Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – Using the Power and Wisdom of Successes

swarm intelligence unfolding potential (kudos to unsplash.com)

AI is a philosophy as well as a methodological approach for team and organizational development. It may admit the existence of problems, but the focus it chooses is entirely elsewhere — on the unfolding of group resources and potentials.

There are a few basic assumptions that are at the heart of AI:

  • People and social systems always develop in the direction of their focus and attention.
  • Every human being, every relationship and every system has unsuspected and unused positive potential that comes to light now and then.
  • People face the future with more trust and comfort if they are able to keep something from the past.
  • If we keep something from the past, it should be the best of the past.

The past and present are rich with positive experiences and insights and can be an infinite source for development, performance and success.

The Roots

Appreciative Inquiry is a value-oriented process that allows teams and organizations to outgrow their problems and boundaries. It is designed to create a safe space such that people feel seen and appreciated as whole human beings. On this basis, they are able to contribute fully, find and follow their shared purpose and create a common desired future, all in a way that is increasingly self-managed over time.

The method was created by Dr. David L. Cooperrider and Dr. Suresh Srivastva at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio in the 1980's.

David L. Cooperrider said:

Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them. It involves a systematic discovery of what gives a system “life” when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to heighten positive potential. It mobilizes inquiry through crafting an “unconditional positive question,” often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.

The success and the power of Appreciative Inquiry can now also be explained by neuroscience: People engage in development and change if they are invited, encouraged, and inspired. The possibilities they see need to be impactful. All this is fulfilled within Appreciative Inquiry!

Preconditions for Success

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a “true participatory process.” It requires that the system’s decisionmakers understand the method and be open to the process. A profile of the whole system should always be involved, including effected systems like suppliers, customers etc.

A successful AI process needs enough time to elaborate on results that the participants have aligned on.

In situations that have escalated emotionally, or where injuries, resentments and other negative emotions have taken root in the system and daily encounters, it is crucial to give them an appreciative safe space where they can be expressed and acknowledged. AI can become very effective when people are able to express what bothers, annoys, and offends them.

The Four Phases of Appreciative Inquiry

The process in which the power and energy of AI unfolds is the so called “4-D Cycle.” It is the script for change:

  • Discovery: Exploring what has worked and is working well and where potentials can be found
  • Dream: Inventing and designing how it could be at its best, if all potentials are activated
  • Design: Designing a bridge into the desired future
  • Destiny: Putting the desired future into practice in a sustainable way

To carry out the four phases in an optimal way, it is necessary to define what the theme and focus is, i.e. what the “core themes” of the inquiry should be.

Discovery – Exploring what is working well

Main corresponding Teal* pillar: Wholeness

(*Teal, from Reinventing Organizations)

This phase is a journey into the resources, successes and high points that have been experienced in the past in the field where a breakthrough, a new future, is desired.

Discovery is about bringing into focus the strengths and potentials of each individual and of the whole system in a way that makes them possible building blocks for solutions. This happens through an “appreciative interview” conducted between two people at the beginning of the exercise — this forms the core of every AI process. The goal of these interviews is to express the positive qualities of the people and the organization and to recount stories about experiences and events in the defined areas of focus that are connected with the best feelings, results and memories. These “power stories” are the fertile soil on which the future flourishes and thrives. The interviews are usually an inspiring experience for both partners. The people involved not only open up and get closer, but also the experiences shared often touch both people deeply. The interviewee is empowered to show up as a whole person, and is inspired by his/her own replies. Being aware of these wonderful success and “power” stories in the organization enables all participants to draw from them. This way the skills and potentials that already exist throughout the organization are brought out to be seen and appreciated.

After the interviews, the “power factors” that create vitality and power as well as the underlying values are identified. This way, they can be used by everyone and by the whole system.

The impact of the stories that are related, and the power factors derived from them, build a foundation and a tremendous wellspring of forward energy, for all further steps. The best of the past becomes a rich resource from which positive possibilities for the future can be drawn.

Dream: Inventing and designing how it could be at best, if all potentials are activated

Main corresponding Teal pillars: Wholeness & Evolutionary Purpose

Out of what was shared and seen in the interviews, participants identify common factors that will form the basis for further steps.

We focus on the question: What does an optimal future, the future that we want, look like?

At this point, wishes are deepened and pictures and visions are drawn of what could be and how it could be.  The power stories and positive experiences from the Discovery phase are the resources, “the  colours” used to paint on the canvas of the future. What treasures and strengths shall we carry into the future?  A positive, challenging, attractive and at the same time reachable picture of the future arises. The future emerging here is rooted in the soil of the past and present, and is realistic as well as visionary.   

For this phase, different creative elements and methods (i.e. vision journeying, painting, collaging, dancing) can all be used. Out of those a “collective verbal picture” is created. This is a  text which describes the dream of the desired future that connects the group in a  concrete and inspiring way. This way people show up with their whole being (including both hemispheres of the brain), and are able to express their longing for a desirable future, individually and collectively.

Design: Planning a bridge into the desired future

Main corresponding Teal pillar: Evolutionary Purpose

In the next step, these visions are clarified, and what is to be built gets precisely formulated - like an architect who creates a blueprint for the house from the client’s dreams and ideas.

For every core theme, a “future statement” is formulated which express the power of the visions - what shall be - in a clear way. The future statements are made more and more specific and concrete until they build a viable bridge from the existing potentials to the shared future, and have a real “suction force”.

The focus is on the simple question “What will be?”

Good future statements are:

  • provocative – challenging and go clearly beyond what has been achieved so far
  • “grounded” – since traceable examples from the past show that it is possible
  • affirmatively formulated – they describe what will be and not what should not be
  • expressive – they have the power of attraction
  • motivating – they represent an attractive future
  • formulated in present tense – this supports our brain’s realization power

Future statements describe the ideal, stimulate creativity and question existing patterns and assumptions. They are the “blueprint” for the desired future. They are not carved in stone, but evolve over time. Here are some examples for impactful future statements. Keep in mind that the most impactful future statement is the one you yourself have participated in creating — the meaning for participants is very special, and much more than words on a piece of paper. 

  • Everybody is taking 100% responsibility for the desired outcome.
  • Fairness and respect is bringing out our potentials.
  • Everybody freely and gladly contributing to the whole and everything gets done.
  • Free, inspired and focused - the future is happening
  • Accept, appreciate, trust, act ... and celebrate.

These sentences need to inspire the creators but they often also inspire outsiders or other teams of the organization. Especially for those who have witnessed the process, they stay connected with the energy of the desired future and the plan that they’ve designed for their shared “house.”

These powerful statements remind us in a pithy way, over and over again, what it is all about and what we are all standing for.

Destiny – Realizing the desired future in a sustainable way

Main corresponding Teal pillar: Self-Management

Now, on the wings of inspiration from the first three phases, we plan how the visions and future statements will be realized. Next steps and procedures are generated.  But: Destiny in the realm of AI is a lot more than the what might be called a normal “who does what, with whom, and by when” process.

In this phase, a framework is created in which the best becomes possible. The organization, the team and the individual unfold their potential, while at the same time starting to fulfil on their destiny. It is about persistence in the realization of the common visions that have been drawn up, in the “appreciative spirit” of wholeness.

The implementation or realization in terms of AI means culture change. With the energy of the future statements, people design concrete agreements, plans and operative (project) structures that enable participants to act out of the inspiration of being “already fulfilled” in their everyday lives. This goes far beyond reaching and “checking off” goals.

At its best, Destiny is an ongoing adaptive (evolutionary) process that carries forward the motivation of people’s shared experience.

As a first step in the Destiny phase, we detail in concrete terms what it means to live the future statements and what is needed for that.

Useful questions:

  • Where is the dream already alive?
  • By what means can the vision come to life?
  • What creates the essential energy for that?
  • What brings joy and excitement?

Furthermore, together people create operative project structures from the future statements.

Questions that lead there are:

  • What does the process so far mean for my own behaviour?
  • What exactly are we doing then?
  • Where exactly can we have the desired effect and with what procedures?
  • What structures do we need for that?
  • What strategic course do we need to set for this?
  • What feedback loops keep us on track?
  • How do we support and strengthen each other?
  • What new affirmatively formulated measures do we introduce to focus on our new successes and what we’ve achieved?
  • How do we appreciate and celebrate our successes while also shining an appreciative light on what didn’t work as we would have liked it to?

Destiny also includes designation of people responsible for communicating procedures and results achieved throughout the organization. Structures that support “staying tuned” are implemented. If an organization has embraced all four phases and gone through them in the described way, it will have established appreciative structures, processes, sequences, groups, feedback loops etc. that create and nourish a new culture in the organization.

Therefore it is essential that in this phase no business plan “as usual” be applied.

Conclusion

In its essence, Appreciative Inquiry is an ongoing evolutionary process in which striving for a desired future will bring out and draw on the power of existing resources over and over again.

The result is a new sustainable, appreciative way of being and working together, aligned in a shared purpose and with more and more structures that support self-management.

Literature: Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, David L. Cooperrider, Diana Whitney, Jacqueline M. Stavros, Publisher: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc.