Appreciative inquiry is a key part of our work to support organisations and individuals in creating meaningful change.  But what is it and why is it useful?  And more importantly, is it useful right now, during a pandemic?

In this article, I will discuss the key assumptions of appreciative inquiry (AI), how we use it to create change and how recent research has shown it is especially valuable during times of profound change.

What is appreciative inquiry?

AI was first developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastra as a means to create change in organisations.  It is focused on exploring and valuing “the best of what is” within individuals and organisations in order to unleash potential and success. The key assumption of AI is that within every organisation, something works well and contributes to success.  By using AI, and by gathering stories and dialogue, we can enable organisations and individuals to focus on what works well and the use this to build success for the future.  Typically, an appreciative inquiry involves five key steps:

Generic Processes of Appreciative Inquiry

As an example of how AI can help us think differently, I often use SOAR as a strengths based alternative to a SWOT analysis.  This model encourages people to think about what is working well in an organisation rather than becoming focussed to much on what isn’t working.  I have found that this generates more ideas and action than taking using SWOT.

Is it useful now?

Given the global pandemic that we are all living through right now, is it the right time to focus on the positives? Is it naive to expect people and organisations to reframe their problems into possibilities and threats into opportunities? AI is not about only considering the positive in every situation and ignoring the negative.  We should think beyond this polarity and focus instead on “what gives life, what fuels development potential, what has deep meaning” (Cooperrider and Fry, 2020) in organisations.

In fact, Cooperrider and Fry’s recent research has shown that disruption can lead to great strides forwards in organisations.  We have seen this already during the pandemic when organisations had to swiftly pivot their service or product offering and/or enable their workforce to quickly work remotely.  Individuals and organisations have had to be resilient and creative in the way that they approach their work.

Cooperrider and Fry argue that having a strengths based focus can lead to even greater change than focussing on deficits. They quote Robson’s study that found that the greatest change success emerged when organisations focussed 80% of the time on what was working and 20% of the time on what was not working.  This led to a 4 times greater chance of change success.

AI can help achieve change during difficult times as it enables us to focus on our strengths and collaborate with others to generate new ideas.  Often, when we face dark times, it is difficult for us to see a way through them.  We may feel trapped and helpless and can easily fall into a trap of negative thought.  Having an appreciative mindset to support our thinking around the whole situation can avoid these traps and help us to develop new thoughts and engage with new solutions.

And at the heart of AI, is conversation.

How can I build AI into my own conversations?

There are some great tools out there to help  create change conversations.  Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres books and webinars offer some ideas for questions to get conversations started.  To begin thinking about possibilities rather than deficits, ask yourself:

  • What do we want more of?
  • How else can we handle this?
  • What needs to happen now?
  • What one small action would make a difference?

Another core element of both AI and my own research is that change is far more likely to succeed if people can take something into the future with them that they value from the past.  Again, this is where a SOAR analysis can be useful.  Therefore, before commencing any change both personally and within organisations, it is essential to ask:

  • When are we at our best?
  • What are our top strengths and what are their root causes?
  • What are our most challenging experiences? (when is our thinking/ideas challenged, values confronted/emotions provoked/ choices questioned)

Be curious with yourself and others about what lies at the heart of success and how this can be continued into the future.  Using AI can support you in this journey by generating opportunities to discover and learn.

How can I find out more?

If you are interested in a deeper exploration of AI and how it can be used to support change, I am running an online workshop with Rob Robson of 8 Connect People on 12th November 2020.  Details of the event and tickets are available here.  Or take a look at the ChangeStories podcast where guests share their own experiences of change.