Appreciative Inquiry: Approaching Organizational Change in a Revolutionary Manner?

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
                                                                                    Lao Tzu
                                                                                                Legendary Taoist philosopher

If you have ever driven through a dense forest far from an urban area late at night, you know the meaning of “DARK”.  Traveling through the north woods late at night, I recently noticed that as my vehicle approached curves in the road I clenched the steering wheel more tightly in anticipation of the unknown that lay ahead.  What was I afraid of…an animal in the road, or losing my way?  I’m not sure what prompts this “fear of the unknown”, however to some degree my mind believed there was a risk associated with that journey.

The same feeling holds true for many of us as we are asked to constantly change, change, change!  The organizations we work for are in a constant state of change and sometimes we find ourselves clenching our teeth as we journey towards yet another unknown outcome.  Risk is involved as a part of our daily interactions at work.

As leaders in organizations, how can we decrease or minimize these uncomfortable reactions many have to the “unknown” that change creates?  How do we reduce fear and anxiety related to the risks we need our employees to take in order to remain viable and competitive organizations?

David Cooperider of Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management created an exciting approach to change that can help reduce the fear and negativism that often accompanies organizational change.  The approach is called Appreciative Inquiry and it offers help to organizations desiring change by focusing and valuing the best of “What Is”.  The approach encourages teams or individuals to focus on what is working well, what they do best….and encourages them to do more of it. Traditional models of change, focusing on “problem solving”, see the organization as having problems that need solutions.  AI (as Appreciative Inquiry is called) sees an organization as a “mystery to be embraced”.

Focusing on the positive provides a springboard for the future.  AI generates useful information on what to embrace and build on for the future.  Our reality is defined by what we focus on—if we focus on the negative—our reality will be there as well.  When we focus on problems, i.e., what’s wrong or missing in the organization, this becomes our “reality”.  The more we focus on problems, the more there seems to be “wrong” with the organization.  With AI, we simply are looking for what is working and finding ways to do more of that.

This model makes two assumptions:

  1. We have performed well at something
  2. We need to explore how that happened and how to do more

The driver of this process is doing more of what works.

Participants in the AI process answer a series of focused questions, usually in a group format, that describe peak moments in the organization’s history.  The process focuses on getting people to remember and verbalize what they have done well, what they know how to do and what works.  This is remembering what the road looked like during the daylight hours—it’s not so scary then!

AI utilizes a four-phase approach and questions are tailored to the specific situation:

            Inquiry—What do we do best?
                            When did you feel the best about the organization and why?

            Envisioning—What might be?   Dream.

            Dialoguing—What should be?

            Innovating—What will be.

This approach works well for just about any application in any type of organization.  Numerous large organizations (Motorola, GTE, BP America, United Way of America, U.S. Navy) have used AI successfully.  Professor Cooperider helped facilitate a meeting using AI in NYC last April with approximately 600 business leaders to discuss the role of business in society.  “Much of the tension in the world today is related to the two words on the (former Twin) Towers, “world” and “trade;” Professor Cooperider observes.  “So it’s time for a new dialogue to give birth to a new vision of the relationship between business and society that we can begin to agree upon across cultures and civilization..”

AI is about searching for the best in people and organizations.  It involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthens an organization’s capacity to understand and maximize positive potential.

There are many helpful resources to address the AI process and discuss its’ rich history.

Some include:     

So let’s start shining some light on those scary, dark curves found in the road to the unknown!  AI is a powerful method to reduce fear in the organization and decrease resistance to change.

Change Leadership Service