I was recently asked to facilitate a planning process for the Board of Directors and a few other stakeholders of a non-profit service organization. I chose to use a process called Appreciative Inquiry (AI) because I felt it would be a good fit for the culture of the organization. AI is based on the assumption that organizations change in the way they inquire — an organization that inquires into problems or difficult situations will keep finding more of the same, but an organization that tries to appreciate what is best in itself will find more and more of what works well.
AI was adopted from work done by earlier action research theorists and practitioners and further developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in the 1980s. It has been used in a wide variety of businesses, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, communities, local governments, and religious institutions to envision and create change. It is particularly useful for large group, multi-stakeholder situations because it seeks input about the positivity of an organizations past and potential future.
The basic assumptions of AI are:
- In every society, organization, or group, something works.
- What we focus on becomes our reality.
- Reality is created in the moment and there are multiple realities.
- The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
- People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
- If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
- It is important to value differences.
- The language we use creates our reality.
As you can see, AI is as much a philosophy as it is a process of organizational change. There is a considerable amount of theory and research backing up the principles of AI, largely based on the developing science of Positive Psychology. Some of these principles would be considered rather novel in the mainstream business world. The eight underlying principles of AI are:
- The Constructionist Principle. Words create worlds and reality is a socially created construct, created through language and conversations.
- The Simultaneity Principle. Inquiry creates change – the moment we ask a question, we begin to create change.
- The Poetic Principle. What we choose to study makes a difference. It describes and even creates the world as we know it.
- The Anticipatory Principle. Human systems move in the direction of their images of the future and the more positive the image, the more positive the present-day action.
- The Positive Principle. Momentum for large-scale change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding. This momentum is best generated through positive questions that amplify the positive core.
- The Wholeness Principle. Bringing all stakeholders together in large group forums stimulates creativity and builds collective capacity.
- The Enactment Principle. To really make a change, we must ‘be the change we wish to see’.
- The Free Choice Principle. People perform better and are more committed when they have freedom to choose how and what they contribute.
AI is a particular way of asking questions and envisioning the future that fosters positive relationships and builds on the basic goodness in people and the organization. In so doing, it enhances the system’s capacity for collaboration and cultural change. Appreciative Inquiry uses a cycle of 4 stages:
- DISCOVER: The identification of organizational processes that work well, focusing on strengths, best practices, and values.
- DREAM: The envisioning of future states and processes that could work well in the future, given the nature and capabilities of the organization.
- DESIGN: The planning, design, and prioritizing of processes and aspects of the organization that could realize the dream.
- DESTINY: Implementation planning of the proposed design and action planning to strengthen the capability of the system to sustain ongoing positive change.
I found this process to be very useful and powerful with the non-profit organization I worked with. It suited this group well to focus on appreciating and envisioning the positive, because the group already had an appreciation-based culture, and had a strong vision of creating positive change in the world.
I believe AI is potentially a very good planning process to use in situations where there are multiple stakeholders that need to be included, a mission of creating positive social change, or where a bottom-up cultural change is needed.
I also found that Appreciative Inquiry lends itself very well to a visual mapping approach. Each of the four stages can be designed as a series of exercises and maps that guide a group through the process.