Level Set: What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Let’s start with the formal definition of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). According to Organizing Engagement:
“Appreciative Inquiry is an asset-based approach to organizational and social engagement that utilizes questions and dialogue to help participants uncover existing strengths, advantages, or opportunities in their communities, organizations, or teams.”
Appreciation means to grow in value – the way we think about money appreciating. The idea is, if we focus on the thing we value, it will strengthen itself, and by doing so, we can add even more value. And Inquiry, of course, means to wonder, and ask.
AI is both a philosophy, and a method for organizational change. As a method, we go through five stages of group inquiry and discussion (explained below). We speak and listen to one another, but also draw and write, which garners access to more parts of our brains. You might say, the Appreciative Inquiry process requires whole-brain integration. More about the philosophy to follow.
The five stages of AI, the five D’s, have greater meaning when we understand what they’re based on. The richness of AI comes from its basis in positive psychology and the sciences of human behavior. Using those sciences, AI comes from five critical principles of human behavior and psychology:
- Constructionist Principle: We look at the world through our own filters and construct our realities through the conversations we have. This means what we perceive or think about an organization affects the way we act to effect change in it.
- Anticipatory Principle: We create what we imagine and what we think about grows. The image of a positive future inspires positive actions.
- Simultaneity Principle: Change begins when you ask a question. If we go in and say “What’s wrong here?” change has already begun to move in that direction. Whereas if we ask “What’s possible here?” change heads in the direction of possibility. In other words, inquiry and change are not separate, but simultaneous.
- Poetic Principle: Organizations and communities are full of stories to be interpreted. We make meaning of our worlds by dialoguing with others.
- Positive Principle: Have you ever noticed how you can position a plant in a window, and it’ll bend toward sunlight? Just as strange, if we rotate the plant to face away from the sun, the whole plant will once again bend the sunlight given time. This is known as the heliotrope effect and the same is true for people: we naturally turn toward life-giving forces. So we want to position ourselves in the light, the positive, for growth to stem from that strength.
I like to think of Appreciative Inquiry as discovering what gives life to an organization (i.e., what strengths make it the most effective and capable it can be). Since it is focused on strengths, we examine what’s going well in an organization. To the uninitiated, this may feel counterintuitive because we’re used to fixing the negative. It follows then, that our foundational inquiry comes from what’s possible versus what’s wrong.
The Five Ds of Appreciative Inquiry
Here are the Five Ds and what they mean to me.
- Define: This one is simple – we define what we are going to learn about (i.e., set the focus of our inquiry).
- Discovery: The discovery is asking about the best of what is already happening. It is where we determine what gives life to an organization and what we can build on. To pinpoint these strengths, we engage in a dialogue designed to surface the most positive features of a community, organization, or team.
- Dream: Dream is asking ourselves, “What might be possible if we focus on these strengths?” and deeper, “What is the world calling for?” and dream about what may be possible.
- Design: Design is using dialogue to ask what should be the ideal – or, in layman’s terms, where we begin constructing our revamped or new organization. This can be a very satisfying stage because the change becomes more concrete.
- Deliver: Deliver is simple. In this phase, we determine what we need to do to make our design happen.
The focus on positivity is critical because our brains are not wired to focus on two ideas at once. Here is an example to illustrate this concept.
Consider the classic optical illusion where a single image houses both an elderly and a young woman’s face. Try as we might, we can see one or the other at one time, never both. The same is true in our organizations – we can focus on the negative or the positive, not both at the same time. AI requires the latter: to think positively and look at the possibilities that exist versus digging deeper into existing problems.
What Does Appreciative Inquiry Look Like in Practice?
I once worked with a technology company that, as part of their corporate university, offers staff training in AI.
We spent several days together learning the AI methodology together and using organic happenings in this organization. In this case, leaders identified that members of one inter-generational team was struggling to value each other due to generational differences. It would have been easy to focus on the negative, the differences between the age groups. However, we knew inquiring more about the strife between them, would drive the wedge deeper. For example, if we asked an older team member “What’s the problem here?” and the negative would come out. However, ask them what they value in their younger colleagues and the positives start to form. We began to create change by simply asking questions through this appreciative lens.
At the end of our time together, the work group wrote a statement about how they dreamed they could be as a group. In the end, they realized that the young people can greatly benefit from the wisdom and experience of the elders. For the older generation, instead of focusing on the negatives of the digitized approach of younger team members took, and how it was changing the way they do things, they began to see the possibilities in leveraging these young people’s grasp of technology to drive greater productivity. It all came down to each generation appreciating the different parts that each brought.
Appreciative Inquiry as a Philosophy
I highly recommend taking the ideas of Appreciative Inquiry that speak to you and exploring them. This would be Appreciative Inquiry as a philosophy. Try it in your everyday life. Go into an activity asking “what are the possibilities for this situation?” It could be dinner with family, a job interview, a day at the beach… If we take the principles that we create what we think about and that the way we inquire about things matters, things begin to appreciate immediately. I’ve learned the power of how I frame my questions increases my engagement with my family and friends exponentially.
What Advice do You have for Those Interested in Appreciative Inquiry?
First, I recommend Appreciative Living: The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry in Personal Life by Jacqueline Bascobert KelmI to explore the parts of AI that speak to you. Then play around with things – experiment! See what appreciates! I once challenged myself to dig into why I had ongoing tension with a family member. By using the ideas in AI, I came to understand that my loved one just wants the best for me, it softened me to the relationship by looking at what was possible between us.
Second, learn more about it by checking out The Center for Appreciative Inquiry, or reading the book: Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination by Jane Magruder Watkins, Bernard Mohr and Ralph Kelly.
Last, have a skilled AI practitioner work with your team on exploring possibilities. You may find having formal training illuminates new possibilities!
If you’d like to know more, I can be reached at Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org.