Appreciative Inquiry – A Focus on Harnessing Organisational Strengths

15 Nov 2017

In working with a couple of my sets over the past twelve months, where people have brought to the table issues associated with organisational change, I have found that there is an interest in the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach.

Organisational change is never easy and there is a tendency in busy systems to approach it from a problem solving perspective. We identify what is wrong in our business and we focus on how to change it. Unfortunately, this often embeds a focus on the negatives.

AI turns this around. It focuses on an organisation’s strengths and how these might be expanded and replicated. It asks questions about what is right in an organisation and what can be learned from what it does well. It is not a new approach, being first developed at Case Western Reserve University in 1987, however it is one that is probably under-utilised in Australia. Essentially, AI is a process of inquiry based on propositions that:

What we believe to be true determines what we do. Our actions stem from our beliefs, which in turn underpin our interactions within the business.

Inquiry changes human systems. The questions we ask determine the answers we get. Cultures, behaviours and actions can be stimulated by the questions we ask and the way in which we ask them. Asking the “right” questions can disrupt organisations in a positive way.

The words and topics chosen for inquiry have an impact beyond the words themselves. Our words and approaches need to be deliberately chosen to positively engage and inspire people to open up new possibilities.

What we do today is guided by our image of the future. AI uses positive imagery on a collective basis to refashion a future “reality”, based on what the people of the organisation see as its true potential.

Positivity and social bonding around a preferred future can harnesses collective energy. AI uses the strengths perceived within the organisation as motivation to instil hope, excitement and camaraderie; particularly important between groups in conflict.

AI is a way of increasing pride in achievement as a way of moving an organisation forward towards collectively “imagined” goals. It often relies on interviews to understand and determine an organisation’s strengths as perceived by those who work in it. It allows people to “dream” the preferred future and to then engage in designing and creating it.

In an era of change fatigue and resistance generated by constantly focusing on “problems”, it can be a powerful tool to re-engage. We need to ask:

  1. What do we do well and why is it working?
  2. What is our potential, what else could we do really well and how would we do it?

There are a range of AI trained providers that can help with setting up programs and short courses and many universities are incorporating this approach into organisational development training programs.