The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change

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The Power of Appreciative Inquiry describes the internationally embraced approach to organizational change that dramatically improves performance by engaging people to study, discuss, and build upon what's working – strengths – rather than trying to fix what's not. Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, pioneers in the development and practice of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), provide a menu of eight results-oriented applications, along with case examples from a wide range of organizations to illustrate Appreciative Inquiry in action. A how-to book, this is the most authoritative and accessible guide to the newest ideas and practices in the field of Appreciative Inquiry since its inception in 1985.

The second edition includes new examples, tools, and tips for using AI to create an enduring capacity for positive change, along with a totally new chapter on award-winning community applications of Appreciative Inquiry.

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Chapter 1 What Is Appreciative Inquiry?

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We are no longer surprised when clients ask, “Appreciative what? What do you mean by Appreciative Inquiry?” After all, the words are a somewhat unusual, if not paradoxical, addition to a business vocabulary that revolves around strategy, structure, problems, and profits. After learning more about the power and potential of Appreciative Inquiry, however, our clients declare, “We want to do Appreciative Inquiry, but we will definitely have to call it something different for it to catch on in our organization.”

Appreciative Inquiry is the study of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best. This approach to personal change and organization change is based on the assumption that questions and dialogue about strengths, successes, values, hopes, and dreams are themselves transformational. In short, Appreciative Inquiry suggests that human organizing and change at its best is a relational process of inquiry, grounded in affirmation and appreciation. The following beliefs about human nature and human organizing are the foundation of Appreciative Inquiry:

 

Chapter 2 A Menu of Approaches to Appreciative Inquiry

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Most Appreciative Inquiry processes follow the general flow of the 4-D Cycle. However, the reasons for using Appreciative Inquiry vary, as do the approaches taken and the ways in which key steps in the process are carried out. As a result, no two Appreciative Inquiry processes are ever exactly the same. Given that Appreciative Inquiry is an approach rather than a single methodology, how do you go about applying it? You do so by considering—and then answering—a series of questions. Figure 2 illustrates three broad questions that must be addressed when applying Appreciative Inquiry.

Figure 2. Questions To Be Addressed when Applying Appreciative Inquiry.

What is your Change Agenda? What are you trying to accomplish? What is your purpose?

What is the most appropriate Form of Engagement, given your Change Agenda, your organization’s culture, time frame, and resources?

What is your Inquiry Strategy? Having identified the purpose and form of engagement, what decisions and steps must you take along the way to ensure the project’s success?

 

Chapter 3 Eight Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

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When it comes to Appreciative Inquiry, principles and practice go hand in hand. The practice of Appreciative Inquiry is informed by a series of eight principles—essential beliefs and values about human organizing and change. These principles, in turn, evolve as successful practice reveals new and different understandings of how positive change works.

The eight principles of Appreciative Inquiry are as unique as the practices to which they have given birth. Derived from three generalized streams of thought—social constructionism, image theory, and grounded research—the principles suggest that human organizing and change is a positive, socially interactive process of discovering and crafting life-affirming, guiding images of the future. Let’s briefly consider these three streams of thought and their implications for Appreciative Inquiry.

Social constructionism posits that human communication is the central process that creates, maintains, and transforms realities. Initially introduced by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their classic work, The Social Construction of Reality,9 it is more recently developed by founders of the Taos Institute: Kenneth Gergen, Mary Gergen, Diana Whitney, David Cooperrider, Suresh Srivastva, Sheila McNamee, and Harlene Anderson. This tradition serves as the theoretical foundation for appreciative interviews, many Appreciative Inquiry small-group activities, and the notion that bringing all the stakeholders together is essential to constructive organization change.

 

Chapter 4 Appreciative Inquiry in Action:

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Since its inception in 1985, Appreciative Inquiry has spread around the world, gaining recognition as “today’s most popular new approach to change.” When David Cooperrider gave birth to Appreciative Inquiry, he did not know or intend to open the way for a bold new field of organizational change. Nevertheless, that is precisely what happened.

Over the past decades, Appreciative Inquiry has matured from a series of organizational experiments into a highly successful and sustainable philosophy and practice for positive change. As the stories in this chapter illustrate, many organizations around the world have embraced Appreciative Inquiry as their way of doing business. After using Appreciative Inquiry for four to five years, they have consistently achieved positive results in financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and employee engagement. Their successes with Appreciative Inquiry have added knowledge, innovative practices, and tools to the growing field.

This chapter begins with the birth of Appreciative Inquiry and describes the emergence of the field of positive psychology, which parallels the development of Appreciative Inquiry. Several case studies demonstrate the power of the Appreciative Inquiry process and the extraordinary results that were achieved.

 

Chapter 5 Getting Started with Appreciative Inquir

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A lot must happen in an organization before an Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Cycle process can begin. These preliminary activities are what we call Getting Started. Some organizations like to start quickly and plan as they go; others want a detailed route map, predetermined ways to measure results, and clear leadership roles and responsibilities in place before beginning. All organizations, however, face common decisions, and this chapter offers guidelines for this preliminary process.

In this chapter you will discover the essential decisions for Getting Started and will find step-by-step suggestions for creating an Advisory Team, for determining the scope of an AI project, for developing an Inquiry Strategy, and for beginning to engage large numbers of people in a long-term AI process. Finally, you will read more about Hunter Douglas and how they began their Appreciative Inquiry process.

One decision takes precedence over all others in Getting Started: the decision to proceed with Appreciative Inquiry. Once an organization makes this decision, all others follow. Beyond the decision to proceed, organizations make a variety of big-picture decisions that focus the initiative and scope of the project, creating a strategy for the overall effort, thus establishing the parameters of the overall process. Some important considerations in Getting Started with Appreciative Inquiry include:

 

Chapter 6 Affirmative Topic Choice

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Affirmative Topic Choice provides the focus for the activities that follow in the 4-D Cycle. Careful, thoughtful, and inspired topic choice is centrally important, as it defines the direction of the change process and lays the groundwork for subsequent interviews and organizational learning—processes that will shape an organization or community. Affirmative Topics set the stage for the entire 4-D process that follows.

Figure 7.

This chapter explores the nature of topic choice, discusses the various options for who will select Affirmative Topics, and walks you step by step through the process for engaging your organization in determining what it will study—and hence what it will become. Numerous examples of transformational topics, from a wide variety of organizations, demonstrate how these organizations plan to achieve their unique Change Agendas.

Because human systems grow in the direction of what they study, the selection of topics casts the die on what an organization will become. When groups study high human ideals and achievements—cooperation, inspirational leadership, economic justice, or spirit at work—these conditions flourish. Organizations construct and enact worlds of their own making, which in turn act on them.

 

Chapter 7 Discovery: Appreciative Interviews and More1

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People often ask us, What are the nonnegotiable aspects of Appreciative Inquiry? What differentiates Appreciative Inquiry from other approaches to organization change? What are the essential components of a successful Appreciative Inquiry process? Appreciative interviews are at the top of our list—an essential success factor for any Appreciative Inquiry process.

Figure 9.

Appreciative interviews bring out the best in people and organizations: they provide opportunities for people to speak and be heard, ignite curiosity and the spirit of learning, and increase organizational knowledge and wisdom. They enhance the organization’s positive core by bringing to the surface stories that illuminate the distinctive strengths and potentials. And they bring positive possibilities for the future to life.

This chapter shows you how to create appreciative interview questions out of Affirmative Topics, how to create an Interview Guide, and how to train people to be appreciative interviewers. It gives a clear picture of what makes an appreciative interview effective. Finally, it offers a variety of ideas for using and making sense of appreciative interview data. In short, it is your guide to Discovery.

 

Chapter 8 Dream: Visions and Voices of the Future

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In the Appreciative Inquiry Dream phase, all members of the organization and its stakeholders engage in processes to envision the future of the organization. They discuss what they learned in Discovery and then go one step further—to imagine a more inspiring, positive, life-giving world and organization. In the process, they share rich personal dreams, describe and creatively enact collective dreams, and often write an organizational mission or purpose statement.

Figure 12.

Appreciative Inquiry dreaming lifts up the best of what has been and invites people to imagine it even better. It amplifies the positive core of the organization and stimulates more valued and vital futures. In so doing it challenges the status quo and magnetically draws people toward the next phase of the 4-D process, in which they will design organizations through which they can bring their greatest hopes and dreams to life.

As the Anticipatory Principle suggests, human systems are like plants. They organically and instinctively grow in the direction of their “light,” which is their collective image of the future. For people, this “running stream of consciousness,” as William James called it, serves as a collective image of personal possibility. Everyone has an inner dialogue or self-talk—a series of personal questions that together delineate the parameters of performance. The more positive our personal self-talk is, the more positive our personal potential will be.

 

Chapter 9 Design: Giving Form to Values and Ideals

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Design—the next phase in the 4-D Cycle—represents the culmination of an extended process of expansion. It engages large groups of people in conversations about the nature of organizing and about the kind of organization that will enable the realization of their values and dreams. In short, it involves sorting, sifting, and serious choices about what will be.

Figure 13.

This chapter discusses the concept of design—of bringing preferences to life through an organization’s “social architecture.” It shows the relationship between a chosen Change Agenda and an Appreciative Inquiry Design process. It provides step-by-step instructions for implementing a variety of Design activities. And finally, it illustrates these instructions with examples from a variety of organizations—including, of course, Hunter Douglas.

We live in a designed world, a world created by human thought, word, and deed. Language is the human design tool, dialogue the process. Everything from fashions to automobiles to school curricula to health-care practices to industrial production processes to organizations and communities—everything is designed in conversation.

 

Chapter 10 Destiny: Inspired Action and Improvisation

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Destiny—the final phase of the Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Cycle—is three-dimensional. The first dimension is recognition and celebration of what has been learned and transformed in the process to date. This dimension supports the unplanned, improvisational changes that have already sprouted throughout the organization. The second dimension is the initiation of cross-functional, cross-level projects and Innovation Teams (one of the more common forms of an AI Learning Team) that together launch a wide range of goal-driven, action-oriented changes. And the third dimension is the systemic application of Appreciative Inquiry to programs, processes, and systems throughout the entire organization, enhancing the organization’s capacity for ongoing positive change.

Figure 16.

By now there is enormous energy and learning in the organization. The inner dialogue is buzzing with stories about interviews that changed people’s personal and professional lives—that illuminated best practices and saved time, money, and customer relationships. People are talking about all the different ways Appreciative Inquiry has worked its way into the fabric of the organization. Success is in the air.

 

Chapter 11 Appreciative Inquiry: A Process for

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Over the past decade, many types of communities have used Appreciative Inquiry to create new kinds of conversations, leading to positive and powerful outcomes. Using Appreciative Inquiry, cities, states, counties, and national communities, religious communities, health-care communities, and professional communities of practice have articulated long-term directions, created visions for their future, built bridges across diverse populations, and forged innovative plans, policies, and programs for a sustainable future.

These initiatives have proven Appreciative Inquiry’s efficacy as a process uniquely suited to community planning. They have also expanded our sense of what it means to truly engage the whole system in a process of transformation. In situation after situation, Appreciative Inquiry has helped community leaders address three questions that are essential to successful participatory planning in community settings:

1. How do we build leadership alignment and engage large numbers of people who live and work in the many varied subcultures and groups that constitute the community?

 

Chapter 12 Why Appreciative Inquiry Works

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In a decade of using Appreciative Inquiry as a process for organizational change at Hunter Douglas and elsewhere, we have witnessed exciting transformations in the way people work together and in the results they achieve. And we have heard stories, over and over again, about the positive impact of Appreciative Inquiry on people’s personal and professional lives. So we began to ask ourselves and those with whom we have worked: What’s happening? Why do people get so excited and want to participate in Appreciative Inquiry? Why does participation so readily lead to innovation, productivity, employee satisfaction, and profitability? What is it that creates possibilities for personal transformation and for people to discover and be their best at work? What conditions foster cooperation throughout a whole system of highly diverse groups of people? In short, the central question of our reflection and the question addressed in this chapter is Why Does Appreciative Inquiry Work?

In keeping with the spirit of Appreciative Inquiry, we decided to carry out an inquiry. We created a set of questions and held focus groups with people throughout Hunter Douglas, top to bottom. And we conducted interviews—some formal and some informal—with people in other organizations who had used Appreciative Inquiry. We sought to discover what is it about Appreciative Inquiry that so engages people—and, ultimately, why it works. The interviews were energizing and informative. What we learned was enlightening and, we believe, a significant contribution to the evolving wisdom of Appreciative Inquiry.

 

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