Intrigued by Appreciative Inquiry, and wondering how to do it?
If you've already read our webpage titled How We Work you may be intrigued with the positive, strengths-based approach of AI, and curious about how it might actually be implemented in your organization. This page provides additional information on the philosophy of AI (why it works) and the methodology of AI (what might happen during an AI process or initiative).
Why Appreciative Inquiry Works
What makes AI so powerful is the strengths-based approach it takes to change in human systems. In most organizations, focusing on what's wrong and how to fix it is an ingrained habit. So a major component of any AI initiative is making the "mental shift" from focusing on problems to focusing on strengths.
The following four guiding principles of AI describe why making this shift generates more successful and sustainable change. Each of the four is described briefly, followed by one of the strategies commonly used to put it into practice.
- Principle 1: Words create worlds"Reality" is not an objective factit is a subjective experience. When we use language in conversations, we are engaging in a process of creating meaningcreating our realitywith others. For example, whether the talk around the water cooler is negative or positive, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Strategy 1: Identifying your "positive core"creating a clear image of your strengths and assets as an organization and individually. These are the key attributes you want to keep and build on for the future.
- Principle 2: Positive images lead to positive actionhumans (both organizations and individuals) move toward their images of the future. When you have positive, hopeful images of the future, you're inspired to take positive action in the present. When you're building on your strengths, you feel empowered to take bold steps toward your desired future.
- Strategy 2: Dreaming about the future you want to create togethersharing your most heart-felt desires for your future as an organization and individually. When people see what they want for their own futures in an organizational vision, they are tireless about pursuing it.
- Principle 3: Quality relationships are essential to organizational successmore and more, organizational success depends on effective teamwork, honest and clear communication, creativity and innovation, and appropriate leadership among all the relevant players, not just the management team. In short, success depends on quality relationships. Organizations can move mountains when people create quality relationships at and across all levels.
- Strategy 3: Sharing stories to create quality relationshipsHearing someone's story transforms your relationship with him/her. When people talk with others about high points or challenges in their lives, they naturally build empathy, mutuality, respect, trust, and genuineness. In short, they build quality relationships.
- Principle 4: Previously hidden possibilities emerge when the entire organization engages in conversations that matter. When all key players (all levels of staff, clients, funders, and other stakeholders) talk in meaningful ways across organizational boundaries, they build quality relationships. As they understand each others' perspectives, alternatives they had never before considered become real possibilities.
- Strategy 4: Bringing all the stakeholders (or representatives) together, face-to-faceGetting everyone in the room at the same time enables people to develop a clear understanding of the whole organizational picture. They make sense of each other's differing perspectives. They come to appreciate the diversity among them. A level of trust and collaboration not otherwise possible emerges.*
These four Appreciative Inquiry principles and strategies have been implemented successfully in organizations of virtually any sizeliterally one-person shops to international agencies. They can also be applied effectively in a unit within a larger organization.
What happens in an AI Initiative?
As its name suggests, putting Appreciative Inquiry into practice involves "appreciating" and "inquiring." The "appreciating" component involves creating and keeping a positive mind-set of valuing, affirming, and building on strengths throughout the organization. The "inquiring" component involves asking questions (unconditionally positive questions, of course!) to explore, study, discover and build on new possibilities. Together, they create powerful new relationships and catalyze organizational transformation. They are integrated in a variety of ways throughout the process.
The first integration is in choosing a focuswhat you want to accomplish. The very first choice in implementing AI is fateful if you apply the AI principle that organizations move toward what they focus on. So whatever you want to accomplish needs to be expressed in an "appreciating" and "inquiring" way so it creates the results you want. For example, suppose you've just been through budget cuts or staff layoffs and want some help moving forward. You might choose "Co-Creating a Vibrant Future" as an appropriate topic for an appreciative inquiry.
A second vehicle for interweaving the two are structured conversations called "appreciative interviews." These are opportunities for people to tell stories about past high point experiences at work and their dreams for the organization's future. They serve the "appreciating" function because sharing stories builds positive connections between people. They serve the "inquiring" function because they invite exploration of what's working well in the organization and people's hopes for the future. They provide rich data for analysis throughout the rest of the inquiry.
The four phases of an AI process also integrate "appreciating" and "inquiring" in practice. This process is called the 4-D cycle, because each of the phases begins with the letter "D." First, you "discover" your current and past strengths. Next, you "dream" about the possibilities for the future you want to create. Then, you "design" the ideal organizational systems that will enable you to move toward your dream. And finally, you set your "destiny" through ongoing innovation and action.
Here's what the 4-D cycle might look like in practice, working with the topic of "Co-Creating a Vibrant Future:"
- In the discovery phase, you engage people in conversation about the core strengths and attributes of your organization. They tell stories about their peak experiencestimes when they were most alive and engaged in their work. From these interactions, you develop a map of your positive corethe forces that give life to your organization when it is at its best.
- In the dream phase, you explore your highest aspirations for the future you want to create together. You identify new ways to build on your positive core. People get energized as they see that they can achieve their own dreams as they're contributing to the organization's dreams. You write alternative dream statements and enact these images of your desired future to make them more real.
- At the design phase, you create "blueprints" for the kind of organization that will bring your dreams to life. People dialog about what will inspire them to commit their energy and spirits. You develop "provocative propositions" describing your organization's ideal "ways of doing things"its structures, systems, values, norms, strategies, relationships.
- When you reach the destiny phase, you begin to construct your desired future through innovation and action. At this point, people self-organize to make specific changes they feel passionate about. You create ways to coordinate the work, and to continue improvising and celebrating accomplishments.*
You have lots of flexibility in how to implement an AI initiative. The one consistent principle is that the more stakeholders (including staff, Board, members/clients, volunteers, funders, relevant community organizations, etc.) participate, the better. This ensures the broadest array of input and the best buy-in to the outcomes. And AI has been successfully implemented with groups ranging in size from 2 to thousandsso no organization is too small or too large!
Typically, projects start with an extensive series of appreciative interviews to build interest and energy for the AI process as well as to collect data. Then stakeholders (again, as broad an array as possible) come together to make meaning from the interview data and complete the 4-D cycle together. This could happen in a number of different formats:
- An AI Summit, where a group of stakeholders (up to about 2,000 people) completes the entire 4-D cycle in a block of 2-5 days.
- Progressive AI Meetings, where a group completes the 4-D cycle in a series of gatherings over several weeks.
- Mass-Mobilized Inquiry, where a local community (town, city, even metropolitan area) engages in hundreds of interviews to define their ideal vision of their community.
- Core Group Inquiry, where a small team completes a 4-D cycle on behalf of a larger organization or group.*
Inspiring Results will be happy to customize an approach that will fit your needs, objectives, and resources. If you're ready to hear more, please click on the "free consultation" button above or click here. If you'd like additional information on how we've worked with others, click here.
*This material has been adapted from Whitney, Diana, and Amanda Troesten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003. The principles are from Chapter 3, “Eight Principles of Appreciative Inquiry,” and the alternative formats for the 4-D Cycle are from Chapter 2, “A Menu of Approaches to Appreciative Inquiry.” This book is our favorite resource because it provides a comprehensive overview of the theory as well as specific details on the practice of AI.