Appreciative Inquiry – a tool and philosophy for positive change

The Appreciative Inquiry five-step model
The Appreciative Inquiry five-step model

By Elisabeth Goodman, 5th November 2016

Asking questions sets the tone for what will follow – start from what’s working well

It seemed obvious from the moment that our facilitator, Andy Smith (Coaching Leaders), mentioned it at the start of the two day course on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) that I attended this week. The minute you ask someone, or a group of people a question, you have influenced their mindset. Ask them what they like about something, or what is going well, and the chances are they will relax, open up and be in the mood to be creative. Ask them what’s not working and they may get defensive, close up and descend into despondency.

That’s a simplification of course as people may want to air their problems before they can open up to explore solutions, and they may automatically rise to the challenge rather than wait to be asked the right question. But the general premise of AI is to focus on what’s working well, on what people do best and on everyone’s potential to do so much more and better. Asking the right, open, positive questions will enable this to happen.

Click here for information on RiverRhee's training, workshops and coaching for managers and teams
Click here for information on RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for managers and teams

There are implications for coaching and personal development, for team building, for problem solving, decision making, innovation, knowledge and project management and for managing change! This blog just highlights a few of the ways to do this. There’s obviously a lot more about this that I will weave into RiverRhee‘s work and that you can find out about from some of the references below.

A new five-step model

The illustration at the start of this blog is of the five-step model. (Andy calls this ‘the 5 Ds’ but I already have a different 5D model that I refer to for time or productivity management so I will keep these distinct.)

Define the topic to be explored in an affirmative way: so it is stated in terms of what you want to move towards, rather than the problem to be moved away from. Focus on the vision and your mind and body will be already working out creative ways to achieve it.

Discover all the things that you are already doing well towards achieving that vision. This is where the affirmative questioning really starts to kick in.

Dream what it would be like when you achieve that vision: what will you hear, feel, see, think? What would it be like if a miracle happened overnight? This step engages the emotions: the heart as well as the mind and creates a really compelling vision.

Design all the possible alternatives (without evaluating at this stage) for achieving the dream. Build on what’s going well and stretch beyond that.

Deliver – this is the point at which you evaluate the alternatives and decide on the next steps to achieve your vision.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry to coaching

People familiar with the GROW and T-GROW models of coaching will have spotted that define equates with setting the topic (T) or goal (G). Discover equates to reality (R) but with a focus on what’s working well rather than on what’s generally happening. Dream is an enhanced version of the goal. Design equates to options (O) but holding back on evaluating those options. Deliver equates to will ( W ).

The slightly different order of the AI five-step process means that the aspirational vision or dream can build on the positive mood generated and so be more creative than the early definition of the goal permits in the GROW model. Although, in practice, either model can be iterative in a coaching situation.

Appreciative Inquiry and team building

The five-step model could also be used with a group of people in a team situation, to explore how a team can become more effective and attain, or sustain high performance. It could be used ‘live’ within a workshop, as an alternative to using pre-workshop diagnostics or temperature checks as described in some of my previous blogs for team development.

So the team can define in real time what it wants to achieve, discover all the things it is currently doing well, dream of what it could do, brainstorm how it could get there (design), and then agree the actions to take forward (deliver). The team could use rating scales (1 to 5, 1 to 10 etc) at any point in this discussion to make their assessments and goals more tangible.

Click here for information on RiverRhee's training, workshops and coaching for managers and teams
Click here for information on RiverRhee’s training, workshops and coaching for process improvement, knowledge management and project management

Appreciative Inquiry and problem solving, decision making, innovation, knowledge and project management

As the previous sections demonstrate, the five-step model has built in approaches to aid with problem solving, decision making and innovation. Focusing on what has gone well and using the dream steps arguably allow people to go beyond just fixing the problem into new realms of creativity.

Apparently others have already explored how to apply AI in Lean and Six Sigma, and I shall look into this more. Certainly, exploring what has gone well and why, in the Measure and Analyse phases of the DMAIC are possibilities that I do already touch upon in my RiverRhee courses. We also sometimes use ‘blue sky’ thinking to imagine a ‘to be’ way of working in the Improve phase.

De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, and the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis also encourage equivalents to the Discover step (yellow hat, and Strengths respectively), the Dream step (green and Opportunities), and Design (green again, and the actions arising out of the SWOT analysis).

Andy also mentioned SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) as an affirmative alternative to SWOT and which should give more scope for the Dream step!

Finally, knowledge management techniques will obviously benefit from AI, especially as having a productive conversation is at the heart of sharing knowledge between people. After Action Reviews, Learning Reviews or Retrospects (or Lessons Learned exercises in Project Management) already explore what went well. So AI techniques and philosophies would enhance the outcomes in these areas too.

The navigator - from "The Effective Team's Change Management Workbook", RiverRhee Publishing, 2013
The navigator – from “The Effective Team’s Change Management Workbook”, RiverRhee Publishing, 2013

Appreciative Inquiry and managing change

Last but not least, AI has something to offer those leading or dealing with change and so support one of my missions which is to create ‘navigators‘ as opposed to ‘victims’ of change! We can aim to understand and look for ways to maintain, enhance, or at a minimum, compensate for the best of what people previously had in creating whatever the new situation might be. And we can ensure that that new situation is as compelling a vision or ‘dream’ as possible.

In conclusion

There are lots of opportunities to apply Appreciative Inquiry tools and ways of thinking in our working and home lives.  I am using some of these applications already, and looking forward to exploring more with with clients, colleagues, friends and family!

I’ll try not to be a “rose-tinted evangelist” though: we still need to acknowledge the very real problems and challenges that people experience and how they feel about them.

How might you apply AI?

further references

ABOUT THE author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus, a quality assured training provider with Cogent Skills and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads on Membership, Communications and Events for the Enabling Change SIG committee.