Appreciative inquiry: A positive approach to change (driving transformation through co-creation)

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” — Steve Jobs

Organizations Are Not a Problem to be Solved

Change management has a negative reputation — it’s often seen as synonymous with a reorganization, downsizing, restructuring, merger, and more.

However, the biggest problem with change management is the focus on what’s broken — it approaches organizations as something to be fixed.

What’s not working?

The traditional problem-solving approach to change management — finding what is wrong and developing solutions to fix the problems — seeds a negative mindset. It makes people focus on what’s broken. Time is spent rehashing issues and what caused them.

After a while, the deficit-based view sucks everyone’s energy — there are blame and division rather than motivation and engagement. Teammates think they are doing everything wrong.

We need a new paradigm. Organizations are not a problem to be solved — liberate the potential of your smart people.

Appreciative Inquiry: a Paradigm Shift

“What would it happen to our change practices if we began all our work with the positive presumption that organizations, as centers of human relatedness, are alive with infinite constructive capacity?” — David Cooperrider

Change is the lifeblood of an organization — it’s the catalyst for progress, innovation, and growth.

Organizational change should focus on personal transformation, not on structure or processes. As I repeat over and over: organizations don’t change, people do.

Appreciative Inquiry is an affirming way to create change — it seeks what is right in an organization. AI offers a life-centric approach to energizing people and move them in the direction of what they most desire.

Appreciative Inquiry is a new paradigm in organizational change — a shift from the traditional deficit-based approach to one of abundance. Turn change into an open invitation — give every employee the opportunity to assume leadership responsibilities.

Appreciative Inquiry is the co-evolutionary, co-operative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. It involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate and heighten positive potential.

This framework makes people acknowledge and value the existing capacities, strengths, and successes. It invites everyone to envision a brighter future. Open collaboration helps identify opportunities and design how to get there.

The premise is simple: every system, human and otherwise, has something that works right already — build on those strengths.

The Positive Core of an organization is mostly unrecognized — it makes up the best of an organization and its people. It’s often a hidden and underutilized source. The Positive Core is the collective strengths and existing assets that help design and build the future.

Appreciative Inquiry replaces the negative, critical, and spiraling diagnoses commonly used in organizations — it focuses on what’s working instead.

What Drives Change? The Five Principles

“When work becomes play, and play becomes your work, your life unfolds.” — Robert Frost

Organizational culture is a co-construction — it’s shaped by language, stories, practices, and relationships. The quality of that system defines how balanced, creative or productive an organization is. Culture can lift people or let them down.

The foundation of Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. It’s based on five principles: Constructionist, Simultaneity, Anticipatory, Poetic, and Positive.

AI leverages the power of storytelling — words create worlds and images inspire action. Language and visualization play a crucial role to understand the present and see the future respectively.

Inquiry creates change; positive questions drive positive change. AI invites us to lead with questions.

Appreciative Inquiry: The 5-D Cycle

“We can’t ignore problems — we just need to approach them from the other side.” — Cooperider & Whitney

Focusing on what’s working sounds counterintuitive at first — people must learn how to approach problems from the positive side. We grow in the direction of what we persistently focus on. Focusing on the positive creates a long-lasting appreciation mindset.

Building on what’s already working helps integrate both the old and the new — they don’t need to compete against each other. People start seeing change as an evolution — they shift from an ‘either-or’ to a ‘yes, and’ mentality. Rather than focusing on what needs to be fixed, people leverage the best of what has been and what is.

Appreciation Inquiry is the act of recognizing the best in a team, an organization or community.

It uses questions to uncover what’s working — it acknowledges and amplifies the good, instead of ruminating on what’s wrong.

Here’s a brief description of the five phases.

1. Define — What is the topic of inquiry?

It is important to define what the system wants more of — that’s the topic of inquiry. Definition is the starting point — it helps clarify the area of focus of any change initiative.

The guiding question to kick of the process is: “What generative topic do we want to focus on together?”

The first phase defines the purpose and ambition for the project — the end outcome should solve for this phase. The cycle is a continuum — once the team goes through all stages, a new topic of inquiry starts the process all over again.

2. Discover — Appreciate the best of ‘what is’

This phase is an open conversation to find what’s already working. The more people can directly get involved, the better. Everyone is invited to participate, that doesn’t mean everyone will volunteer.

The Discover phase helps reconnect and acknowledge past successes, strengths, great ideas and moments. It’s not a celebration of the past — we are looking for learnings that can be applied in the present and future.

The interviews and analysis help understand and make sense of what is discovered at both an individual and collective levels. The interview approach is open, human, and inspiring — it’s a dialogue, not a survey. A safe space is essential for people to speak candidly and openly.

Focus on finding, emphasizing, and illuminating any factors that have led to ‘the best’ in a given situation. What gives/gave life to the organization?

3. Dream — Imagine ‘what could be’

AI brings an interesting tension — we appreciate past successes, yet we are encouraged to challenge the status-quo. The Dream phase is about imagining possibilities — people visualize what could be or needs to be.

The Dream phase leverages past achievements and strengths identified in the Discover stage. People dream where they want to see the organization in one, five, and ten years from now. The entire team can project what’s best for the company into their wishes, hopes, and aspirations.

What could be? Collectively, the team visualizes the desired future state.

4. Design — Determining ‘what should be’

The Discover phase is about collecting stories; the Dream one is about creativity. In the Design Phase, we want to bring the two of them together — the ‘best of what is’ plus ‘what could be’ help design ‘what should be.’

The entire organization works on creating an ideal scenario. The team focuses on identifying concrete and actionable ideas. They craft provocative propositions and organizing principles in which the positive core is alive in every strategy, process, decision, system, and collaboration.

People are invited to challenge everything. In the book Appreciative Inquiry, the authors mention an experience working with a partner organization of Save the Children in Zimbabwe. The articulation of the future was simple: “Every person in Zimbabwe shall have access to clean water in five years.”

However, the above dream demanded a large design shift: to move away from a traditional hierarchy to a new form of organization based on a network of partnerships and alliances.

How can it be? Define how the dream would look like.

5. Destiny — Creating ‘what will be’

To make the Dream come true requires a different approach to the traditional planning-monitoring-and implementation. The power of Appreciative Inquiry lies in stepping back — to let the organization emerge on its own terms. Leading change is more like a revolution than a structured and pre-defined roadmap.

The concept of change as an open invitation goes well beyond people sharing stories or providing ideas — you let your employees take over. There’s no more effective way to create engagement than to grant autonomy, as I wrote here.

Invite people to construct their future — freedom and ownership create a more significant commitment. Trust your people. They will build the necessary partnerships to get there.

What will be? Democratizing leadership turns every employee into an agent of change — people focus on the positive and make the impossible happen.

Practicing Appreciative Inquiry

1. Roles

The role of leaders is to become a change catalyst — they sponsor and create the right conditions. Leaders are responsible for planting the seed and nurture the best in their team. Though leaders are champions, they participate as equals.

Consultants help introduce the process and train employees as agents of inquiry and facilitators. They also design the overall process and facilitate the implementation until the internal team can take over. In time, consultants continue to help and overlook further implementation in close collaboration with internal teams.

The Core Team stewards internal implementation — consider them the go-to-guys for anything related to AI. They are responsible for identifying the topics (define), manage interview guides and process, and encourage an everyday practice of Appreciative Inquiry.

Last but not least, Participants are both interviewed and can conduct interviews. They help review stories and share best practices within their teams. They contribute throughout the whole process with stories, dreams, solutions, and action.

2. Liberating power

AI is about democratizing change — it liberates power and unleashes human potential.

Here are the six conditions recommended by Cooperrider and Whitney:

  • Freedom to be known in relationships: People’s identities form and evolve in relationships. AI levels the playing field by bridging the gap across hierarchies.
  • Freedom to be heard: Open conversations don’t just give people space to speak up — everyone is committed to listen to everyone else.
  • Freedom to dream in community: Leaders must encourage people to unleash their individual dreams and build a larger, collective one.
  • Freedom to choose to contribute: AI reconnects people with their most profound purpose — people feel reenergized and determined. People contribute because they want to, not because they are forced to.
  • Freedom to act with support: When everyone is listening and caring about each other, the desire to act increases — the system stimulates people to actively participate.
  • Freedom to be positive: Culture is the behavior we reward and promote. When negativity is no longer omnipresent, people re-learn to focus on positive conversations.

3. Forms of Engagement

There are various ways of implementing AI. The chart below summarizes eight different forms in which you can apply Appreciative Inquiry in your team, organization or community.

A Whole-System Inquiry involves the participation of all the stakeholders — employees, customers, vendors — all the parts co-create the Dream.

An AI Summit is a large-scale meeting process that focuses on discovering and developing an organization’s positive core. Participation is diverse and includes all the company’s stakeholders.

It’s an exciting experience — an AI Summit unleashes tremendous power and enthusiasm driving holistic engagement.

As Cindy Frick, VP, Organizational Development of Roadway Express said, “Appreciative Inquiry is the philosophy that is allowing us to engage the hearts, minds, and souls of our people — all of our people. Only when we do that, will we achieve breakthrough performance.”

As an example, this is what a 2-day AI Summit session could look like.

4. Watch Outs

Appreciative Inquiry is not perfect, just like any other method.

The emphasis on the positive can quickly turn into overlooking the flaws and weaknesses of an organization. Here are some of the key watch outs as highlighted by research by Egan and Lancaster:

  • Difficult interpersonal situations may be overlooked and remain unidentified as challenges to the success of the group or organization.
  • Feelings of anger or frustration may not be voiced and may become barriers for some employees.
  • Dissatisfied organization members may retreat and withdraw from the process because they are unable to feel included by the AI approach.

Having said so, those flaws can be corrected. The beauty of AI lies in encouraging open conversations and co-creation. Here are some tips to overcome the watch out mentioned above:

  • Avoid groupthink — expert facilitation is critical to making sure tensions are encouraged and that all stories are heard. Promote positive dissent.
  • Address ‘what’s not working’ — the same way traditional change management approaches focus on ‘the problem,’ you want to avoid an idealistic, positive outlook. Leveraging on positivity and strengths doesn’t mean being naif or blindsided by what’s not working.
  • Promote Psychological Safety — create a space for open dissent, not just to see the good. Tensions keep teams at the top of their game. Positivity doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, but not focusing all the energy on the problems.
  • Use Positive Inquiries to solve ‘what’s broken’ — AI doesn’t dismiss problems, it uses a different lens to evaluate them. When they arise, they are validated as live stories and then reframed as a positive inquiry. For example, the problem of high employee turnover becomes an inquiry into ‘magnetic work environments.’ Or the problem of low management credibility becomes an inquiry into ‘moments of inspired leadership.’
  • Practice makes perfect — Implementing any new method requires mastery, not just knowledge and understanding. Learning to drive a car, doesn’t turn someone into a Formula-1 driver. That’s the problem with the Design Thinking craze. Everyone became a so-called expert, as I explained here.

Putting It All Together

Your team doesn’t want to be managed and told how to change. Remember Steve Jobs’ words. If you hire smart people, let them tell you how.

Appreciative Inquiry is about leading change instead of managing it. A paradigm shift is necessary to encourage people to co-create organizational transformation.

Through powerful questions and open conversations, AI uncovers and acknowledges the positive in any organization. All stakeholders are invited to dream and co-create a promising future.

Improve Your Change Fitness

Download a free copy of my guide “7 Ways to Improve Change Fitness.”

This article first appeared on Medium.