Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Using AI with your team

An Appreciative Inquiry process does not have to be an organisation-wide effort. Say, for example, that your team is persistently underperforming in one area and you have run out of ideas for improvement. There doesn’t appear to be any one cause, and as soon as you fix one problem others seem to appear. As attempts to diagnose and fix the problems have not brought about a lasting improvement, why not turn things round and look at finding what is already working and so you can do more of it? You could run an Appreciative Inquiry process involving the whole team (and other stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers and senior management, if appropriate), inquiring into a topic such as ‘How do we improve performance in <problem area>?’

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) makes an excellent format for teambuilding, as it is designed to avoid blame and restore morale by reminding participants what they have achieved and what motivates them, putting them in a better frame of mind to work together to create new ideas for solving problems and improving performance.

It can be very rewarding for a team to work through the 5D cycle, each stage building on the one before. A day (or slightly less than a day) gives enough time to really go into some depth, reaffirm bonds within the team, and build morale and confidence. For the day to run smoothly, it’s important to choose the affirmative topic for the inquiry – the Definition stage of the model – carefully. Often, some variation of ‘How do we work together more effectively?’ will work well.

In the Discovery stage, having team members interview each other to unearth stories of when they have experienced or participated in exceptionally good examples of the topic can help to remind interviewees of their own worth, and that there are times – often forgotten in the hurly-burly of day-to-day work – when the team can work exceptionally well together. The interviewers often also feel inspired as they hear stories that resonate with their own experience and values. To get the maximum value from the Discovery stage, have people who don’t normally work closely together interview each other. Interviewing across different responsibilities or levels of management can build understanding and appreciation of the contribution and viewpoints of people in different roles.

In the Dream stage, team members co-construct a vision of their desired future as a team. This can be a opportunity for people to loosen up and have fun as they create a presentation of their vision, using words, collage or even, on occasion, poetry, ‘living sculpture’ or song.

For the Design stage, it works well if you take specific aspects of the Dream – whichever elements the team feels most motivated to work on – and let the team use adapted fishbone diagrams to identify tasks, structures and relationships that need to be in place to translate into an action plan.

Finally, for the Delivery stage, team members can make requests, offer to help other team members with their needs, and make commitments to take specific actions or take responsibility for ensuring that something happens.

Example

On 16th September the Occupational Health Department embarked on a team building event with inspiring results! The team were introduced to ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ which is a process that works by acknowledging and building on what is good and what works well, instead of focusing on the negative. Often we focus on what our problems are and as a result we tend to magnify those problems, which only contribute to a downward spiral of feeling helpless and hopeless. With Appreciative Inquiry we get to reconnect with what we love about work and when we are at our best, resulting in people feeling inspired to take action and creating more positivity in the workplace.

By the end of the session the group were left feeling inspired with realistic actions that were genuinely created and owned by them. With a lot of laughter and a lot of no-nonsense talk about what needs to happen, the group now have to build on the momentum of the day and they certainly seemed ready to!

Appreciative interviews with new teams

You can use appreciative interviews, without going through the entire AI process, to help a new team to get to know and trust each other quickly, so they can start working effectively together. Having team members do appreciative interviews with each other around a topic like ‘How do we work together effectively as a team?’ will encourage them to open up to each other. The appreciative interview format helps participants to move from defensiveness and advocacy to openness and learning, and builds understanding between people in different roles.

It also gives an opportunity to gain ideas about effective teamwork from the various participants’ previous teams.