“What would it happen to our change practices if we began all our work with the positive presumption that organizations, as centers of human relatedness, are alive with infinite constructive capacity?” — David Cooperrider
Are you looking for a powerful, strengths-based approach to change and transformation that builds on what’s working well in your organization or community?
Appreciative Inquiry can help you do just that.
By focusing on what’s positive and possible, and by involving all stakeholders in the process, you can create change that is deeper, more meaningful, and more sustainable.
In this guide, you will learn the key principles and steps of the Appreciative Inquiry process, along with practical tips and tools for applying it in your own context.
With Appreciative Inquiry, you can co-create a better future for yourself, your organization, and your community.
How To Practice Appreciative Inquiry with Yourself
Before you practice, make sure you understand what Appreciative Inquiry is and can explain it to others.
A great way to internalize it is to practice explaining it to others.
A simple way that I found to practice Appreciative Inquiry is to practice 3 key things:
- Practice asking positive questions.
- Find and share positive stories of when you, other people, the organization is its best.
- Practice playing different roles and inspiring others to become champions of positive questions.
Model the way, teach others through example, and focus on getting a little better as you go, to get a lot better over time.
How To Practice Appreciative Inquiry with your Team, Organization or Community
Another larger scale way to practice is to practice the SOAR framework.
Appreciate Inquiry is built on SOAR, not SWOT. SOAR stands for:
- S: Signature Strengths
- O: Opportunities
- A: Aspirations
- R: Results
Jaqueline Stavros and Gina Hinrichs provide a comprehensive guide for implementing the SOAR framework in their book, The Thin Book of SOAR.
By following these steps, you can practice the power of Appreciative Inquiry to lead change better:
- Identify stakeholders: Determine who will be participating and arrange meetings. It is important to engage internal stakeholders who represent different areas of the company, in line with the collaborative spirit of AI.
- Design your Appreciative Inquiry interview: Develop questions that are aimed at understanding the organization’s positive core, its strengths, successes, and aspirations.
- Engage stakeholders: Involve internal and, if appropriate, external stakeholders to discover positive potential futures and possibilities using your questions.
- Reframe problems: When discussing problems, redirect the conversation to desired outcomes rather than focusing solely on avoiding or mitigating threats.
- Summarize: Affirm the organization’s strengths and positive core to clarify them for everyone involved.
- Establish aspirations and identify results: Define the organization’s future vision, leveraging the strengths that were identified. Determine what the results will look like.
- Assess opportunities: Review the opportunities generated. Determine which are the most desirable, innovative, and full of potential.
- Craft goals: Create goals that are based on the opportunities identified in the previous phase, and link them with the results for clarity and monitoring.
- Create action plans: Develop plans for implementing the goals, including specific plans for each goal, to ensure successful implementation.
6 Conditions to be Successful with Appreciative Inquiry
David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, the co-founders of Appreciative Inquiry, have identified six conditions that are essential for setting positive change efforts up for success:
- Freedom to be known in relationships: People’s identities form and evolve in relationships. AI levels the playing field by bridging the gap across hierarchies.
- Freedom to be heard: Open conversations don’t just give people space to speak up—everyone is committed to listen to everyone else.
- Freedom to dream in community: Leaders must encourage people to unleash their individual dreams and build a larger, collective one.
- Freedom to choose to contribute: AI reconnects people with their most profound purpose—people feel reenergized and determined. People contribute because they want to, not because they are forced to.
- Freedom to act with support: When everyone is listening and caring about each other, the desire to act increases—the system stimulates people to actively participate.
- Freedom to be positive: Culture is the behavior we reward and promote. When negativity is no longer omnipresent, people re-learn to focus on positive conversations.
Roles for Practicing Appreciative Inquiry
Effective leadership involves being a catalyst for change, creating the conditions that allow for growth and development, and nurturing the potential of team members.
Here are the key roles for Appreciative Inquiry according to David Cooperider and Diana Whitney:
- Leaders: Leaders champion the cause, but also work as equals with their team.
- Consultants: Consultants play a crucial role in introducing and training employees on the appreciative inquiry process, designing the overall process, and facilitating implementation until the internal team can take over. They continue to provide support as needed, working closely with the internal team to ensure successful implementation.
- Core Team: The Core Team serves as the go-to group for anything related to AI. They are responsible for defining topics, managing interview guides and processes, and encouraging the everyday practice of appreciative inquiry within the organization.
- Participants: Participants play an active role throughout the process, both as interviewees and interviewers. They share stories, best practices, and ideas, and contribute to finding solutions and taking action for positive change.
8 Forms of Engagement to Practice Appreciative Inquiry
According to David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, there are eight forms of engagement for Appreciative Inquiry.
Each approach is tailored to different group sizes, timelines, and objectives, making Appreciative Inquiry a highly adaptable method for driving positive change.
Here are the 8 forms of engagement for Appreciative Inquiry:
- Whole-System Dialogue: All members of the organization and some stakeholders patriciate in an Appreciative Inquiry 5-D process. It takes place at multiple locations over an extended period of time.
- Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A large group of people participate simultaneously in a two to four day Appreciative Inquiry 5-D process.
- Mass-Mobilized Inquiry: Large numbers of interviews (thousands to millions) on a socially responsible topic, are conducted throughout a city, community, or world.
- Core Group Inquiry: A small group of people selects topics, crafts questions, and conducts interviews.
- Positive Change Network: Members of an organization are trained in Appreciative Inquiry and provided with resources to initiate projects and share materials, stories, and best practices.
- Positive Change Consortium: Members of an organization are trained in Appreciative Inquiry and provided with resources to explore and develop a common area of interest.
- Appreciative Inquiry Learning Team: A small group of people with a specific project–that is, an evaluation team, a process improvement team, a customer focus group, a benchmarking team or a group of students–conducts an Appreciative Inquiry 5-D process.
- Progressive Appreciative Inquiry Meetings: An organization, small group, or team goes through the Appreciative Inquiry process over the course of tend to 12 meetings that are each two to four hours long.
While Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful tool for driving positive change, it is not without its limitations.
One potential drawback is the emphasis on the positive, which can lead to overlooking the flaws and weaknesses of an organization.
David Egan and Kathleen Lancaster are two practitioners and scholars who have written extensively on Appreciative Inquiry and its applications.
They have co-authored several books on the topic, including Quick Guide to the 4-D Model of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change.
Their work focuses on the practical application of Appreciative Inquiry in a variety of settings, including organizations, communities, and schools.
According to research by Egan and Lancaster, some key Watch Outs include:
- Difficult interpersonal situations being overlooked
- Feelings of anger or frustration being unvoiced
- Dissatisfied organization members retreating from the process due to feeling excluded
It’s important to be aware of these potential pitfalls in order to fully leverage the benefits of Appreciative Inquiry.
How To Address Watchouts
Here are some pragmatic tips to address the Watch Outs:
- Avoid groupthink: Encourage diverse perspectives and avoid groupthink through expert facilitation, promoting positive dissent and welcoming difficult conversations.
- Reframe challenges: Address existing issues and challenges, using positivity and strengths as a lens to evaluate and reframe them as positive inquiries.
- Create psychological safety: Create psychological safety, promoting a culture of open dissent and constructive conflict resolution.
- Use positive inquiries: Use positive inquiries to address problems and challenges, reframing them as opportunities for growth and improvement.
- Practice to improve: Remember that mastery and practice are necessary to effectively implement any new method, and that expertise cannot be achieved through theoretical knowledge alone.
Get the Books
Here are the books on Appreciative Inquiry that I found the most useful. Appreciative Coaching is especially interesting because the authors, Sara Orem, Jaqueline Binkert, and Ann Clancy did a great job of bringing appreciative inquiry to coaching.
You can even use the book for self-coaching.
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