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Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change


Call in the SWOT team. Analyze the weakness and put up a solid strategic defense to the onslaught of environmental threats. That’s the kind of language that too often permeates change projects. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change seeks to change the fundamental orientation from one of wars and weaknesses to one of opportunities, strengths, and views of the world, which are definitively more positive and safer.

Positive Foundation

To understand the fundamental shift in thinking, it’s appropriate to point to the shift in psychology that happened with Martin Seligman at the helm of the American Psychological Association (APA). While the industry still focuses on mental diseases, Seligman and those near him looked for a more positive path. His initial work on learned helplessness would eventually become transformed into a failure to learn hope, as he explains in The Hope Circuit. Instead of rescuing people from the depths of their disease, Seligman encouraged people to Flourish.

Seligman and Chris Peterson would develop a way to assess your strengths – Values in Action (VIA) is what they called it. It was built on Seligman’s previous work in Authentic Happiness and extended it into identifying a set of strengths.

Others would follow the lead, including Barbara Fredrickson, whose research as described in Positivity established that the positive to negative ratio of greater than 3:1 in your feelings lead to an upwards spiral for you – and for those around you. (See The Halo Effect for the limits of your ability to influence those around you.)

Positive Core

These are all positive perspectives on individual psychology. However, Appreciative Inquiry also includes what Cooperrider and White believe are the positive core of organizations. They are:

  • Achievements
  • Strategic opportunities
  • Product strengths
  • Technical assets
  • Breakthrough innovations
  • Elevated thoughts
  • Best business practices
  • Positive emotions
  • Organization wisdom
  • Core competencies
  • Visions of possibility
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Product pipeline
  • Vital traditions
  • Lived values
  • Positive macrotrends
  • Social capital
  • Collective spirit
  • Embedded knowledge
  • Financial assets
  • Visions of positive futures
  • Alliances and partnerships
  • Value chain strengths
  • Strategic advantages
  • Relational resources
  • Customer loyalty

Two Essential Factors

Cooperrider and White also believe that you must have two things for success. The first is management commitment, and the second is involvement of the entire workforce. While these are at some level true, they’re also somewhat idealized. Everyone says that you must get executive buy-in. Some say that you need to get everyone in the organization on board with the change.

The problem I have with the statement is not its validity but rather the lack of clarity on how to achieve these goals.

At the Heart

Appreciative Inquiry is a way to confront the generally negative view that change often takes of the current state with an appreciation for how the organization reached its current state and the people that are a part of it. While Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change may not change the way you look at change, it may help you appreciate it more.