What Is Appreciative Inquiry?
Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a positive approach to leadership development and organizational change. The method is used to boost innovation among organizations. A company might apply appreciative inquiry to best practices, strategic planning, organizational culture, and to increase the momentum of initiatives.
This approach has also been applied at the societal level for discussion on topics of global importance. For example, non-profit and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might design initiatives across global regions and industry sectors after analysis using appreciative inquiry.
- Appreciative inquiry (AI) represents positive and collaborative techniques to improve leadership and implement organizational and societal change.
- In organizations, the method is used to boost innovation by analyzing best practices, strategic planning, organizational culture, and initiatives.
- Appreciative inquiry has also been used with non-profit and NGO initiatives across global regions and industry sectors.
Understanding Appreciative Inquiry
The Appreciative Inquiry model was developed at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. It was based on research by David Cooperrider and Ronald Fry. The core idea behind Appreciative Inquiry is that a problem—solving perspective creates inefficiencies and sub-optimal outcomes.
As firms aim to improve efficiency, survive, perform better, and boost competitiveness, AI proponents argue there's an over-emphasis on "fixing what's wrong" through a deficit-based approach. In other words, a "problem-solving" approach is fundamentally negative since it implies criticism and remediation.
Instead, Appreciative Inquiry seeks a positive approach. The model uses analysis that focuses on the best and most effective aspects of living systems and organizations at a societal level. Appreciative Inquiry discovers the untapped positive potential of an organization. For example, a model might focus on a system's opportunities, assets, spirit, and value. The discovery of potential harnesses the energy needed to facilitate a change rooted in breakthrough, discovery, and innovation.
The 5 Principals of Appreciative Inquiry
In 1990, Cooperrider and Fry established five principles of appreciative inquiry, including:
- The Constructionist Principle: Organizations are co-constructed by the discourse of the participants' interactions. The purpose of an inquiry is to generate new stories, language, and ideas.
- The Principle of Simultaneity: The answers are implicit in the questions asked.
- The Poetic Principle: The story of the organization is always being co-authored by people within it through their stories. So, choosing the topic of inquiry can change the organization.
- The Anticipatory Principle: Understanding that our actions are guided by our vision of the future, and creating a positive image of the future to shape present action.
- The Positive Principle: Positive organizational change requires positive sentiments, such as hope, inspiration, camaraderie, and the strengthening of social bonds.
Appreciative Inquiry's 5-D Cycle
Typically, organizations take the principles from Appreciative Inquiry and create change using a 5D-cycle, which represents a process or working model. Below are the five cycles that most organizations implement.
1. Define: What Is the Topic of Inquiry?
At this stage, it’s essential to clarify the focus or purpose of the project. This includes identifying the starting point, purpose, and what needs to be achieved or improved within the system. In other words, what is it that we want to focus on and achieve together?
2. Discover: Appreciation of the Best of the Organization
Through dialogue and inquiry, the goal of the second stage is to find out what works within the organization or community. The focus is to discover what the organization does well, its successes, and areas of excellence.
3. Dream: Imagining What Could Be
This stage includes gathering the past achievements and successes identified in the previous stage to help imagine what the organization would look like with a new vision for the future. It allows those who are in the organization to dream of what could be achieved. Participants and employees get a chance to identify their hopes or aspirations for the future by creating a wish list.
4. Design: What Should Be
The design stage combines the second and third stages. It combines the best of what is along with what might be to achieve what should be. In other words, it merges the strengths with the wish lists to formulate the ideal organization.
5. Destiny or Delivery: Creating What Will Be
The last stage establishes how the design is to be delivered and executed. This might include how it will be embedded within the organization, identifying the teams or groups throughout the organization or community that can bring about the change.
Example of Appreciative Inquiry
Many organizations have used Appreciative Inquiry. For example, the United States Navy used the method for its leadership development program.
In the early 2000s, the Navy had faced a growing need and desire to change its culture and how the organization was viewed since it had experienced challenges with recruiting and retention.
Determining What Could and Should Be
The Navy introduced Appreciative Inquiry through a series of interviews from the bottom-up within its hierarchal structure. The goal of the interview process wasn't merely to ask about the Navy's problems and how to solve them but to inquire as to what represented the best of the Navy from each interviewee.
The Navy's approach was to combine the best values of the organization with asking what should be and envision what could be. Instead of viewing the Navy as a problem that needed to be solved, the goal shifted to a "what can be" strategy.
The Navy used a 360-degree feedback method to draw on each person's knowledge that included multi-dimensional leadership. It's focused on each person's circle of influence, such as the direct reports, peers, and supervisors, to help create a shared vision of the Navy's leadership needed in the future.
After identifying the vision, they generated ideas and the needed changes to create and implement that vision. Creating an alignment between everyone involved empowered the participants by bringing forward ideas and change initiatives, which altered the discussion from negative to positive feedback.
Leadership stories were gathered and allowed people to relate to each other and embrace different kinds of leadership that all participants desired within the Navy. Through an analysis of all of the feedback, the change initiatives centered around several concepts, including the autonomy to act for those serving in the Navy, attention to personal needs, the types of risks leaders take, and teamwork.