Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Three assumptions underpinning AI

The three assumptions underlying Appreciative Inquiry may seem obvious givens, when stated, but in the context of a blame culture they can easily be very far from obvious.

1. In every human situation, something works

Doing more of what works is the key driver for Appreciative Inquiry, as opposed to trying to do less of what we know doesn’t work.

Most problem solving and ‘improvement planning’ is based on the latter principle. We are more inclined to look for the failings in something, than to celebrate what we’ve done well. Problem solving focuses on what AI metaphorically refers to as deficits and, by its nature, tends to ignore positives.

Acting from the assumption that something is working makes it more likely that we will find that something. This is worth doing, as expectations – particularly from people in authority – influence performance. See, for example, the extensive research into the ‘Pygmalion effect’ in education: the teacher’s expectations are a stronger determinant of a student’s academic performance than ‘objective’ tests of their mental ability. (See the Pygmalion effect.)

2. Focusing on the positive influences the outcome

Positive visualisation has been found to be extremely effective in, for example, sports psychology. There is plenty of research to back up the idea that focusing on positive aspects makes a successful outcome more likely.

  1. The expectancy effect: social psychologist A S King showed as far back as 1974 that managerial expectations of innovations have an effect on productivity independently of how effective the innovations are. In a study involving four similar industrial plants, he introduced an innovation known to increase productivity (job enlargement) to two of the plants, and another measure known to have no effect on productivity (job rotation) to the other two. He also raised managerial expectations in one ‘enlargement’ plant and one ‘rotation’ plant, leaving the other two as controls. After 12 months, productivity in both the high-expectation plants had risen, while it remained unchanged in the controls.
  2. The placebo effect: about a third of patients on placebo (inert) controls in drug trials show some positive response.
  3. The value of positive emotions: psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s research into the value of positive emotions shows that people who feel positive are able to think more strategically; they are more compassionate, more creative, more socially connected and more resilient; they make better decisions, and have better health.
  4. Self-fulfilling prophesies: psychologist Richard Wiseman’s investigations into people who seem to be naturally lucky found that positive expectations become self-fulfilling, because they make the person more resilient and have better-quality interactions with others.

3. Remembering past achievements affects the future

In other words, we have more confidence in the future when we carry forward the achievements of the past. It is much easier to construct a future vision when this is based on memories of positive experiences, rather than starting with a blank canvas and trying to come up with something from scratch.

Studies repeatedly show that around 30 to 50 per cent of change initiatives fail to reach their goals. A contributory factor in many cases may be that people fear that change will result in the disappearance of the parts of their work that they enjoy – the parts that motivate them and give life to the organisation.

If change focuses exclusively on eliminating problems, or even on a vision of the future which does not take account of what is already good in the current situation, there is a danger that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and that the knock-on systemic effects of the proposed fixes would give rise to further problems.

It makes sense therefore to start the change process, as AI does, with what is valuable and what is already working well, and to base change on doing more of what works.

By focusing on what’s right, rather than what’s wrong, with an organisation, an individual or even a society, AI gives us access to the kind of energy that can be transformative. Having that kind of energy to work with gives us the confidence to develop and pursue a new image of the future.