Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Appreciative Inquiry

When I encountered a problem as a manager, my natural inclination was to delve into it with sharply defined questions like:

  • What went wrong?
  • How did we get here?
  • How did this happen?
  • Who was responsible?
  • What was the root cause?

hand frameThe first thing you’ll notice about these questions is that they’re all in the past tense. As we know from studying rhetoric, arguments in the past tense are about laying blame, not about finding solutions. The very way that I phrase my questions lets people know that I’m seeking someone to blame. What’s the natural reaction? People become defensive and bury the evidence.

The second thing you’ll notice is that all my questions are negative. The questions presuppose that nothing good happened. I don’t ask about what went right. I’m just not thinking about it. And neither is anyone else who hears my questions.

In many situations, however, a lot of things do go right. In fact, I would guess that in most organizations most things go right most of the time. Failures are caused by a few things going wrong. It’s rarely the case that everything goes wrong. Focusing on what’s wrong narrows our vision to a small slice of the activity. We don’t see the big picture. It’s self-defeating.

So, I’ve been looking for a systematic way to focus on the positive even when negative things happen. I think I may have found a solution in something called appreciative inquiry or AI.

According to Wikipedia, appreciative inquiry “is based on the assumption that the questions we ask will tend to focus our attention in a particular direction.” Instead of focusing on deficiencies, AI “starts with the belief that every organization, and every person in that organization, has positive aspects that can be built upon.” AI argues that, when people “in an organization are motivated to understand and value the most favorable features of its culture, [the organization] can make rapid improvements”.

The AI model includes four major steps:

  • Discover – identify processes and cultural features that work well;
  • Dream – envision processes that would work well in the future;
  • Design – develop process that would work well in the culture;
  • Deliver – execute the proposed designs.

The ultimate goal is to “build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t”.

Paul Nutt compares appreciative inquiry to solving a mystery. To get to the bottom of a mystery, we need to know about everything that went on, not just those things that went wrong. Nutt writes that, “A mystery calls for appreciative inquiry, in which skillful questioning is used to get to the bottom of things.”

I’m still learning about appreciative inquiry (and about most everything else) and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it in the future. In the meantime, if you have examples of appreciative inquiry used in an organization, please let me know.

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