Sunday, October 5, 2008

Appreciative Inquiry

There is an expectation within many organizations that leaders know where an organization is going, and how the organization will get there. Certainly in some cases this is correct - there are leaders with clear vision who know what they want to achieve, and how to achieve the desired result.

It is also true that many (perhaps most) organizations don't always work like well oiled machines. Leaders find themselves mired in cultures that no longer serve the needs of the customers, employees, or other constituents; or the leader finds that he or she must deal with systems that do not create the desired result even though, from a technical perspective, everything appears to be working as designed.

When faced with these types of issues, leaders have a number of choices. If we assume that there is the will (free will, choice, courage) to change the culture or systems in question, the leader can use one of a number of problem-solving models. However, problem-solving models have been applied to organizations for years with very mixed results.

Perhaps it is time for leaders to consider a new (or at least relatively new) approach to changing cultures, systems and behaviors. Perhaps it is time for leaders to consider Appreciative Inquiry, or AI. (click here for a definition provided by Wikipedia)

According to the the Appreciative Inquiry Commons (sponsored by Case Western Reserve University):
Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. (Emphasis added)

In the AI Process the conversation shifts from what is wrong with the organization or system to a description of what works, what is right, and finding ways to build on the strengths that already exist.

The value of choosing to follow an AI process over the usual problem solving approaches is that the organization avoids slogging through the negative energy created by the typical problem solving model, and instead finds that it is engaged in a fast, energetic, positive, and inspiring dialogue about what "can be":
In AI the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. AI seeks, fundamentally, to build a constructive union between a whole people and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper corporate spirit or soul-- and visions of valued and possible futures. (From the Appreciative Inquiry Commons - What is AI)

At the risk of oversimplifying things, in general, the AI process takes the participants through four steps (The lis below is from the Wikipedia entry on AI):
  1. DISCOVER: The identification of organizational processes that work well.
  2. DREAM: The envisioning of processes that would work well in the future.
  3. DESIGN: Planning and prioritizing processes that would work well.
  4. DESTINY (or DELIVER): The implementation (execution) of the proposed design.
AI is not a miracle drug, or a once-size-fits-all model. But if you are a leader looking for a way to draw the culture of your organization to a new place, or change systems that are steeped in tradition, AI may be that answer to your prayers.

If you are interested in some additional reading on this subject, here are a few sources: