Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Five principles of Appreciative Inquiry

These principles are derived directly from the writings of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. They act as a compass, helping you to make sure that any interventions you devise stay true to the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry. They can also be useful when explaining the differences between AI and other approaches.

1. The constructionist principle

 

Words create worlds

Reality, as we experience it in organisations and any form of social system, is largely made up of ‘social constructs’. Any objective reality underpinning our experience is obscured by the subjective reality of the social constructs we use, our beliefs and interpretations, our associations, and our expectations. In essence, the language we use shapes our social reality. Meaning is made in conversation, and what emerges as knowledge is a broad social agreement created among people through communication.

Four assumptions of social constructionism
  • The terms by which we understand our world and our self are neither required nor demanded by ‘what there is’.
  • Our modes of description, explanation and/or representation are derived from relationship.
  • As we describe, explain, or otherwise represent, we also fashion our future.
  • Reflection on our forms of understanding is vital to our future well-being.

The constructionist principle recognises that there are many different ways of viewing social reality and many truths, and that we can replace ‘absolutist claims or the final word with the never-ending collaborative quest to understand and construct better options for living’ (David L Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry: a positive revolution in change).

What does this mean in practice? Life is full of ‘social constructs’ – phenomena that exist because people agree to act as if they exist. ‘Social status’ would be one example; paper money is another.

When people decide to change their beliefs around a particular social construct, reality changes – as in the recent credit crisis, when people decided to stop believing that ‘credit default swaps’ were valuable assets that could act as security for loans.

Organisations are made up of social constructs: conventions, rules and assumptions that usually go unchallenged and unreflected on. Decisions are made, expectations of the future are formed and information is interpreted within the frame of those unchallenged assumptions.

Exercise

If social reality is shaped by how we talk about it, it makes sense to talk about what is working, what we are proud of, what gives life to the organisation and what we want.

To get the best from your team, your colleagues, or your boss, what changes could you make to what you talk about or the way you talk about it?

What specific changes will you try out in

  • The questions you ask
  • The stories you tell?

2. The poetic principle

 

We can choose what we study.

Organisations are like open books which are constantly being co-authored and reinterpreted – there is no one definitive viewpoint and therefore no monopoly on the truth about what the organisation is, what it is like and what it is there for. Each new person joining the organisation is like a new ‘reader’, bringing their own perspectives. Each new eye that looks at the past, present and future of the organisation can find new sources of learning and inspiration.

Also, we can interpret the organisation’s ‘narratives’ how we wish. We can choose what we study about the ‘open book’ that is the organisation. Since companies and teams are ‘social constructs’, we don’t have to repeat stale old narratives (workplace stress, low engagement, management-worker conflicts – all the problems and shortcomings). By choosing to inquire into experiences of the organisation and its people at their best, we can uncover previously overlooked but valuable learnings.

3. The simultaneity principle

 

The inquiry is the intervention.

The traditional sequence of activity in organisational change goes: gather information, analyse it, prescribe an intervention and implement it. Underlying this process is the assumption that we can observe a system without affecting it. But there is no such thing as a detached and objective analysis of organisational problems.

Consider this: if patterns of human organisation are not dictated by our genes or determined by the physical world, but instead are socially constructed in the context of relationships and communication, the questions we ask become another input into the socially-constructed system. They have effects on the listener, putting certain ideas and images in their mind and excluding others, and directing their attention along certain avenues of enquiry while closing off others. The enquirer or ‘analyst’ is also influenced by the ‘frames’ set up by the questions. It therefore makes sense to ask questions which will raise morale, strengthen relationships and trust and direct attention towards where solutions may be found.

It is not so much, ‘is my question leading to right or wrong answers’ but rather ‘What effect is my question having on our lives together... Is it strengthening our relationships?’

David L Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry: a positive revolution in change

For example, a director might decide to gather information about problematic stress levels in her company by commissioning a stress audit. Everyone in the company fills out a questionnaire, and some are interviewed, about sources of stress, bringing the subject to the forefront of their attention. ‘Actually’, they think, ‘this is quite a stressful place to work!’

So stress levels rise as a result of the survey, particularly as the workforce are suspicious of the management’s intentions (based on their past experience). Is the survey really anonymous? Will my comments about the stressors in my department enable the response to be traced back to me?

The stress audit naturally raises expectations among the staff that the employer will do something about stress levels. If the employer chooses not to, the intervention now gives them another problem: under UK health and safety law, employers have a duty of care which requires them not to expose their employees to undue stress levels. The company cannot claim that they were unaware of the stress levels, because they have conducted the stress audit.

The observer is not separate from the system being observed. As soon as you ask a question it has an effect – big or small and often unpredictable – on the system being studied. The inquiry is already the intervention.

4. The anticipatory principle

 

Image inspires action.

Organisations (and people) tend to grow in the direction of their positive images of the future, like a sunflower or heliotrope grows towards the sun. Our expectations of the future – and therefore of what we believe is possible – are constantly shaped by our conversations.

Repeated studies in sports psychology have shown that athletes who mentally rehearse success do better than those who don’t have a clear image of success, or who psych themselves out by imagining all the things that could go wrong.

Having a clear, compelling image of the desired future creates ‘towards’ motivation, taking us towards that vision. Of course, we also tend to move away from our fears and bad experiences. However, moving ‘towards’ what we want is more directed and sustainable, and less stressful in the long term, than moving ‘away from’ what we don’t want.

‘Towards’ and ‘away-from’ motivation contrasted

  1. If we know where we want to get to, we can correct our aim if circumstances knock us off course. ‘Away from’, by contrast, is not a direction and does not give us that ‘inner rudder’. If our main motivation for acting is to escape from unfavourable situations, we may end up further away from where we would really like to be.
  2. If our motivation is 100 per cent ‘away from’, it gets weaker and more inconsistent the further away we get from what we are trying to escape from. After we are clear of the undesirable situation, we may have no motivation at all until the next crisis comes along. You may have worked in teams characterised by a reactive, ‘headless chicken’ way of working, always fire-fighting some new crisis.

    ‘Towards’ motivation, on the other hand, stays constant and may even get stronger the nearer we get to our compelling goal.

  1. ‘Away from’ motivation is stressful, because our thinking and conversation is dominated by the unpleasant situations or possible outcomes that we want to escape. The more away motivated we are, the more stressed we feel. ‘Towards’ motivation, by contrast, engenders positive emotions, because we are thinking and talking about where we want to get. Even if our objective circumstances are unpleasant, our intersubjective reality, focused on our desired futures and the evidence in the present of that future beginning to happen, will produce uplifting emotions, such as hope, gratitude and excitement, which will lead to better results.

It therefore makes sense to look for and talk about what is already working well and where we want to get in the future.

5. The positive principle

 

Positive questions create positive change.

In order for change to be successful, people need to learn new ways of doing things. Unfortunately change is often stressful, and stress inhibits learning. Large-scale change therefore requires large amounts of positive affect (emotion), and positive questions and positive focus are a way of creating this.

Asking questions which focus on the positive – on achievements we are proud of, best practices, and best experiences, will tend to generate the positive affect needed for best performance, persistence, and resilience to setbacks.

Changing the way we work is not easy. It requires high levels of positive emotion and social bonding, which tend to improve our capabilities and performance (see, for example, Barbara Fredrickson’s work on the benefits of positive emotions).