Appreciative Inquiry is a progressive organizational approach that embraces a simple philosophy: What you feed will grow.
PART 3: Dream
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.
What is the power of a dream? From the prosaic to the profound, dreams inspire and challenge us. Dreams present a powerful image of the future. Imagining, visualizing and then sharing that dream can inspire others to move and grow in that direction.
Consider John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to NASA: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to Mankind or more important for the long range exploration of space.”
No doubt this was a daunting goal for NASA as they had only clocked 15 minutes of manned space travel to that point, but on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon, followed by Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and the Apollo 11 mission returned all three crew safely to Earth. Would this have happened if not for Kennedy’s dream? Although Kennedy was assassinated before his goal would be realized, the dream, inspirational in its challenge and scope, endured for years.
In another stirring speech from the same era, Martin Luther King spoke in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1963, and his iconic words still echo today: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
This dream still lives on and challenges and inspires us. Such is the power of dreams.
The “dream” phase of Appreciative Inquiry is critical to the success of the overall venture. This stage provides an opportunity to challenge the status quo through envisioning a preferred future. For most stakeholders in organizations, this is the first time that they have been offered the opportunity to safely and confidently create and share new possibilities.
Dreaming, or visualizing, is used in many disciplines. You may be most familiar with it in sports, where the coach mentally walks the athletes through a successful competition so the athletes can envision a positive outcome: winning the contest and emerging victorious. On their website, Toastmasters encourages public speakers to “Visualize yourself giving your speech… Visualize the audience clapping—it will give you confidence.” Some childbirth coaches help the mother focus by visualization, as a relaxation and concentration technique. Businesses create strategic and positive visions to compel the organization forward towards a common goal.
The visualizing method that is used in the Appreciative Inquiry process is rooted in stories that exemplify an organization’s positive history. After the appreciative interviews uncover the stories of success, inspiration and achievement from an organization’s past, participants are asked to dream a vision for the future: What is the organization they would like to be part of?
A positive dream of the future leads to positive growth. When Avon Mexico started on the journey to improve upon its internal gender equity, there were very few female executives and no women on the executive committee. The organization had many internal stories of dysfunctional working relationships between men and women and, initially, no one could think of any positive tales to share about men and women working well together.
With Appreciative Inquiry consultants, appreciative interviews have uncovered best practices and compelling stories of inspiring working relationships between men and women. The roots were actually there—buried deeply in some cases, but they did exist. The next step was to select some of the most encouraging stories about the future ideal state: men and women working positively and collaboratively in teams.
With this dream in place, work began in earnest toward this positive goal. The outcomes were stellar. Avon Mexico’s profit increased dramatically. Avon Mexico and Mujeres y Hombres Trabajando en Equipo (women and men working together) won the Catalyst Award, given annually to a company for its policies and practices that benefit women in the corporation. The first female officer was appointed to the executive committee within six months of the Appreciative Inquiry project. Years later, after the initial intervention in 1996, the spirit
of Appreciative Inquiry and continuous improvement still thrives and it is part of the way work gets done at Avon Mexico. Once again, the dream continues and will endure.
Simply dreaming is not enough. Appreciative Inquiry goes far beyond mere visualization. While the Dream phase can point stakeholders in the right direction and align thinking and understanding, it would be simplistic to believe that this is enough. Action is also required to enable the vision to become reality. Wishing alone does not make it so. To quote a Brazilian proverb: “When I dream alone, it is just a dream. When we dream together, it is the beginning of reality. When we work together, following our dream, it is the creation of Heaven on Earth.” The next article in this series will discuss how to work together to realize that Dream.
Adapted from the work of Cooperrider, D. & Whitney, D. (1999) Appreciative Inquiry.