Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith


This topic looks at the assumptions and principles underlying Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It explains the 5D Appreciative Inquiry model, suggests some practical ways to implement an AI process in an organisation, and finally, and most importantly, outlines how to live in a more appreciative way.

Imagine you have to spend an hour grilling one of your team members about all of their mistakes, failures, omissions and shortcomings? How are you going to feel at the end of that? And how is the team member going to feel?

Now imagine that you are interviewing the same team member about times when they have been involved in real successes, when they felt fully engaged and alive at work, and have been proud to work there. Imagine how easy it will be, in that interview, to uncover information about the factors that have made these successes possible so that you can put them in place more widely, enabling great performance to become the norm rather than the exception.

Which interview is going to give you more usable information about ways to improve performance?

Appreciative Inquiry is most useful when it is adopted as a way of seeing and being in the world, rather than as just another item in the change agent’s toolkit. You don’t need to plan and implement a full 5D cycle in order to start getting the benefit of an appreciative approach – something as simple as starting your team meetings with sharing successes can have a big impact on the mindset and morale of your team.

AI should not be viewed as a panacea or a one-size-fits-all approach. For simple and easy-to-fix problems, it may be more cost-effective to use a more traditional ‘diagnose the problem and prescribe a remedy’ approach.

Where Appreciative Inquiry really comes into its own is with problems in complex systems where there are no obvious solutions, and where attempts to fix the problem might cause other problems down the line or elsewhere in the system.

If, until now, your organisation has had a ‘macho’ or ‘blame culture’, a ‘dissonant’ emotional climate, or is very sceptical and risk-averse, you will need to introduce AI carefully and step by step, perhaps starting with a small pilot project. When this succeeds, it will justify a bigger next step, and so on.

Appreciative Inquiry is scalable across all levels, from individual coaching through team development to whole-organisation improvement.