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How to Use Appreciative Inquiry Questions to Uplift Companies
Many of the most well-known change models in organizational management ask leaders and their teams to focus on things that aren't going well in the company. While there might be some benefit to identifying weak points and determining which skills need to be learned, an overwhelming emphasis on negative aspects of an organization can leave a team feeling discouraged and unmotivated.
Appreciative Inquiry, on the other hand, is a model that focuses on what an organization is doing right. It is a positive, rather than negative, approach that highlights the things that work for a company or a team.
The effect of this type of inquiry can be positive in several ways– it can uplift teams by helping them identify their strengths and skills, increase motivation, and it helps to turn the desired change into a reality.
What Is Appreciative Inquiry?
Appreciative Inquiry is a theory, process, and methodology of social and organizational change.
Proposed initially by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in 1987, Appreciative Inquiry grew out of the fields of development, action research, and organizational management. Over the past few decades, however, it has continued to evolve into a widely used process by engagement facilitators and professionals.
Appreciative Inquiry focuses on generating positive ideas rather than pinpointing negative problems. For this reason, it is often referred to as a "strengths-based" or "asset-based" approach to systems change.
Through dialogue and questions, Appreciative Inquiry helps individuals participating in the system identify strengths, assets, opportunities, and advantages in their teams, organizations, or communities. With this information, they can then work to collectively develop and implement strategies that will allow them to improve and grow.
An essential basic premise of Appreciative Inquiry is the social-constructivist theory. This theory proposes that knowledge and organizations are constructed through cultural and social interactions, dialogue, and relationships and that human development is a social process at its core. Essentially, the idea here is that certain ideas about reality come from collaborative consensus rather than simple, pure observation of reality.
The creators of Appreciative Inquiry felt that there was an overuse of problem-solving in organizations and communities. They felt that focusing on solving problems got in the way of creating social improvements. They felt that new inquiry methods would be necessary for fresh models and ideas to arise and inform how specific groups of people should be organized.
Appreciative Inquiry is a model that can help you and your team set positive goals for your organization based on your strengths. If you're interested in learning about the best professional development goals you can set for your managers, check out our complete guide here.
The Five Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
In an article published by Cooperrider and Diana Whitney in 2001, the five principles of Appreciative Inquiry were outlined.
- The constructionist principle: What we do is determined by what we believe to be accurate, and relationships are what cause thought and action. People create the organizations they work for through their day-to-day interactions and the language and discourse they use. Likewise, new possibilities for action emerge when inquiry is used to inspire new stories, ideas, and images.
- The principle of simultaneity: Human systems change as soon as inquiry begins. The very first questions that are asked plant the seeds of change. Questions are fateful rather than neutral, and human systems move in the direction of the most passionately and continuously discussed questions.
- The poetic principle: The stories that people tell each other on a day-to-day basis are the expression of organizational life. In this way, an organization's story is authored by everyone participating in the organization. There is an impact of the inquiry words and topics beyond the words themselves, as they invoke worlds of meaning, understanding, and sentiments. A focus should be on choosing words that inspire and point to the best in people.
- The anticipatory principle: Our image of the future guides what we do today. Human and social systems always project toward the expectations of the future in a way that allows the future to be a mobilizing agent into the present. The artful creation of collective positive imagery helps create change in an organization's anticipatory reality.
- The positive principle: Social bonding and positive affect are momentum and sustainable change requirements. Openness to new ideas and people, creativity, and cognitive flexibility are boosted by sentiments like excitement, hope, joy, and camaraderie. They also help promote the relationships between people, particularly between individuals or groups engaged in conflict, which is a necessary prerequisite for both collective inquiry and change.
Appreciative Inquiry argues that organizations are more likely to make rapid improvements when all members are motivated to understand and value the best features of the company and its culture. Conversely, some researchers posit that organizations can become worse or stagnate when too much focus is put on the dysfunction and weak points of the company.
4D Appreciative Inquiry Questioning
Appreciative Inquiry aims to foster positive relationships and expand upon the present potential of an individual, organization, or situation by asking questions and picturing the future.
Four cyclical processes are most commonly used in the Appreciative Inquiry model.
- DISCOVER: Focuses on identifying the processes that are working well
- DREAM: Envisions processes that could work well down the road
- DESIGN: Planning out and prioritizing the processes that could work well
- DESTINY (or DEPLOY): The execution of the proposed design
The idea is that an individual, community, or organization can be built up or rebuilt around what works for them. This is opposed to the problem-solving approach of always trying to fix what doesn't work. You will often find practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry positioning their approach as the opposite of problem-solving.
You can use the 4D technique when acting as a facilitator in a group setting, running team meetings, or in countless other situations.
During the first of the four "D's," people can determine the strengths of the entity in question, whether that is a community, organization, department, or individual.
Cooperrider and Godwin explained the overarching question behind the discovery phase to be: "what gives life?"
This is when you will focus on determining what the core strengths are. Some example questions for the discovery section include:
- How did we measure success in our last project?
- What creative ideas came out of our last project?
- How have we been collaborating on tasks as a team?
- How have we been measuring success?
- What positive impacts have our previous successes had on us individually and as a team?
The dream questions emphasize a positive focus on the potential for future achievements and goals for a group or individual. The focus here is on what will go right rather than honing in on all potential obstacles that might stand in the way of success.
Once the strengths have been established during the discovery period, these can be used to help paint a picture of the future.
The overarching question that guides this stage is: "what might be?"
Here are some examples of what dream questions might look like:
- How can we best communicate our primary ideas in the future?
- What are some innovative ideas that utilize our strengths that we can work to put in practice?
- What would success look like for us as a team?
- What strengths does each team member have that can help us achieve our future goals?
- What direction should we be heading in?
At this point in the Appreciative Inquiry process, things shift from being idea generative to action-oriented. Now that you've collected information about an organization or individual's goals, it's time to ask questions that will help determine what steps need to be taken to reach them.
The question that serves as an umbrella for all of the inquiry questions in this section is: "what should be?"
Some ideas for questions in the design segment could include:
- What specific actions contributed to the success of a previous project?
- What foundation will be necessary to achieve success in the future?
- What lessons have been learned from previous projects that can be applied in the future?
- What strategies can we use to keep the momentum going?
You might also hear this stage referred to as "deployment" under some Appreciative Inquiry models. This stage is an opportunity for team members or individuals to ask specific questions addressing how the team can "empower, learn, and improvise."
Example questions for the destiny stage include:
- What are the first steps toward our goals that utilize our strengths?
- Where can this project take our company or team?
- What mindset will make it possible for us to achieve our plan?
- What will your success in this project mean for the team?
How Can Appreciative Inquiry Uplift Companies?
Appreciative Inquiry truly takes a revolutionary approach to organizational change. Able to create resilient and reinvention-focused cultures, this method focuses on what is working rather than what isn't working. Leaders aren't asked to identify all of the weaknesses in their organization and obstacles they foresee, but instead, ask them about the positive aspects of their organization and where they envision being in the future.
One of the unspoken ideas here is that "what we appreciate, appreciates."
So many organizational visioning and change models focus on problems and pitfalls. These are, in a sense, negative approaches to change.
Rather than bringing everyone down by spending time emphasizing all the things that are going wrong, Appreciative Inquiry offers a uniquely positive perspective that is change-oriented.
Instead of asking an organization or team to develop brand-new skills, this model asks them to utilize their existing skills and strengths.
Change models that focus on the weak points of organizations can harm motivation and morale, as it can put the obstacles to growth at the forefront of the conversation. However, focusing on the strengths and successful practices that already exist can help everyone involved feel motivated to reach their goals and experience continual growth.
A researcher on the topic of Appreciative Inquiry and a Beedie School of Business professor of leadership and organization development, Gervase Bushe, stated that:
"AI revolutionized the field of organization development and was a precursor to the rise of positive organization studies and the strengths-based movement in American management."
When you utilize this model in your company, it can help overcome some of the difficulties that are presented with more negatively focused change models. It can help boost the creativity and innovative thinking of people on your team and help to provide the motivation necessary to bring about real, substantial change.
A Brief History of Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry was born out of the department of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. It was launched via an article by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, published in 1987.
These two founders of Appreciative Inquiry took a social constructionist approach. This is because they believed that conversations are what create, maintain, and change organizations and that the only limits to organizational methods were the imaginations and agreements between the people involved.
The five principles of Appreciative Inquiry were first outlined in an article published by Cooperrider and Diana Whitney in 2001. A few years earlier, in 1996, Cooperrider, Whitney, and a number of their colleagues became central figures in creating the United Religions Initiative using Appreciative Inquiry.
One of the early applications of this method was with a team of employees of GTE, a telecommunications company now a part of Verizon. It was found that Appreciative Inquiry helped the employees have increased support for the company's business direction, generated revenue improvements, and helped bring about cost savings. All of this resulted in GTE receiving an award for the best organizational change program in the entire country in the United States via the Association for Talented Development.
Is Appreciative Inquiry Right For Your Company?
The best leaders are always learning new skills and looking to hone their leadership styles. Flexibility is a crucial aspect of being a successful leader– you must be willing to see what is working and what isn't to bring about the necessary organizational changes.
If you've been utilizing negative change models that only focus on what is going wrong, it might be time to take a more positive approach. Appreciative Inquiry is something that you can use to outline small and big-picture goals for your team and can serve as a motivational exercise for everyone involved.
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Do you have any comments or questions about appreciative inquiry or how to utilize it effectively in your company? If so, be sure to let us know down below. We appreciate your interest and input!