Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Design

The Design stage is sometimes described as building a bridge from the ‘best of what is’ (revealed, at least in part, in the Discovery stage) to the best of ‘what could be’ (the vision set out in the Dream stage). In order to span that gap, the organisation itself may need to be remodelled to some extent.

In almost every organisation we have worked with, people have said that ‘siloisation’ and poor communication between functional units is one of the biggest things holding them back from achieving their potential.

This stage is about collectively designing the organisational structures and ‘social architecture’ that need to be in place to enable the Dream (as articulated in the macro provocative proposition) to happen. It is more about the structures and communication flows that support action and make it possible, than about specific actions.

According to Cooperrider, the essential question in this stage is:

 

What would our organisation look like if it were designed in every way possible to maximise the qualities of the positive core and enable the accelerated realisation of our dreams?

Practical methods for getting from dream to delivery

Most Appreciative Inquiry textbooks can seem a little vague in supplying actual step-by-step procedures for getting from the Discovered present to the Dream future. Here are a variety of methods you could use in the Design stage to move from Dream to Delivery.

1. Using ‘fishbone analysis’

Usually, fishbone analysis or ‘Ishikawa diagrams’ are used to find the root cause of problems. In Appreciative Inquiry, we can use it for pretty much the opposite – an inclusive process to find the route to the Dream.

Each table of four to eight people in an AI summit is given a blank fishbone diagram on a sheet of flipchart paper. In the ‘head’ of the diagram, they write the part of the Dream that they want to bring into reality.

In the boxes at the end of each spine of the fishbone they write an area for which action needs to be taken to make the Dream happen. You can either leave this up to the participants or give them pre-printed ‘classic’ fishbone categories (such as equipment, process, people, materials, environment and management).

Along each spine of the fishbone, participants place post-it notes with the actions that have to be taken, or the things that have to be in place, to make that area support the dream goal. A helpful tip is to use different colours of sticky note for each area (use small notes so there’s enough room for them on the diagram). The process will go faster if smaller groups of participants take an area or two each, but everyone must get to see the end results for each area, to make sure nothing is missed.

The beauty of this process is that it’s inclusive – everyone gets to contribute – and it’s fast. A team can rough out what’s needed in a very short time.

Turning the fishbone into an action plan

At this point, the design elements have been identified, but dependencies have not, and the elements will probably not be in time order. To turn fishbones into plans, you can stick several sheets of flipchart paper to a wall and establish a series of horizontal lines – one for each area on the ‘spines’ of the fishbone.

Participants can then transfer the sticky note for each element they have identified onto a timeline, in the order dictated by any dependencies that they identify between the design elements. When the timeline for each dream component is laid out, it’s easy for participants to see dependencies between the different timelines, and adjust the placing of the individual actions accordingly.

Timescales and milestones can be added later, probably by a smaller team with responsibility for making the goals happen.

2. Logical levels of organisation

This model, originated by NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) author Robert Dilts, posits six levels at which change can occur:

Dilts suggests that each level organises and influences the ones below it. A change at a lower level may change the levels above, but it is far more likely that change at a higher level will change the levels below it.

  • Our behaviour acts on our environment.
  • Our capabilities (skills) govern our behaviour.
  • Our values and beliefs determine which of our capabilities we use.
  • Our identity is supported by our beliefs and values.
  • Our sense of purpose and of being part of something more extensive and important than ourselves shapes our identity.

When we look for connections with the AI model, we see that provocative propositions are usually statements of Identity and/or Purpose. When they are inspiring, as they should be, they will also resonate with

  • Values, which are what motivate us and also provide our criteria for deciding what is right or wrong. Values will emerge from questions in the appreciative interview: ‘What’s important about this experience? What do you value about it?’
  • Capabilities and Behaviour are pointed to by questions such as ‘What is already working?’ and ‘What should we be doing more of?’ This level also equates to the new forms of organisation, workflows and processes that are often mentioned as emerging from the Design stage in the AI literature.
  • Environment is what the organisation operates in: customers, other stakeholders, competitors, partners, markets and regulatory frameworks, as well as physical locations and resources. This is also where we would look for the consequences and knock-on effects of our changes.

Using logical levels

Each level needs to be aligned with the others. For example, the Behaviours we need to undertake in order to achieve our Purpose and fulfil our Values may require us to expand our Capabilities.

One way of using this model in the Design stage would be to start with the provocative proposition at Identity or Purpose level, and to examine the Behaviours needed to make it a reality. Or you could start with the Values and work down by asking ‘What Behaviours do we need to pursue? What Capabilities do we need?’ At the same time you could work upwards by asking ‘Who are we when we truly fulfil these Values?’

As you examine each level in the light of the others, expect more information to emerge at each level. You may find that you refine the provocative proposition in the light of the re-examined Values, or that the Values set expands as you consider the implications of Identity or Behaviours.

When each Logical Level of the organisation is aligned with your provocative proposition and with the other levels, you have a sound basis for action.

3. The ‘Disney strategy’ for creativity

Another format developed by NLP pioneer Robert Dilts, this is modelled on the way Walt Disney used to organise his creative teams to come up with ideas.

The biggest block to creativity in business is the tendency, culturally ingrained to a greater or lesser extent, depending on country, industry sector and profession, to shoot down new ideas before they get off the runway by pointing out all the reasons why they couldn’t work. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this treatment, you will know how it rapidly shuts down your imagination and your willingness to contribute.

In fact, of course, when you are imagining new ways of doing things, there are no bad ideas. The least practical suggestion may, by association, spark the eventual solution. If new ideas are critiqued too soon, they can’t develop and creativity is stifled.

The Disney strategy gets around this problem by separating idea generation into three distinct phases: a ‘dreamer’ mode, where all new ideas are encouraged, a ‘realist’ or ‘implementer’ mode, which looks at how to make the ideas work in practice, and finally a ‘critic’ mode which looks for flaws in the ideas and what could go wrong.

The result is that many more ideas can be generated quickly, and those that look promising have a chance to develop and mature a little before they are examined for potential failings.

Any problems or flaws found at the critic stage can be processed through the cycle again, as people dream up ways of fixing them, work out how to implement the fixes and run a critical eye over them to identify any new problems.

There are obvious parallels between the dreamer phase of the Disney strategy and the dream stage of Appreciative Inquiry, and between the implementer phase and design. The critic stage can perform a useful minesweep towards the end of the design stage, helping to ground the optimism of the AI process and maximise the chances of success in delivery.

Using the Disney strategy

There are many different ways you can implement the Disney strategy – below are some possibilities.

  1. Guide the whole group through each phase. It works best when you make explicit rules for each phase (for example: ‘all ideas are good ideas’ for the dreamer phase and ‘we are looking for how it could work, not how it could fail’ for the implementer stage). To emphasise the distinction between the phases, you could get participants to move to a different table, a different room or a different physical location. To warm the group up for each phase, you could invite them to remember a time when they were creative, when they made something work in practice, or they successfully looked for and fixed problems.
  2. Divide a larger group into teams, each dreaming up ideas. Next, rotate their ideas to another group for the implementer phase, and rotate again for the critic phase.
  3. Assign the dreamer, implementer and critic roles to different people. Some people will be naturally suited to one role or another. You could either spread the process out over time or you could have everyone present throughout. For example, if you have a natural critic in your team, you could brief them to silently take note of any flaws that they spot in the dreamer and implementer phases, only revealing the criticisms that are still relevant when it comes to the critic phase.

You can also use the Disney strategy by yourself as an idea generation method. Make sure you move to a different physical location, take a break or do something completely different to make a clean distinction between each of the three phases.