Focusing on business problems is not always the best way to resolve them; Appreciative Inquiry (AI) offers a more positive approach. By Dr Ronald Forbes and John Loty
Following the traditional business approach, it is the manager who is handed the responsibility for achieving success, and their task is often stated to be 'find the problems and solve them'.
Unfortunately, the number of problems that can be found is endless, while the time available for solving them grows shorter. It is against this background that Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has made its appearance over the past 10 or more years.
AI has demonstrated an ability to take on 'impossible' situations and turn them around with impressive results measured by greatly increased profitability to reduced staff turnover. Organisations involved have included Britain's BBC, the US Navy, McDonald's, the United Nations and the ANZ Bank.
The AI method
The secret of AI lies in the identification of real strengths and experience. These are used to develop (discover and dream) strategic alternatives to achieve business goals, while at the same time satisfying the individual's search for meaning and purpose and their need to be a genuine part of their community at work. The involvement of everyone brings what is essentially a 'whole system' process of revitalisation.
The range of areas in which AI is used is expanding. It has a track record in counselling, coaching, teaching and training, customer service and culture change. In each instance, the boost in morale and the lessening of problems and difficulties is evident.
So how does AI solve the problems? Well, it doesn't - or not in the first instance. The focus of an AI intervention is to first discover the related assets; what is working within the organisation. It aims to engage the organisation, beginning with a group of people as representative as possible. It offers these people an opportunity to talk about what works well, what's exciting about the job, what the strong points are, where the 'buzz' is, what the experience of excellence has been and where else that could work.
The process of uncovering a long list of problems inevitably gives rise to a sense of being overwhelmed. In contrast, talking about what works gets people genuinely excited. It lets them feel that despite all the difficulties, the contributions they make are recognised and welcomed. This improves morale.
The first result is that many of the problems are resolved quickly, which brings a further rise in morale. During this process of dialogue, agreement begins to emerge about the organisation, its purpose, and the meaning of its work at every level.
At this point, the 'insoluble' problems that remain are faced by people who know where they are headed and who are united in purpose. Now we have an environment in which our problem-solving techniques can work at their best.
Origins of AI
The AI method was developed by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University School of Management in Ohio, US, in the mid-1980s. It began with Cooperrider's work with the Cleveland Clinic where doctors talked more about their failures than their successes. Turning their focus towards what was working well had a powerful impact on their clinical results.
This led Cooperrider to develop a process of discovery to determine what gives life to an organisation, rather than look at its problems. It required a shift away from deficit-based thinking.
There are the four basic steps to an AI intervention, known as the 4-D Model. They are preceded by a scoping type of exercise that sets the 'theme', or affirmative topic, for the inquiry (see figure 1).
- Discover. What is happening when the organisation is at its best?
- Dream. What might be?
- Design. What should be?
- Deliver. How to create a destiny based on 'what will be'.
AI provides another way of thinking about or seeing the issues of our times, including the fundamental challenge for society and business to be sustainable.
The AI process draws on wisdom from all levels of an organisation and creates a shared vision. AI operates from five principles:
- Constructionist principle: this states simply that who we are influences our attitude and response to what we observe.
- Simultaneity principle: this states that things change as soon as we begin our inquiry. We cannot be 'outside' the system, we are part of it.
- Poetic principle: this says that, like a poem, groups and organisations provide us with endless sources of discovery and learning.
- Anticipatory principle: what you expect leads to what you find. "What you focus on grows" - so let's not focus on problems. Positive image leads to positive action.
- Positive principle: positive questions lead to positive change and bring out the best in people.
In its aim to work with the whole system, AI has developed an interview methodology that can operate with large workforces and engage the personal contributions of even tens of thousands of employees.
Although Appreciative Inquiry programs don't aim for a quick fix, they do dissolve large numbers of problems, including the 'insoluble' and, as the AI positive focus becomes the norm of organisational life, there are indeed some very quick fixes.