Facilitate to Innovate, Part 1: Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

binocularsAs a facilitator who is hired to guide groups as they decide, plan and prioritize, the first task is always to ask myself: how am I going to design a set of questions that yield the strongest results? Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is one model that can help structure these questions, tapping into each participant’s potential to innovate toward successful outcomes. It grounds participants in the best of what has been, in order to envision the best possible future.

In the 1980s, David Cooperrider worked with a group of associates to upend traditional change management theory. He came to understand the term “appreciative eye” through his wife Nancy, an artist, and co-opted this perspective which assumes a certain beauty in every work of art. Applying it to the business world, Cooperrider posited that organizations are themselves expressions of beauty and spirit, organic in nature. He introduced a process that allows groups to build on what works in their organizations. This approach challenges the traditional focus on problem-solving.

The following set of assumptions sets AI apart from problem-oriented approaches:

  1. In every society, organization or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions within an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort in their journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be the best parts.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

AI helps me draw from participants a series of statements that describes where the organization wants to be, based on its most successful experiences in the past. By looking at what works, instead of what doesn’t, participants are able to focus on the positive and identify strengths. As in 2. and 8. above, this language eventually becomes the group’s reality.

The critical step in the AI process is to choose the specific topic of focus. Asking “What do you value most about being a member of this team, and why?” could be a good way to start. Small groups or pairs of participants might ask each other this question one on one. As they report back to the larger group, common stories of success will often emerge and reveal themes. I can then help the group realize what could be done, based on things that have already been done well.

“What if?” starts to take living form as the group finds itself making concrete statements about ways they can reach goals that seemed out of reach just a few hours earlier. Since every participant is involved in generating the vision and the new path to reach it, a new power and energy often infuses the group.

Great resources:

The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry

Reframing Evaluation through Appreciative Inquiry

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