Appreciative Inquiry: Discovery, Article 2/5

Appreciative Inquiry is a progressive organizational approach that embraces a simple philosophy: What you feed will grow.

PART 2: Discovery

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was founded in 1980 when then-doctoral student David Cooperrider was conducting conventional diagnosis at the Cleveland Clinic. Cooperrider, who was so impressed by the Clinic’s success, inquired about factors that contributed to the Clinic’s strengths, not weaknesses. He was overwhelmed by the positive feedback emerging from his intervention, even though he had only asked questions relating to how the company became successful. Since then, the approach has grown in depth and scope and has been used as a philosophy and methodology for embracing and causing transformational change in many global organizations, including governmental and international governing bodies. The process comprises four steps, or the “4 Ds”: Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny.

Focus on the Positive

A Cherokee elder sitting with his grandchildren told them, “In every life there is a terrible fight— a fight between two wolves. One is evil: he is fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment and deceit.

The other is good: joy, serenity, humility, confidence, generosity, truth, gentleness, and compassion.”

The Grandfather fell silent. One grandchild asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The elder looked him in the eye and said. “The one you feed.”

4-D Model

Step 1
“What gives life?”
The best of what is.

Step 2
“What might be?”

Step 3
“What should be the ideal?”

Step 4
Destiny/ Delivery
“What and how?”

If you think back over your life’s events, there are times when you likely felt on top of things: you were in harmony with life, you felt accomplished, you were satisfied, and things were going well for you. Undoubtedly, there were also times that were darker, when life felt like more of a struggle. Most of the time, however, you likely felt fairly neutral — life was going along in a very average kind of way, and it may be hard to even remember those specific circumstances as they all sort of blend in together.

Until now, to improve upon the average to create significant and lasting change we typically identify the points that are below average, we figure out why things went so poorly, and we identify how we will improve the next time. In the context of Appreciative Inquiry, this is referred to as a deficit-based analysis, because we are looking at times of failure, when we lacked or when the data was below average.

Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy that is the antithesis of this approach. It focuses on those times that were outstanding and positively exceptional. It is by a thorough analysis of sources of greatness and creative energy that we can replicate them and thereby increase the average performance to have more moments of greatness in the future. Where appreciation is alive and stakeholders throughout a system are connected in the discovery of these moments, hope grows and organizational capacity is enriched. The change becomes truly transformational and enduring.

Appreciative Inquiry holds that what we feed will grow. If we look at failures and disappointments, that is what will increase and we will end up with more of them. If we spend time considering our successes and achievements, however, then more accomplishments will follow. It is not magic and it is not effortless, but it does require an intense focus on discovery — discovering what has happened to support those inspirational experiences and then replicating those conditions for future triumphs.

British Airways experienced first-hand the power of Appreciative Inquiry, and the necessity of having all stakeholders as active participants in the room, when they started delving into the messy subject of lost luggage. As anyone who has travelled knows, it is extremely frustrating to show up at the destination airport and discover that your luggage has not arrived with you. British Airways, mindful of this frustration, wanted to probe deeper into the matter of lost luggage and resolve it, using Appreciative Inquiry.

The facilitator, Diana Whitney, an Appreciative Inquiry pioneer and British Airways consultant, asked, “What would you like to accomplish?”

British Airways staff and employees responded with their number one issue: “We’d like to develop a process to better meet our customer’s needs when we lose their luggage.”

Ms. Whitney, basing her questioning technique in the Appreciative Inquiry principles, then reframed the question: “So it’s okay to lose their luggage as long as you meet their needs?”

BA quickly recanted. “We mean that we want to get their luggage back to them as quickly as possible.”

Again, the facilitator pushed further. “So it’s okay for them to lose their luggage as long as you get it back to them quickly?”

The solution now seems so obvious, but it took skillful facilitation to eventually uncover the root topic that British Airways wished to expand upon: creating exceptional arrival experiences. That topic covers tearful reunions, rested and relaxed passengers and yes, baggage arriving at the same time as the owners.

If British Airways had simply stopped at the topic of “timely retrieval of lost luggage,” then opportunities would have been missed and key players would have been absent from the discussion and solution-finding. With a subject of “creating exceptional arrival experiences,” it was critical to have all stakeholders in the room to meet and find a solution that would eventually propel British Airways to greater customer service. According to Bill Jowett, a frequent flyer with British Airways (600 flights in six years), British Airways “has been exemplary in their response [to complaints], even phoning when I said there was no need to reply” (Jowett, 2002, Times). The use of AI since 1998 has helped promote exceptional customer service for British Airways passengers.

Discovery typically consists of exploring the best of “what is” by conducting interviews. These interviews give light to examples of high performance as stories emerge about what gives life and energy, what best performance looks and feels like, and what meaning is attributed to those experiences. This is a phase of investigation and two critical skills are required: reflection and inquiry. Participants must reflect on their own experiences and inquire into the experiences of another.

The Appreciative Inter­view is the first stage in the data collection and helps to answer the questions: “When have things functioned optimally? and what allowed those moments of inspirational greatness to occur?” The framework is deceptively simple: find someone who is very different from you and conduct an interview using pre-scripted questions, taking notes, and then switch roles. The notes you and your partner have collected become the appreciative data.

The interview is designed to have individuals reflect on the positives, reflect on their own contributions and the environment that made success possible, and inquire into similar moments for another person in the same system.

There is a fascinating dynamic that happens when two people are brought together who are entwined in the same system but from differing viewpoints. They are asked to share stories about their own successes and what gives them energy, as well as their dreams for the future. Annette Simmons, in her book The Story Factor, says: “When you want to influence others, there is no tool more powerful than story.” Parables and fables are stories that influence us profoundly at a very essential level. Scheherazade (The 1001 Arabian Nights) used her storytelling technique to endlessly postpone her own execution. Stories become powerful symbols — consider the stories evoked by single words, names or phrases such as “Camelot,” “King Midas” and “the tortoise and the hare,” just to mention a very few Western-based examples. Stories resonate and compel much more innately than statistics and graphs ever could.

Each of us has powerful stories within us as well — stories of our own success, our own achievements, our own victories. We draw energy and satisfaction from these events and they have formed us. However, we tend to forget these stories and their compelling influence in our deficit-focused society. Yet in an appreciative interview, these stories are skillfully drawn out, by someone who is unlike us, and the effects are extraordinary.

This Appreciative Inquiry structure has been used to tackle luggage issues at British Airways, gender equity at Avon Mexico, and operations at Canadian Tire. Many organizations throughout the world are exploring important moments of inspirational greatness through Appreciative Interviews.

The Appreciative Inter­view can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour and the resulting stories are rich in data. The next step then is to mine this data for what is called the “positive core.” There are many ways that this can be done, but it is important not to overanalyze. The point here is not to search for the best idea, or the most mentioned idea, or the norm. This is more about creating synergy than consensus.

It is important to get as many people as possible involved in sharing their stories, “mining” the data and identifying the themes of life-giving forces. The more people who are involved, the more the organization will move in the direction of those themes. It is an incredibly powerful process, both on the individual level as well as the organizational level.

Overall, Appreciative Inquiry is based on eight principles of thought:

  • Behaviours and decisions are based not only on what we were born with or what we have learned, but also on what we anticipate and imagine.
  • The more positive the inquiry, the longer-lasting and greater the change.
  • Change begins the moment we ask the first question and we move in the direction of those questions.
  • In the immortal words of Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
  • Reality is created in conversation with each other.
  • There is a “group genius” at play that should be tapped.
  • Value story telling as a way of gathering information that includes facts and feelings.
  • Change by free choice is more powerful than change that is externally directed or assigned.

Discovery is all about realizing that there have been successes in the past, that members of the organization have had significant accomplishments and triumphs, and that those victories can be replicated in the future. A successful future organization is grounded in reality — real evidence that past-positive, above-average, moments exist. The next stage of the Appreciative Inquiry process will leverage those moments in order to create and envision a future where those inspirational times are the norm, instead of the exception.

A Standard Appreciative Interview

Appreciative interviews follow a similar structure and they aim at eliciting positive stories of past success. These questions are designed to help improve teamwork, a common operating process in many organizations.

Pair up with another member of your team and interview each other using some of the following questions. Person A asks all of the questions first in an interview style. When that interview is completed, Person B will ask the same questions of Person A.

  1. Tell me about the best team you have ever experienced at our current workplace or somewhere else. What made it so exciting? What was happening? What was your contribution? What did you learn?
  2. Think about a time when you felt supported in your efforts to become your best on a team? What were you doing, saying, or feeling at the time? What did the organization do to support you? What was the outcome? What made it all possible?
  3. Think about a time when you helped someone else become his or her very best. What role did you play? How were you supportive? What did you enable the other person to do or to be? Without being humble, what strengths did you bring to that process?
  4. What is it about this current team that you value? What is working well right now that you would not want to lose going forward?
  5. Imagine that you have fallen into a deep sleep and when you wake up, it is six months in the future. The team that you are now part of has changed in the best ways possible. Describe what you see. How are people interacting? What is the team doing? What is your role within that team? What are other people saying about that team?
  6. What is one thing that you could do today to help this team become a stronger, more supportive, more effective team—to help this team realize that image that you just described?


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