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Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a process for catalyzing positive change developed at Case Western Reserve University by David Cooperrider, a professor of Organizational Behavior at their Weatherhead School of Management. As a graduate student, Cooperrider noticed that most organizational change was driven by consultants going into an organization and looking for problems and then attempting to fix them. He decided to see what happened if he took the opposite approach.

During his graduate thesis work, Cooperrider went into the Cleveland Clinic and, rather than seek out what needed fixing, he sought out what was working well. He then developed a structured process to concentrate information about these success factors in what is called the "positive core" and to then amplify that positive core throughout the organization. The experiment was a great success and Cooperrider went on to establish the process as Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciative Inquiry is both a specific methodology and a perspective and has been defined as the study of what gives life to human systems when they are at their best. As such it ties deeply into fields such as Positive Psychology and Flow which, like AI, stand in contrast to our culture's typical "problem-based" or "deficit-based" mindset.

To understand the phrase more deeply, we need simply look at the two words that make it up.
  • Appreciate has two meanings: to look for the best in something and to increase something in value, such as when a stock or real estate appreciates.

  • Inquiry means to seek understanding using a process based on provocative questions.
So the idea is that provocative questions are used to draw out powerful success stories and identify the factors that are already working well within a human system. We can then use this understanding to help bring about what people want more of (as opposed to the usual cultural focus on reducing what they want less of).

The specific methodology of Appreciative Inquiry gives us the tools to do this, while involving both left and right brains, and exploring the past, present and future. It consists of five main phases:
  • Affirmative Topic Choice - An interview is carried out using several provocative questions and, from the clients' responses, several themes are chosen as the focal points for the rest of the inquiry process.

  • Discovery - Further provocative questions are explored regarding each of the Affirmative Topics and, from the clients' responses, several themes are again chosen. These themes, a virtual DNA sample of the system at its best, reflect its central success factors - its best strengths, talents, assets, values and ideals - and are known as its "positive core".

  • Dream - Creative processes are used to verbally and/or experientially explore what the future might be like if the positive core were more thoroughly enacted throughout the system and to examine, looking back from that vantage point, what must have happened in order for it to have reached such an optimal state.

  • Design - The system is organized into an architecture, and preferences chosen for each element of that structure, that will enable further enactment of the positive core and lessons from the Dream phase throughout the system. "Provocative Propositions," in which clients put in writing broad goals or ideas that will help encourage the organization to move in the direction of optimization, may also be developed.

  • Destiny - Concrete plans are made and supporting resources put in place for enacting the chosen preferences in the service of amplifying the positive core and making the clients' dreams a reality.
Notice how these phases, in many ways, mimic the evolutionary process. That which is working best in a system is selected for and then those successful elements of the system become the raw material for its next stages of development. Thus, I like to consider Apprecative Inquiry a process for facilitating and accelerating evolutionary processes.

Appreciative Inquiry has now been used to aid optimization in many large companies such as British Airways and Verizon, in schools such as at UC Berkeley, and even in whole cities such as in the Imagine Chicago project. It has also been adapted for use with families, individuals, and in many other settings. In developing my company, Emergent Associates, we synthesized a number of other tools and methods within a framework deeply based in Appreciative Inquiry to create our unique coaching and consulting process.

Though a simple and enjoyable process for clients to experience, Appreciative Inquiry ties into fields as diverse as evolution, chaos theory, Systems Thinking, and other systems sciences. A quote from The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change sums up the mindset of this field well. "We are not saying to deny or ignore problems. What we are saying is that if you want to transform a situation, a relationship, an organization, or community, focusing on strengths is much more effective than focusing on problems."

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