As the head of your organization or function, do you consider that, no matter what the previous history, virtually any pattern of organizational action is open to alteration and reconfiguration? Every organization needs constant reaffirmation. Frequently, the stakeholders of an organization become unaware about what has made the organization vital. The original vitality needs to be awakened by a process of affirmation through appreciative cognition.
Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an approach to organizational management that emphasizes focus on strengths to find new pathways for growth, rather than focusing on limitations or issues to be solved. Elements of appreciative inquiry can be seen all over the business world. In this article, we’ll look at what appreciative inquiry is, how it works and what its benefits are.
The origins of Appreciative Inquiry
David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva published a paper in 1987 titled ‘Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life’. AI was created as another option to the problem-solving approach to management. Cooperrider saw the problem-solving approach as limiting and inherently biased towards the negative from the outset. Problem solving in an organization focuses on what is wrong and how to fix it. AI initiates a choice to look at what is working well and expands to other possibilities that exist for doing something greater and more energy generating in the future.
Leaders who have the following questions are greatly benefitted by implementing AI:
• Is the organization in the process of transition and is looking for something better?
• Do we believe that our people will bring about this change?
• Is the change possible with a participatory process?
• Do we have the courage to let our people talk, share, dream and design the future?
• Do we believe in articulating a shared vision and keeping it relevant at all times?
The benefits of using AI are: achieving widespread engagement and ownership of employees and stakeholders in large-scale strategic change initiatives; building commitment to organizational change and sustaining the commitment (and the process) for use in future changes; implementing major organizational repositioning and restructuring activities in a participatory manner with no industrial disputes. AI was embraced by GTE as a core methodology for change in all company initiatives. For example, a strategy for creating a more customer-focused culture was left wide open and enthusiastically embraced when a network of ‘change agents’ received AI training and were sent out into the company as ambassadors to find ways to make a difference for customers within the organization. Currently, there are several hundred AI-trained ‘positive change agents’ within the GTE/Verizon Family.
In my experience in India, where managers have been trained on using AI on the complete employee engagement cycle including selection, goal setting, performance review, development mapping and overall engagement, the employees are willing to explore, take risks, own up, show up and hence record better performance and results. When used with individual leaders (in coaching), it helps people to enhance their strengths, succeed and also help the organization grow.
The principles of AI
AI began with five basic principles meant to guide an organization through the process — constructionist, simultaneity, poetic, anticipatory and positive. The principles are essentially saying:
• What people say to each other about your company matters a lot.
• Creating a future vision for the type of company you want to have will prompt you and your employees to work towards that vision today.
• Questioning why you are doing what you do rather than just focusing on how to get better at doing what you do will prompt innovation and new ideas.
• Focusing on the positive helps to bring people together in a mood of collaboration rather than in a defensive state.
• Having more people involved means more creative minds and collective intelligence to draw on.
• Don’t let assumptions and preconceived notions keep you from giving a new idea a chance.
A group of stakeholders will get together and choose an ‘affirmative topic’. The topic is something the organization is doing well in and is critical to future success. The affirmative topic will ideally be put into more exciting words. The process is broken down into four phases, also known as the 4D model. These are:
• Discovery. Groups share positive stories about the organization, products, offering and management practices. These include their experiences within the organizations as an employee as well as those with other organizations as a customer or client.
• Dream. The groups are encouraged to imagine the ideal organization. This helps align the employees with the organization’s vision.
• Design. The groups discuss what can be done to realize the collective dream put forward in the dream phase and create change proposals or designs to bring about that dream.
• Destiny. Participants decide what and how they will contribute to the dream and proposed designs.
Pure AI is in use at many organizations all over the world. When successfully applied, AI has been credited with increasing employee satisfaction, improving efficiency, driving sales and so on. More evidently, elements of AI have made their way into the traditional management styles. AI is a powerful tool for shifting the focus of an organization to something much greater than its bottom line, although the eventual outcome will often definitely help the bottom line.