Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

AI compared with traditional problem-solving

The single accomplishment of the industrial age was the notion of continuous improvement. It remains the secular religion of most managers... It has reached the point of diminishing returns in incremental improvement programs.

Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution

The traditional approach

The traditional approach to change management or organisational development is to look for the problems, do a diagnosis and then look for the solutions. This approach emphasises and amplifies problems – and draws effort away from innovative work and creative thinking.

Looking for the cause of a problem and then trying to fix it works well for simple problems in simple systems. In more complex systems, however – and anything involving human beings is a complex system – fixing a symptom in one part of the system can cause problems in other parts, or after a time interval.

For example, when the New Labour government came into power in the UK in 1997, they pledged to bring down waiting times for hospital appointments in the National Health Service. They set targets for waiting times which NHS managers had to work towards. Waiting times started to come down, but in focusing on meeting the targets, other essential functions which were less easily quantifiable – such as keeping the hospital wards clean – were sometimes neglected, with the result that incidences in hospitals of ‘superbugs’, such as MRSA and E Coli, began to rise. The attempt to solve one problem had made other problems worse.

Another problem-based approach to change is the ‘Year Zero’ approach – sweep away the existing system and build something new and better in its place. The drawback to this approach is that it gets rid of the good as well as the bad. The new system may lose a lot of what was effective, what customers liked, and what motivated staff in the old system. This is one reason why many employees dislike change.

Problem-focused approaches will take little account of the positive aspects of a system, so there is no guarantee that they will be carried forwards into any new way of doing things.

The AI approach

By contrast, Appreciative Inquiry starts by looking for what’s working with the aim of building on this, so its users are much more likely to retain the best of what is already there when designing a new system.

A key aspect of AI is its inclusiveness. The method aims to get input from as many diverse voices as possible, ideally from everyone who is affected by the change. It does this for two reasons.

  • Involvement breeds engagement. When people are involved in co-creating a vision of the future, and in discussing ways of making it happen, they feel that they ‘own’ that vision. Change does not have to be ‘sold’ to them nor their ‘buy-in’ secured, and they don’t have to be ‘motivated’ or incentivised to make it work, because they are already part of that change and want it to succeed.
  • No single person in the organisation has a monopoly on the truth. Involving everyone in the organisation, and ideally including representatives of other stakeholders, such as suppliers and customers, accesses the wisdom, creativity and practical knowledge of their unique perspectives in a way that top-down initiatives cannot. Top-down strategies may look great on paper, but they often run into practical difficulties when people try to implement them on the shop floor or in customer service environments. But when you involve people who work in those environments in creating the vision and designing the implementation, they can spot these practical difficulties before they happen, and the flaws can be designed out.

Problem-solving versus AI

Finally, an approach based on problem-solving tends to restore system performance up to ‘acceptable’ levels. When performance is acceptable, management focus moves on to other more pressing problems. The Appreciative approach goes beyond ‘restoration’ to generating new and better solutions and opening new possibilities for results that are exceptional rather than acceptable.

The differences are summed up in the table below.

Problem-focused
Appreciative Inquiry
  • Begins with critique of failure
  • Closes down real conversations
  • Makes people defensive about being found out
  • Weakens morale
  • Diagnosis of problem as if from a detached viewpoint
  • Top-down, or uses outside consultants
  • Focus on the causes of problems
  • Moving away from that particular problem
  • Slow because it causes resistance
  • Assumes organisations are sets of problems to be overcome
  • Begins with celebration of success
  • Invites conversations about what really matters
  • Makes people more open about what needs to be done
  • Strengthens resilience
  • Looking at what’s working well – from the viewpoint of the participant
  • Involves everyone (the ‘whole system’) and builds capacity
  • Focuses on the organisation at its best
  • Moves towards the best future for the organisation
  • Engaging, so builds energy fast
  • Assumes organisations are sources of infinite vitality, creativity, and imagination