Appreciative Inquiry: Conversations worth having

Our new Head of Campus introduced me to ‘Appreciative Inquiry’. Here is an oft cited definition of what ‘AI’ is:  “At its heart, AI is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ” a

Conversations worth having book cover

I read the book “Conversations Worth Having” b on Scribd. This is a subscription service, you pay $9 AUD a month and get fantastic access to books, documents and podcasts. I like reading non-fiction on Scribd because of the easy highlighting you can do with both Scribd and Diigo. I like Scribd better than Audible and Amazon.

What is ‘Appreciative Inquiry’?

AI can be the catalyst for organisational or behavioural change and can be used in all situations where humans interact. Stavros describes it as follows: “AI consists of the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world  around them and that solving tough problems from that perspective results in creative solutions, which is life-giving for people.c The idea of Appreciative Inquiry resonates with me because I try to always take a strengths based approach in my dealings with people and the world, rather than a deficit approach. I try to see the best in people, situations and organisations. AI is all about looking at strengths, rather than weaknesses and deficits.  

Appreciate inquiry is so called because you ask questions about and investigate what is good. Your inquiry appreciates and builds on the good and the successful, rather than identifying and investigating what is negative and wrong.

In a podcast, organisational coach Hal Elrod used a good example: He worked with British Airways as a consultant. He asked them what they wanted to work on and they said: We want to fix our lost baggage problem. Elrod suggested that this was a rather limiting mission, one which would only close the ‘deficit gap’, which is the gap between broken and fixed, rather than moving further. So together they rethought the question, they re-framed it and instead asked “How do we create an exceptional arrival experience?” This question not only led to improvements in the “lost baggage problem”, it created numerous other benefits and innovations.

At the heart of AI for organisational change is the 4D cycle. Here is an excellent summary of the “4D” cycle, as well as an overview of all the key driving questions: AI_CaseStudyExamples_HeatherMartinez_20170212. Practically, the four D cycle is this (Define), Discover, Dream, Design, Deploy:

  1. Define: we will use positive framing to clarify the task or focus for our inquiry and to create generative questions that we will ask in the Discover phase.
  2. Discover, we’ll engage in one-on-one interviews and small group discussions, based on the questions we crafted in the Define phase. The purpose of this phase is to identify our strengths, which is the positive core of our system, along with our purpose and possibilities for the future.
  3. Dream, we’ll create shared images of the future, present them in creative and imaginative ways, and write vision statements.
  4. Design, we’ll develop prototypes for ways to move toward our vision, leveraging our positive core and staying focused on our mission.
  5. Deploy, we’ll further develop our prototype(s) and adopt a learn- er mindset. This will help us evolve toward our desired future. We will learn and adapt as we move forward by continuously engaging in worthwhile conversations. d

I really like these summaries as guiding principles for organisational / cultural change through AI:

  • Words create worlds
  • Inquiry creates change
  • Images inspire action
  • Positive questions lead to positive change
  • We choose what we study, although I’d like to change that to “What we attend to grows“, in a nod to my fabulously smart and talented aunt Cora Smit, who pioneered many organisational psychology models and wrote a great book called “Alles wat je aandacht geeft, groeit

Conversations worth having

“Conversations Worth Having” is an affirming and practical book which summarises some common-sense and useful insights about the art of the positive conversation, because an art it is. The word “conversation’ comes from the Latin for “to associate with”, related to “convertere” which means to turn around, where “com/con” comes from “with, together” and “vertere” meaning “to turn or bend”. Conversations are relationships. Any conversation has the potential to be positive, affirming, strengthening and ‘generative’. This goes for conversations with yourself (self-talk), conversations with your family and friends and professional conversations with your colleagues. 

Two notions in this book particularly appealed to me:

  1. The idea of asking ‘generative questions’. Generativity occurs when a group of people discover, create and/or are presented with an image that allows them to experience their work and organization differently. e
    As Stavros describes it: “Asking generative questions is an essential practice for stimulating productive conversations and inspiring engagement. Generative questions that deepen understanding among people, strengthen their relationships. These questions stimulate creative thinking, inspire hope, and create momentum to move forward. This is true for families as well as organizations. It is even true for resolving global issues.”
    See a useful document on how to generate generative questions here.
  2. The second notion that is really compelling is the idea of positive reframing.
    “Positive framing is about intentionally shaping a conversation that invites engagement and produces positive outcomes. This applies at work, at school, at home, in our community outreach, and even when we have internal conversations with ourselves. We always recommend that you begin where you are when you start practicing positive framing. If you’re like we once were, and also like most of our clients, you’ll start with a problem-oriented or negative focus of attention. When this is the case, simply reframe the focus. A process for reframing a conversation, task, or topic can begin with a technique we call flipping. It’s a simple way to reframe the depreciative to the appreciative.” f

I highlighted some key quotes while reading the book. Some are so good that I’d like to make Canva posters out of them and hang them up in my office, like: “Every conversation is a series of defining moments that shape and change us.” I could not agree more, and after reading this book and learning more about AI, I am even more determined to ensure that the conversations I have with myself, my loved ones and my colleagues are postive and generative. Please see some of my highlights below: 

  • As words are spoken, our mind, body, and emotions react in a split second.
  • We move in the direction of the images and thoughts we hold.
  • Surface best practices and elements of success through conversations
  • Deepen connections and strengthen relationships through conversations
  • Make room for new knowledge, creativity, and innovation
  • Your conversations help create your world. Speak of delight, not dissatisfaction. Speak of hope, not despair. Let your words bind up wounds, not cause them. – Tao Te Ching
  • Each person’s life is lived as a series of conversations. – Deborah Tannen
  • No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. – Nancy H. Kleinbaum
  • Every conversation is a series of defining moments that shape and change us.
  • Inquiry and change are not separate movements.
  • Culture and climate emerge from our conversations.
  • The people and their conversations are the organization.
  • Our beliefs and perceptions influence our conversations.
  • Positive Question, Positive Outcome

Great podcast here: 

Out of interest, I also looked into what critiques there are out there about Appreciative Inquiry. There is some really nuanced critique on AI in this paper here g Some points mentioned are:

  • A common concern is “that a focus on positive stories and experiences during the discovery phase will invalidate the negative organizational experiences of participants and repress potentially important and meaningful conversations that need to take place”
  • It needs to be acknowledged that “what is positive for some may be negative for others”. Is it even possible to inquire into images of a positive future without evoking the negative past or present?
  • AI theorists argue that behind every negative image lies the positive. Social constructionists would argue that behind every positive image lies a negative one. Fitzgerald (2010) provide numerous examples to show that AI can surface repressed or censored thoughts and feelings.

There is so much more in this book and so much more about AI that I would like to think about, write about and share, but I have to make dinner now! I will continue to learn more about AI and continue to work towards ‘conversations worth having’. It has been a great read.

  1. Excerpt from: Stavros, Jacqueline, Godwin, Lindsey, & Cooperrider, David. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. In Practicing Organization Development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th Edition), William Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Jacqueline Stavros (Eds). Wiley, source  (back)
  2. Link to Conversations Worth Having on Scribd: .   (back)
  3. From Conversations Worth Having, Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful, Engagement, Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres. Page unknown because I took notes in Scribd via Diigo, which didn’t include page numbers, further citations will just be “Conversations worth having”  (back)
  4. Conversations worth having  (back)
  5. Bushe. G.R. (2013), Generative process, generative outcome: The transformational potential of appreciative inquiry, in D.L. Cooperrider, D.P. Zandee, L.N. Godwin, M. Avital & B. Boland (eds.) Organizational Generativity: The Appreciative Inquiry Summit and a Scholarship of Transformation (Advances in Appreciative Inquiry, Volume 4), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.89‐113.  (back)
  6. “Conversations worth having”  (back)
  7. Bushe, G.R. (2011) Appreciative inquiry: Theory and critique. In Boje, D., Burnes, B. and Hassard, J. (eds.) The Routledge Companion To Organizational Change (pp. 87­103). Oxford, UK: Routledge.   (back)