Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a constructionist inspired approach to organisational development, which rejects deficit oriented (problem-solving) approaches to management in favour of discovering, understanding, and fostering positive assumptions about people and the innovations of the organizations and relationships to which they belong. David Cooperrider, the developer of AI, and his AI proponents believe that the problem-solving approach to management does not inspire, motivate, and sustain human organisational development to the degree that methods which affirm people in collectively constructing their realities through the art of asking powerful positive questions which foster generous dialogue. As a method, AI seeks out the best of “what is” and then sets out to assist the collective imagination to focus on what “might be”. Like solution-focused therapy, AI is about doing more of ‘what works’.
As a postindustrial global culture emerges, more and more thinkers throughout the social sciences, including administration science, are beginning to recognise that the physical science model is simply not adequate as a way of dealing with or understanding the complexities of human relationships. This was noted by Wittgenstein 50 years ago when he wrote about psychology, “The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (Philosophical Investigations, xiv-2). He noted that psychology frequently excuses itself for its barrenness and confusion by a claim of being a ‘young science’; but he says it can’t be compared with the beginnings of physics. This is because in physics we can pretty much tie down what we mean by a ‘carbon atom’, but in psychology we have no adequate way of tying down what ‘anger’ (say) means in any commonly agreed upon way. What you may consider ‘anger’, your spouse may consider ‘irritation’. “For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion” (PI, xiv-2). Not only is there this conceptual confusion, but the ideas or knowledges generated in the social sciences are altogether different in quality than knowledge generated by the physical sciences. To the best of my knowledge, our knowledge of the periodic table doesn’t change the elements; unlike human knowledge which feeds back and effects the people and human systems under study. So the position taken by the school of postmodern thinking called social constructionism is that the conduct of inquiry cannot be separated, and indeed, is one and the same, as the everyday negotiation or construction of reality (Gergen, 1999). This means that morality (and not value free investigation) is central to any inquiry, as all questions in the human domain are leading questions; in that they direct attention, and as they do so, social realities are constructed.
Problem-focused thinking, which is formalised in logical positivism, is deeply ingrained in the modern mind due in part, as Foucault showed, to our institutions and bureaucracies having co-evolved pari passu, with this mechanical thinking of industrialization over the past four centuries. It is now our conventional “habitus mentalis” and it constrains our imagination. Because it treats all realities, including the social and psychological, as something which is “other”, “out there”, as stable and enduring, a ‘reality’ to be uncovered, it attempts to banish mystery in its efforts to discover valid everlasting principles of social organisation. By contrast, social constructionism posits that either there are no foundational (biological or otherwise) everlasting principles of social organisation to be uncovered; or if there are, (and it is highly doubtful) they can never be stated in a form that does not alter the organisations or relationships they portend to describe. Possibly, the closest we can get is to say that social organisations are guided (formed?, constructed) by heuristics of language – i.e. social agreements we have with each other as to how we will view them. This entails a shift from judging theories or ideas, as they do in the hard sciences, by their predictive capacity to their generative capacity. So instead of asking the scientistic question “To what extent does this theory correspond to observable facts?”; we are now being more drawn to asking “To what extent does this theory (idea) provoke or stimulate us into dialogue about how we can organise ourselves better?” The crude empiricism that had us imprisoned in the deficiency based rhetoric saw the answers to problems, our theories of how things are, as the endpoint of our investigations or inquiries; but the endpoint of Appreciative Inquiry lies in inspiring the imagination and dreams of the people in an organisation to be constantly creating itself anew. A post-bureaucratic organizational form arises when there is a shift from a so-called “scientific management” by mechanics to management by explorers curious as to how more egalitarian groups of people may discover their potential to self-organise in more satisfying ways. This fits well with Chris Argyris’ (1993) work on double- loop learning, which facilitates organizations into becoming more ‘organic’ in that they can allow their core values to change, so that they can attune to the world more sensitively.
A further problem with the problem-focused approach is that the way we we conceptualise problems sets us up for the answer we find. By defining a problem, say, as a “personality clash” in an organisation, we are at risk of not taking into account other ways of viewing this. Not only that, but by treating groups as if they had problems, they are at high risk of being considered as if they are problems to be solved. As Cooperrider & Srivastra (1987) say, logical positivistic assumptions trap us in a rear- view of the world, and its methods and assumptions tend to recreate the social realities they claim to be studying. By contrast, Appreciative Inquiry takes ‘advantage’ of this human propensity to become ensnared in the language games we utilise to describe phenomena by noting that people and organisations tend to move in the direction of what they study. For example, some organisations have found that when they have utilised traditional educational approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace, it has led to an increase in reporting of sexual harassment. But when AI has been utilised, inquiring as to when co-gender work experiences have been at their best, there have been marked improvements in gender relations. AI chooses to focus on discovering what does work, on positive visions or dreams for the organisation, and the dialogue which makes it possible. They say that the seeds of change are implicit in the first question asked, because it begins to direct attention, and thus commence the construction of a social reality. “The first question is fateful.”
In talking to people who have been subjected to constant management restructuring, the observation is frequently made that the latest wave of technocrats constantly imply that their “new” solutions are the best, and all too frequently, they dishonour or ignore the best practices of the past. As Thomas H White, President of the American GTE Telephone Operations company, said after being exposed to AI approaches, “In the long run, what is likely to be more useful: Demoralizing a successful workforce by concentrating on their failures or helping them over their last few hurdles by building a bridge with their successes?” Cooperrider offers the heliotropic principle (plants grow towards the light) as a heuristic metaphor of AI ; that is people move more towards positive images and dreams. Whereas the problem-focused approach gradually and subtly eliminated the mystery of life in its efforts to explain life, AI works to foster the dream; because the vision of the future is based on ideals grounded in the realities of past best practices, and so there is great confidence in the successful realization of the vision. Even when organizations are beset with repetitive problems, they need less fixing through problem solving and more reaffirmation and appreciation of their abilities to re-organise to resolve their own difficulties (as occurs in Solution Focused Therapies). The executive in the post-bureaucratic era is, like Harlene Anderson once said of social constructionist inspired therapists, not an expert in how people should live, or in this case how organizations should be run, but an expert in conducting conversations which nourish the appreciative soil from which little noticed solutions can grow in a collective and dynamic manner.
Central to AI is the narratives participants bring to the table. People are encouraged to recount memories of success, discovering what is common to these accounts, and committing themselves to creating more of what has worked that is positive and synergistic. There are four phases of an Appreciative Inquiry, which can be utilised in a general manner to the whole organisation, or in reviewing particular issues (e.g. sexual harassment). These phases are known as Discovery, Dreaming, Designing, and Delivery (or Destiny) – the four ‘D’s’ of AI.
All inquiries begin with the assumption that every social system “works” at least to some degree or at some time, and so inquiries begin with an appreciation of this. The Discovery process is about appreciating what gives life to the organisation. So the interviewer might, for example, begin with questions like: “I wonder if you could share stories about a time when you were proud to be a member of a team or group?” “What was it about that group, or situation, or you, that made the group perform so well, and gave you this sense of pride?” “What did you value most about this group or situation?” In Narrative Therapy these are called ‘sparkling moments’.
The facilitator encourages dialogue between people to help draw each other out. Although those folk with a stronger affinity to logical positivism will no doubt prefer to talk in terms of facts and opinions, the exercise is more about drawing out examples, stories and metaphors, for this generally allows people to become more grounded in the actual experiences of these ‘peak’ moments.
After the group members have shared their stories with each other, the facilitator now asks the group to list and develop a consensus of the attributes of the highly effective groups they have been part of. “What is it about the people, the organisation, and the context which created these peak experiences at work?” One of Cooperrider’s principles is that such knowledges generated by these questions should be applicable. “Of these attributes we are listing here, which of them can be used or applied, and thereby validated in action?” Dreaming envisions what might be. As the task is to expand the ‘realm of the possible’ the aim at this point is to generate collective visions, which can be translated into practice. Some AI practitioners have utilised consultants to conduct a qualitative content analysis of the discovery interviews to arrive at a list of attributes, but, in my view, there is some danger of impairing the collaborative relationship in doing this.
Solution-focused brief therapy’s ‘miracle question’ might be utilized at this stage; and as a picture of a ‘preferred future’ emerges, more detail or more potentials (or opportunities), yet unknown, might be acknowledged. An indication that this stage is progressing well can often be judged by the enthusiasm or expansiveness of the participants. Radical possibilities and expansive potentials are being expressed.
Dreaming gives way to designing as collective dialogue gives voice to “what is the ideal for us”. Cooperrider’s third principle is that in determining what should be, the answers should be provocative. Provocative propositions are statements of an organisation’s aspirations and intent, based upon the assumption that it is capable of becoming more than it is at any given moment. They are also provocative in that these statements are strongly enticing to all members of the group to be actively taking part in guiding the group’s own development. Unlike traditional management practices, we do not need command and control structures so much with AI, the aspirations and enthusiasms generated by the Discovery and Dreaming phases will now be doing most of the work. Although this can be expressed in plans, the plans need to play second fiddle to the aspirations and enthusiasm of the participants. As mentioned above, this is also seen in Chris Argyris’ (1993) ideas on learning organisations, where part of the Designing includes allowing or facilitating re-organization of the infra-structure. Individuals may talk of the commitments they’d be willing to make to ensure the Dream comes to further life, which leads into the next phase….
Delivery is determining “what will be” and relates to Cooperrider’s fourth principle of collaborative action. By amplifying the people and processes which best exemplify these ideals, which can be achieved by asking the group to publicly acknowledge anything they have seen others in the group do that has helped the group be more like any of the listed ideals, the group becomes clearer as to how to translate their intentions into actions. Group members are affirmed in any public acknowledgements they make as to how they will put their collective beliefs into practice. With a preferred future defined it is not difficult for the members to describe, develop and create the systems and support to actualise the plans.
You may recall that the first question in the AI process is called ‘fateful’, because it sets in motion a process, and thus you may now be able to see why this stage has been labelled ‘destiny’. For some people, understanding this link has deepened their understanding and appreciation of the social construction of reality.
Argyris, C. (1993). On Organizational Learning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Bushe, G.R. (1995) Advances in appreciative inquiry as an organization
development intervention. The Organization Development Journal; 13,3: 14- 22
Cooperrider, D.L., & Whitney, D. (2000) Appreciative Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivastva, S. (1987) “Appreciative inquiry in organizational life”. In R. Woodman & W. Pasmore (eds.) Research in Organizational Change and Development; 1: 129-169. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press
Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction. Thousand Oaks: Sage Gergen, K. (1990) Affect and organization in postmodern society. In S. Srivastva & D.L. Cooperrider (eds.), Appreciative Management and Leadership (pp.153- 174). San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. Hammond, S. (1998) The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Texas: Thin Book Pub. Co. Srivastva, S. & Cooperrider, D.L. (eds) (1990) Appreciative Management and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
|Problem Solving||Appreciative Inquiry|
|Identification of Problem|
(the gap between what is and the ideal)
|Appreciating and Valuing
the Best of "What is"
Envisioning "What Might Be"
Dialoguing "What should Be"
Innovating "What Will Be"
Basic Assumption: An organization is a mystery to be valued and explored.