What is Appreciative Inquiry?
If you’re listening to this, which you are, and you’re somewhere on the strengths spectrum from curious to expert, then it’s likely that you’re already applying quite a few AI principles. What do I mean? Well I don’t mean that you’re all about artificial intelligence, not on this podcast anyway. No, I’m talking about applying the core principles of Appreciative Inquiry. In today’s show, I’m going to focus in on why Appreciative Inquiry is such a powerful tool for personal, team, organisational and even societal change.
So first of all, what on earth am I talking about? Appreciative Inquiry was first developed in the late 1980s by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivasta at Case Western University in the US as an alternative approach to engaging people in change initiatives, challenging the traditional problem-solving, weakness-fixing model. The idea was that by focusing more on what could be and building on what already works to get there, rather than trying to finesse something that isn’t really working or finding existing problems and fixing them, you get greater leaps forward. The approach typically gets a bunch of differing perspectives on a topic to get the greatest benefits (like customers, employees and management) and follows a specific process, which I’ll talk through in a bit.
What is the business case for Appreciative Inquiry? What is the evidence for it working?
First of all, I’d like to share some evidence-based examples of where it’s worked:
- British Airways – used AI to improve employee engagement and customer satisfaction by 8% and 9% respectively, by involving employees of all levels to identify and build on their strengths to create a more collaborative working environment.
- Cleveland Clinic – this large US healthcare provider used AI to improve patient satisfaction (which increased by 26%) and reduce the length of hospital stays (by 19%). They brought together doctors, nurses, and patients to identify best practices and build on existing strengths.
- GTECH – is a small tech firm in the UK that used AI to improve its product development approach and saw a 32% increase in revenue and 28% increase in profits.
- So that’s business. From a social change POV, the United Nations Development Programme used the approach to reduce poverty in rural Nepalese communities, by helping people identify their strengths and utilise existing resources differently. This allowed the communities to develop new income-generating activities, increase access to healthcare and education, and reduce poverty.
- And the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped to create a more democratic and inclusive South Africa post-Apartheid by enabling communities to identify positive stories of reconciliation and forgiveness and together construct a positive vision for future society in South Africa.
Now, I don’t want to overreach here in terms of claims, the approach is still not that widely applied in organisations (we’ll come on to why that might be later), but I do want to shout it out as an approach that can not only enable change by providing a different perspective, but also is one that you’re probably already using and intuitively know that works in your own work practices and in your not work life too.
What are the challenges for Appreciative Inquiry? Why isn’t it more widely used?
For me, the thing about Appreciative Inquiry, and there’s an irony here, is that it has a language issue. When I tell you that it’s based on 5 principles, which are constructionist, simultaneity, poetic, anticipatory and positive, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it all sounds too theoretical and fluffy. We’ll focus in on those principles, they’re really powerful, but probably need a rebrand to make them easier to understand.
The irony is that at the heart of Appreciative Inquiry is the idea that the language that we use really matters because it helps us to make sense of reality and that changing the way we think and talk about ourselves, our teams, our organisations and society is what motivates change. Which leads me to wonder why it wouldn’t benefit AI to use language that’s easier to understand.
So, by way of translation, this is my understanding of those 5 principles and why you’re probably already using them, and maybe even how you could use them more. BTW, for me there are really 4 principles because the last one is the perspective that you take throughout to make it work. I’m going to talk about why each principle is important and the kinds of questions that you’d be asking if you’re going to apply it:
Appreciative inquiry principle 1: constructionist = storytelling
OK, so the constructionist principle is basically about storytelling. The stories we tell ourselves and each other make a difference to how we see the world. If we focus on strengths and positive stories and experiences, we’re more likely to be able to imagine a more positive now and future. If you work in 121 coaching, this would be useful for challenging mindsets and beliefs that are no longer working for a client. In a team development setting, focusing on what the team already does well that it could build on would be the focus. As with the whole approach, it’s about the questions we ask. So, in a team, context, you’re asking things like ‘What are the most positive experiences you’ve had in this team?’, ‘What are the core strengths of this team?’, ‘When have you seen this team work together effectively?’ and so on. David Cooperrider nailed it in a very instagrammable quote pair – “Words create worlds”, “Our worlds are formed by the questions we ask.”
Appreciative inquiry principle 2: simultaneity = what you talk about now creates the future
The next one, the almost unpronounceable and unspellable ‘simultaneity’ principle, really means what you talk about now starts to create the future. This one sees you asking questions based on the strengths of now that could create a stronger future vision. Like ‘What positive experiences have you had in this organisation that could be built upon to create even greater success?’, or ‘How can we leverage the strengths of this organisation to turn it into what it needs to be to stay relevant in future?’. Relating to this point, Gervase Bushe, a significant voice in the world of AI said, “Appreciative Inquiry is based on a deceptively simple premise: organisations grow in the direction of what they repeatedly ask questions about and focus their attention on”.
Appreciative inquiry principle 3: poetic = metaphor
Principle three, the poetic principle, is about using metaphor to create a powerful, inspiring vision for what could be. For me, in my work in organisational culture change, metaphor is super important because it helps people talk about things that are really hard to articulate – like the feelings they have about their team or organisation described in a more relatable way, like the organisation or team I work for feels like a ‘family’ or ‘army’ or ‘school’. Those are simple examples, I’ve also heard metaphors like pencil sharpener, white water rafting and David and Goliath. Too much to explain those right now.
Using Appreciative Inquiry, we’re trying to get people to think about how a future metaphor might be different from now. To get there, you ask questions like ‘If your organisation was a character in a story, who would they be? What qualities would they have? What would their journey look like?’, that kind of thing.
This is equally powerful by the way in 121 coaching…example question ‘Can you describe a time that felt like a turning point for you? What metaphors come to mind when you think of that experience?’. I was working with someone recently who talked about their career in terms of ‘chapters’ and what helped him transition into his new and much bigger role was remembering what he did in previous career chapters which had each turned out ok in the end, with the central character (him) successfully overcoming their initial doubts and concerns and making a success of each of their previous role transitions.
Appreciative inquiry principle 4: anticipatory = taking action
The fourth principle, anticipatory, builds on the metaphor principle but is about taking action to get there. So if you know where you want to go, you can ask questions like ‘What small steps can you take right now to achieve that vision of the future?’ or ‘What are some specific goals or milestones that you want to achieve in the future? How can you break those goals down into actionable steps that you can take right now?’ This principle is sooooo resonant with coaching practice because in order to motivate change, coaches need to ask coachees to do or try something new, otherwise nothing will change.
Appreciative inquiry principle 5: positive = perspective
I mentioned that the fifth principle is more like an overarching one – it’s the positive principle and is about taking a positive perspective throughout. Now I get that positive isn’t the only game in town and that there are often some broken bits that need to be worked on if we’re going to achieve the future vision. The idea though is that by staying positive, optimistic and hopeful, it smooths the path neurologically for us as individuals and collectively in our groups at work to achieve change. That’s because positive emotions ready our neural pathways to be opened up and that allows us to generate new and creative ways of looking at old problems.
It’s important to say that the AI approach needs to be truly future focused to create successful transformation. So it’s not enough to imagine a positive future, you need to create an action plan to get there. I know that sounds obvious but sometimes, people can get stuck in appreciating the positive without engaging in the hard work to actually get to the vision of the future.
So how does this work in practice – is there a model to follow?
There is an AI model to follow, which sort of follows the 5 principles. And it’s:
- Discover – identify the best of what is and what has been in terms of processes and approaches
- Dream – imagine and talk through what might be…what’s the future vision?
- Design – plan the processes that will work well to achieve the future state
- Do or Deploy – then do it.
Sort of simple, but harder than it sounds because it’s so easy to get locked into the problem-solving and weakness-fixing approach as that’s mainly what we’ve been socialised to do. Appreciative inquiry of course is also a problem-solving strategy, just not with that lens or language. It’s more about creating a powerful vision for the future based on the good stuff from now which will stimulate tangible change.
Appreciative inquiry – it’s all in the name
So next time you’re having a conversation with a team, or an individual or a group of execs… check your language. Ask yourself whether you’re taking a strengths-based approach here or are you looking at things from more of a deficit POV? And know that by appreciating what works best and inquiring as to how that knowledge could be used to create a different solution, you’ll be following the appreciative inquiry approach. Let me leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein, which nails the AI approach for me with, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. Till next time, stay appreciative.