Appreciative Inquiry is a progressive organizational approach that embraces a simple philosophy: What you feed will grow.
PART 1: Introduction
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.
Consider, if you will, your average performance evaluation situation. Your supervisor asks you a few questions about what you are currently doing. She then shares with you the direction you need to grow to support the organization. She points out the gaps in your performance, and charges you with creating a personal improvement plan wherein you will address these gaps and the two of you agree on the next steps in order to follow up on your progress.
How do you feel coming out of this meeting? Energized? Thrilled with your job prospects? Filled with hope and enthusiasm as you work toward supporting your organization? Probably not. Most likely, you have come out of the office feeling burdened by all of your shortcomings. Your thoughts are probably focused on those gaps that were identified. You need to figure out how to address those gaps—how to overcome those deficiencies. This is where your energies are focused and it can drag you down.
So imagine instead an alternative discussion: one in which your supervisor asks you what is going well in your current job. Rather than focusing on your failures, you are sharing stories of your achievements. Rather than asking about shortcomings, your supervisor helps you glean common threads from your success stories. You are able to see where your strengths and abilities currently lie, how you feel and the impact you have on others when you are at your optimal best. Next, your supervisor asks you to envision a future where you do that all the time—when you always have such a positive contribution to make, and you support your organization to the fullest. Can you feel your energy lifting already?
Chances are that this second scenario is more uplifting: your energy is higher; you are probably smiling. This is the feeling and energy raised by Appreciative Inquiry is a new approach to creating organizational change. It is a philosophy as well as a methodology and it has been used by organizations around the world, such as British Airways, McDonald’s and Canadian Tire, to affect complex change and organizational transformation. Participants often exit an Appreciative Inquiry process with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for their collective future. They also emerge with concrete and detailed plans to create this desired future, and they all have a responsibility in that plan.
Appreciative Inquiry is grounded in the philosophy of social constructionism. This philosophy indicates that we can create our own reality and future through the use of images, and that we will work towards the achievement and realization of those images. This may sound very new-age; however, it is grounded in many empirical scientific studies taken from diverse fields such as medicine, sports, behavioural science and anthropology.
Consider, for example, the placebo effect. This phenomenon arises when a patient suffering from a medical condition is given a placebo that has no medicinal properties, and the patient’s medical condition measurably improves as a result. This seems to run against current medical practice: an inert substance, such as sugar, cannot alleviate a medical condition. However what studies have shown is that between one-third to two-thirds of patients will show distinct improvement in their symptoms simply from believing that they are being prescribed an effective treatment. The placebo effect is so accepted, that government regulatory agencies will now only approve new drugs if it is shown that the positive response to a drug is significantly greater than the placebo effect.
This demonstrates that the main reason patients recover in this case is because they believe they are receiving appropriate treatment and that they will get better. In other words, the envisioned outcome of the treatment is essential to the success of the treatment itself. The patient’s image of the future informs and shapes that same future.
In the Pygmalion studies, teachers were told that certain random students in their classes were not very intelligent, poorly behaved and did not achieve good grades. Other students, also randomly selected, were said to be smart students who were hard-working and successful. The teacher, informed of this categorization, taught the class and within a short time those students who were categorized as “poor performers” actually performed poorly on objective tests. Those students who were categorized as “strong performers” performed significantly better on those same objective tests. Again, the future expectations of the teacher shaped the actual determination.
This self-fulfilling prophecy concept is used in sports for positive visualization of an event outcome. It is used in leadership coaching and dramatic stage performances. The topic comes up in parenting courses, addiction research and educator training. Over and over, our images of the future inform and shape that future.
To return to the first job assessment discussion, what is the likely outcome if the employee and supervisor have a discussion focusing on the employee’s weaknesses and what needs to be done to improve? The focus of the discussion is on gaps and failures—what has not worked. The employee is reminded of times when success was elusive. If this is the image that is presented, then it is likely that the employee will get more of the same– more gaps, more failures, more weaknesses. In today’s society, it is painfully clear to us when we have failed or done wrong. Do we really need to focus on those shortcomings even more?
However, in the case of the second job assessment, that employee is presented with a positive image: one of strength and achievement. With an image of affirmation and potency, the employee will also get more of the same—more alignment, more success, more action.