acute situation that requires some quick wins? Or both?

  • The culture of the organisation

If, until now, the organisation has had a ‘macho’ or ‘blame culture’, a ‘dissonant’ emotional climate, or is very sceptical and risk-averse, you will need to introduce AI carefully and step by step, perhaps starting with a small pilot project. When this succeeds, it will justify a bigger next step, and so on.

  • The topic(s) for inquiry

The nature of the topic will also influence the type of inquiry that you conduct. A topic around ‘how do we find new business in a downturn?’ may require a rapid response that is best served by an AI summit, whereas ‘how do we improve organisational learning?’ may be best served by a long-term, ongoing inquiry that goes through several cycles.

Ideally, the more people involved in the inquiry itself (not the planning of it, where a small team of no more than 12 is best), and the more diverse viewpoints represented, the better.

Examples of AI implementation formats

AI is a highly adaptable approach, and it’s up to you to decide which is the best format for you.

Whole system dialogue (one to 12 months)

This is an extensive form of engagement involving all members of the organisation and representative stakeholders. It can take place at a range of locations over an extended period of time and often brings in external consultants.

The benefits of this form include

  • Optimising stakeholder participation during large-scale change
  • Building a more open learning culture
  • Enhancing positive change and transcending communication barriers.

Summit event/open forum (one to four days)

Large groups of people participate simultaneously in events lasting from one to four days. They can be extended as a series across several locations involving different stakeholder groups.

The benefits of this form include

  • Accelerating planning, decision-making, and innovation
  • Developing inspiring and generative visions of the future
  • Forging partnerships (building bonds and relationships)
  • Building momentum for a new organisation or initiative.

Appreciative teambuilding

You can take your team through a whole AI cycle over a period of one or two days. This resembles a ‘mini-summit’ and is best done with external facilitator.

The benefits of this form include

  • It’s ideal for team away-days
  • You can omit the ‘Delivery’ stage if your objective is simply to rebuild morale and help team members to get to know each other better.

Appreciative team meetings

It is in the small-scale interactions of daily working life that an appreciative management philosophy succeeds or fails. For example, team meetings can follow an appreciative format, each meeting starting with a review of successes.

The benefits of this form include

  • If your organisation is serious about Appreciative Inquiry, it needs to permeate even the most routine interactions
  • It costs nothing to implement and can have a big payoff in improved morale and productivity.