Appreciative inquiry is an approach to change that differs from traditional models in that it has an intentionally positive perspective. Rather than viewing the current situation as a problem and the current systems as broken, it seeks to find opportunities and possibilities. Built on a foundation of positive psychology, it posits that if you’re going to make change, the best way is to do that from a position of strength rather than weakness.
The Starting Point
Appreciative inquiry starts with an affirmative topic choice. That is one part selecting the right topic, but it is equally as much the framing that’s put around the topic. By choosing a topic carefully, it’s possible to start a positive spiral that lifts the conversation and the people involved.
Step 1: Discovering
The first step in appreciative inquiry is to discover the current situation and appreciate it for what it is. This step is about finding the best of what is in the current situation and appropriately recognizing the limitations of the current state.
Step 2: Dream
“If you can dream it, then you can do it” may be idealized, but there’s truth to the idea that you need a compelling vision to pull you forward. Dreaming is about envisioning what is possible and what the world around you needs from the organization.
Step 3: Design
With a painted vision, it’s time to put pen to paper and identify the actions and steps that need to happen to bring the future into being. In the design phase, there’s a co-construction process that happens as everyone brings their value into designing a solution that’s better than the current state. Getting cocreation of ideas working isn’t always easy, but it’s at the heart of the appreciative inquiry process.
Step 4: Destiny
This is the step where the design work is implemented, and work is done to ensure that the new design becomes a permanent part of the organization’s culture. This step acknowledges that no plan is perfect and intentionally invests in the things that need to happen to ensure the plan is workable now and in the future.
The Realist View
Proponents of appreciative inquiry are used to objections that not everything is roses and sunshine. Sometimes, the problems that an organization faces are really problems. They balk at trying to reframe declining market share or declining profitability in positive terms. If you shine a turd, it’s still a turd. It’s not that the practitioners of appreciative inquiry aren’t aware of negatives, nor do they wish to ignore it. It’s just that the focus is decidedly and intentionally positive even with difficult problems that may require sacrifice and loss.
As a change model, it lacks the breadth of other models. As a result, it’s best when used with other models to shape the conversations towards more positive thinking and working.
- David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney’s Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change