Organisation Developmentby Rosie Stevens
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is not technically classed as one of the original Large Group Interventions, but it is a very specific approach to change and OD that has fast been gaining popularity and credibility over the last few years.
What is it?
Appreciative Inquiry is now a well-established, tried and tested OD philosophy and methodology. It is not a new OD intervention, but is simply a different approach and mindset to existing OD interventions. It focuses on creating images of an organisation’s preferred future by generating knowledge that comes from inquiry into moments of excellence, periods of exceptional competence, performance and service in the organisation’s past. By examining those times when people have felt most alive and energised (a state which produces the best performance and creativity), AI links the positive core of the organisation’s current reality to visions and images of what the organisation will be like in the future.
AI is a process and a philosophy – a way of being, a complete mindset. It can be used with any change process in human systems – strategy development, customer service, mergers, innovation and creativity, Business Process Re-engineering, culture, leadership, marketing, community building – in fact, the applications are almost limitless. It provides a theory and process for organisational growth and development as a continuous process offering constant challenge and opportunity.
It is routed in social constructionism – that is, that human beings construct their own reality together, using processes and language to make meaning of their world together and create new futures.
Social constructionist dialogues – of cutting edge significance within the social sciences and humanities – concern the processes by which humans generate meaning together.
It is an inquiry-based change process and applies the learning from what works (rather than focusing on what does not work). This is more effective and sustainable than learning from breakdowns and pathologies – in other words, what hasn’t worked/current problems. AI emphasises collaboration, the harnessing of positive human energy and the participation of all voices in the system.
It approaches change as a journey, rather than an event; it has a system orientation (changing the organisation); it values continuity along with innovation and transition management, and, most uniquely, it builds on the significant energy present when a system is performing at its very best in human, economic and organisational terms.
It is worth examining the meaning of the words in order to fully connect with the origins and meaning of Appreciative Inquiry:
To value or admire highly; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems. To increase in value...
To search into, investigate, to seek information by questioning. The act of exploration and discovery; to ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities...
There is now a significant amount of research into the impact of Appreciative Inquiry and it has been used world-wide with a great deal of success.
The BBC, BA, McDonalds, GEM, the National Audit Office, African National Government Organisations, NASA and Avon are just a few well-known organisations that have used AI successfully. NHS Direct have also changed the way they work and improved performance and motivation through the use of AI.
In managing change, we (that is, organisations throughout the world) have traditionally placed most emphasis on novelty, newness, innovation, difference and in developing strategies to get us from one place to another. We have placed much less value on considering what is best from the present and the past, purpose, pride, wisdom, threads of identity and traditions that matter to people, are held dear – and that work. If a vision for the future is rooted in the best experiences and attributes that really exist or have really happened, even if only occasionally, it is easier for people to see and believe that it is also possible for the future. It is a way of harnessing individual and collective pride and inspiration and motivating people towards a more compelling and believable vision for the future.
The five principles of AI
1. Constructionist principle
Understanding the constructionist stance: in other words, that we co-create our reality through conversations and inquiry, which leads to our agreements about what we believe to be true, how we see the world and how we will behave.
2. Poetic principle
Understanding and valuing storytelling as a way of gathering data, information and facts as well as the feelings that affected people’s experiences. Storytelling is rife in all organisations and, harnessed positively, can be immensely powerful for change.
3. Positive principle
A positive approach is a very valid basis for learning and is just as – if not more – contagious and certainly more energising than a negative approach, which is energy-draining.
4. Principle of simultaneity
The realisation that inquiry is change and that the first question we ask is absolutely critical, given that the organisation will turn its attention and energy in the direction of that first question; as a result, this question, be it positive or negative, embeds the seeds of change.
5. Anticipatory principle
The impact of anticipatory images – understanding that our images of the future (what we imagine or anticipate) directly impacts and creates our behaviours and actions as much as our learnings from experience and life.
The process needs to be facilitated by people trained in the use of AI, who are familiar with the underpinning theories, philosophies and principles. It is good practice, however, for the AI facilitators to train other people in the organisation to facilitate some of the phases and to build organisational capability in order to embed the approach as ‘the norm’.
The core, 5D process of Appreciative Inquiry is set out below. These are the five phases, which are fundamental to any AI and which are conducted in a specific order:
Decide what to learn about and create the inquiry process. Choose the positive as the focus of the inquiry.
Conduct an inquiry into the topic and pull together the stories and key themes that emerge; inquire into stories of ‘life-giving forces’ – moments of excellence, inspiration, peak performance, starting with specific stories about particular times/instances.
What might be? (What is the world calling for?) Locate themes that appear in the stories and, from those, select topics for further inquiry. Translate workshop experiences directly to the workplace.
What should be the ideal? This stage involves co-constructing: creating shared images for a preferred future, engaging as many people as possible in creating the shared vision and imagining an organisation where as many as possible of those exceptional moments become the norm rather than the exception.
This incorporates empowering, learning and adjusting/improvising, and finding innovative and engaging ways to create the future; this means considering and creating or further developing organisation design processes and agreeing an approach to individual action.
The initial interviewing and questioning phase always focuses on the positive and people are invited to tell each other about a time when they were at their very best, or when they were able to really help someone else/give excellent customer service/deliver excellent performance and so on.
It is really important that the examples relate to the theme of the AI and that the stories are just that – real people’s stories about a particular time when they were able to do something, or when they saw something that they always remembered or that always inspired them. The stories are examined for themes of what was present when ‘the best’ was happening – in other words, the conditions that were present from every angle to enable that to happen. This is then fed into every subsequent stage, so that the real ‘essence’ of what was is never lost and is carried forward into the future.
Appreciative Inquiry is engaging, highly participative, fun, inspiring and hugely motivational. When people are remembering themselves or their organisation at best, they want to do their best, to take the best forward – and it restores their faith in themselves and their organisation. There are some extremely good self-help books available for people, so even if you don’t want to embark on a full-blown Appreciative Inquiry, you can start to use some of the principles in your everyday working lives, with your own teams. Try it. You’ll be surprised at how well it works!
And if you choose to embark on ‘the whole thing’, remember to find and appoint someone who has been trained in the use of Appreciative Inquiry; they can then help you to develop that expertise throughout your organisation or team.