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Authors: Mark Singh & Douglas Reid
Edited by Christine Keene
Traditional participatory citizen/employee engagement approaches to dialogue and deliberation are often designed to determine local problems, resource constraints, deficiencies and unmet basic needs. After participating in these traditional approaches, stakeholders often view their community or organization as one of problems and needs—most of which require the help of outsiders to overcome (International Inst. for Sustainable Development, 2000). These approaches are rooted in negativity and often fail to sustain community participation. They can also entrench a sense of dependence by the community on those with greater resources or power (International Inst. for Sustainable Development, 2001).
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) lets practitioners move beyond traditional problem-centered methods to identify the best of what is (identifying and building on past achievements and existing strengths) and the possibilities of what could be (building a shared vision for the future and a plan to achieve that vision) (Ashford & Patkar, 2001).
AI has been described as a way of thinking, specifically when focused on the task of achieving organizational change. The premise of AI is that whatever one desires to have more of, it already exists within organizations. AI obliges users to focus on increasing the supply of things they desire rather than confront errors via conventional problem solving.
The power of AI is that it taps into the stories of what an organization’s members believe is best (Bushe, 2001) and those stories can be used to create new futures for the organization. This idea was expressed by Cooperrider (1990) as the “heliotropic hypothesis”: the idea that organizations evolve toward the most positive images they hold and articulate about themselves (Bushe, 2001).
Background: AI emerged from the doctoral research of David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University. He studied the factors that contributed to the effective functioning of an organization (the Cleveland Clinic). In his dissertation, Cooperrider presented a set of AI principles, rationale and phases of inquiry. The main principles of AI are:
Constructionism: Organizational destiny and social knowledge are intimately connected, and “reality” is a product of the social interaction of organizational members.
Simultaneity: Inquiry and change occur simultaneously, hence all forms of inquiry are interventions. This places special emphasis on the selection and use of questions.
Poetry: An organization’s destiny is written by its members, and the choice of their inquiry influences the direction of the organization.
Anticipatory: A vivid image of the future will enable an organization’s members to decide how to realize that future.
Positive Direction: To change an organization needs to generate positive affect through social bonding. The latter are supported by efforts that tap into hope, inspiration and the joy of co-creation.
Wholeness: The inclusion of all stakeholders in a group process stimulates creativity and creates collective capacity.
Enactment: Positive change occurs when an organization’s members have a vivid and shared model of a desirable future state, and serve as exemplars of the most prominent characteristics associated with that future state.
Free Choice: Performance is enhanced when individuals choose what and how to contribute to a collective effort.
In practice, AI reflects a set of core understandings about organizational and human dynamics (Hammond, 1996).
- First, that in every organization, there are some things that are known to work.
- Second, that what members focus on becomes the organization’s reality.
- Third, that reality is created interactively with social groups and that differences are valuable.
- Fourth, that the questions asked of and by an organization’s members influence the direction of the group by altering the group’s beliefs and indeed, its shared mental models.
- Fifth, change is made more acceptable if an organization’s members choose to carry forward the best parts of their past.
AI can be particularly useful in a number of circumstances, including:
- To help empower (versus disempower), citizens regarding their current situations and increase their independence in taking action (International Inst. for Sustainable Development, 2000);
- To help a group or team overcome conflict among and between team members (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, n.d.; Cooperrider et al., 2001); and
- To sustain community participation after the planning/design organization withdraws (International Inst. for Sustainable Development, 2000).Use For: AI is used for distilling and uncovering deeply held organizational beliefs about shared values, practices, hopes and goals. These can all be inputs into the design of future products, services or experiences. It can be applied to a wide variety of areas, including strategic planning, community development, team-building, and conflict resolution and innovation (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, n.d.).
AI is used for distilling and uncovering deeply held organizational beliefs about shared values, practices, hopes and goals. These can all be inputs into the design of future products, services or experiences. It can be applied to a wide variety of areas, including strategic planning, community development, team-building, and conflict resolution and innovation (Knowledge Sharing Toolkit, n.d.).
1) Demographics – The basis of AI is the group and its collective beliefs and knowledge. Such a group can be homogeneous (e.g., an organization’s members) or heterogeneous (an organization’s members along with its stakeholders).
2) Activities – Cooperrider described the four distinct phases of AI:
Discovery: Participants engage in paired interviews with a colleague they interact with the least, using a semi-structured interview guide. The guide generally focuses on three areas of discussion:
- Peak experience: What were the conditions that contributed to the time in which an organizational member felt most alive, engaged and energized while performing the organization’s work?
- Values: What does the member value most about him/herself, the organization, and the work they do?
- Wishes: What three things do members aspire to so that their organization is able to thrive and prosper in the future?
The importance of discovery is to remind participants of what success looked and felt like by activating vivid memories of experiencing it. Discovery also reminds participants that they are powerful; they are capable of experiencing success.
Participants then share their partners’ stories in slightly larger groups. The idea here is that hearing one’s story told by another deepens one’s own understanding of the essence of the experience and enables one to see linkages with the stories of other organizational members. The stories contain vital information about success definitions and root causes, actual experiences of organizational life, some subtleties associated with lived organizational culture, the nuances associated with shared experiences, standards for judging those experiences, and recommendations for action.
The main themes are defined to initiate group reflection. These themes should be considered root causes of organizational performance that are used throughout the subsequent steps of AI.
Dream: In this step, participants imagine an idealized future state for the organization. A sample question might be as follows:
“Imagine that it is three years from now. You’re preparing for an awards ceremony that has recognized the value of the organization’s work. The Globe and Mail has asked you for an interview. You are quite proud to be part of your organization’s program, so you must be ready to answer a short list of their questions: What is happening that makes you proud? What are others talking about? What is happening inside your organization? What changed that has made this success possible and, indeed, exemplary?”
Participants are encouraged to be bold and realistic, though in all cases to stretch their imaginations by enlisting creative faculties to explain projected futures by building on known strengths and imagining the consequences of extraordinary efforts. This is often referred to as “visioning”.
The benefit of visioning is that it allows participants to collectively create a picture of a desirable shared future. The act of creation prepares participants for the challenges associated with implementation.
Design: Here the participants are asked to create statements, phrased in the present tense, that bridge between the current, known state of the organization and the future imagined or desired state of the organization in three years’ time. The point is to connect is with what might be through the concept of social architecture: those things present within an organization that are necessary for implementing its desired future state. Cooperrider et al. (2003) suggest that the following items be considered and represented in participant statements:
- Business processes
- Communications systems
- Customer relations
- Education and training
- Management practices
- Shared values
- Social responsibility
- Beliefs about power and authority
- Governance structure
- Knowledge management systems
- Practices and principles
This is considered to be the most challenging part of AI. Consequently, researchers have developed guidelines for creating effective statements:
- Is it provocative (does it stretch, change or interrupt the status quo)?
- Is it grounded in the organization’s reality?
- Do the organization’s members desire it?
- Is it stated affirmatively?
- Does it rely on others to be realized (reflecting Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development)?
- Is it participative?
- Can it stimulate intergenerational learning?
Destiny: This is the true translation of intent to action through implementation. Participants choose a topic to pursue based on their own preferences and motivations. Participants declare interests around key themes and group with like-minded others to develop plans for implementation. This phase encourages participants to celebrate as well as build upon the work they have accomplished in the earlier phases.
- Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2003) suggest that the following questions receive attention during this phase:
- How will we learn about the gains we’ve already made? What tools will we use to sustain that learning?
- How will we celebrate? What must happen to keep awareness of achievements and excitement about the future high? How could recognition inspire ongoing action?
- What constrains and restricts our ability to self-organize and take action (time, resources, decision rights, etc.)?
- How shall we organize?
- How do we support success once it emerges?
3) Analysis – Vital in this method is the search for commonly-shared views, which will recur throughout the AI process as themes or core ideas. Such themes must have the consent of a group to move forward to the next phase of the AI process.
Example: MYRADA is a non-governmental organization working in the areas of micro-credit, natural resource management, community development & poverty alleviation and more. It works in three southern Indian states. In partnership with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in the late 1990s MYRADA implemented an appreciative inquiry training program for governmental and non-governmental organizations in India. The goal was to provide these front-line organizations with a new method of designing and delivering programs that built on local strengths and achievements, rather than focusing on its problems, deficiencies and needs, to build a shared local vision that advanced sustainable development. 28 training workshops with 500 staff from 700 organizations were conducted. The impact has been significant, reaching over 10,000 people. MYRADA continues to use appreciative inquiry as a basis for its capacity building with front-line organizations. Details: www.myrada.org.
Ashford, G., & Patkar, S. (2001). The Positive Path: Using Appreciative Inquiry in Rural Indian Communities. Retrieved from http://www.iisd.org/publications/pub.aspx?id=304
Bushe, G. R. (2001). In Cooperrider, D., Sorenson, P., Whitney, D., and Yeager, T. (eds.) Appreciative Inquiry: an Emerging Direction for Organizational Development. Champaign, IL: Stipes.
Cooperrider, D., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In W. Pasmore and R. Woodman (Eds.) Research in Organizational Change and Development, 1, 129-169. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Cooperrider, D. (1990). Positive image, positive action: the affirmative basis of organizing. In S. Srivastva and D. Cooperrider (eds), Appreciative Management and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen Jr., P. F., Yaeger, T. F., & Whitney, D. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing L.L.C.
Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D., and Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.
Hammond, S.A. (1996). The Thin Book on Appreciative Inquiry. Plano, TX: Thin Book Publishing.
International Inst. for Sustainable Development. (2000). MYRADA Appreciative Inquiry Project. Retrieved January 20, 2013, from http://www.iisd.org/ai/myrada.htm
Knowledge Sharing Toolkit. (n.d.). Appreciative Inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.kstoolkit.org/Appreciative+Inquiry
Whitney, D., and Trosten-Bloom, A. (2003). The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.