Appreciative Inquiry, an Acquaintance


Individuals and organizations are similar in the way that like an individual an organization needs to be conceived, given birth, incubated, nurtured, formed, trained, inculcated with values and then released into the world to become fruitful and value-adding entities. Like individual, organizations too, come in all shapes, sizes and cultures. Some live long and some just fly by the night. Some succeed and excel continuously while others just chug along happily ever after. Both, individuals and organizations, can live to be quite simple systems or become increasingly complex for themselves and by their own making.

The challenge, though, we all face is how can we all constantly and continuously succeed, excel, stay at the top of our game, and yet keep on adding value to the communities, the country and the world that surrounds us. The current, though ancient in nature, approach is to look for and analyse what does not work in a system and then make an effort to fix it.

Appreciative Inquiry, an Acquaintance

Appreciative Inquiry, an Acquaintance

The approach is ancient because it rests on the belief that individuals and organizations have, or are problems by themselves and they need to be solved. The approach becomes inherently fallacious because it focuses upon what does not work rather than what is working well or what can work well. This failure focused approach also evolves from our addiction to the cliché that a rotten apple spoils the basket and therefore we need to find that apple and do away with it. For a basket of apples that may conclude as a happily ever after but individuals and organizations are far from being just a plain, old basket of apples. We, as systems, can think, analyse, feel, judge, act, learn, help, celebrate and, more important than anything else, dream and design our own destinies.

Thus, the cliché of rotten apples and our belief in the cliché can be overturned with gusto and fervor. A basket of rotten apples, when it comes to humans and human organizations can turn fresh and can get nourished when a good apple is placed among us. A good thought, a good word, a good deed and a good human system can convert individuals and organizations into supportive, constructive, value-driven entities.

In the mid-90s, post the 1992 racial riots in Los Angeles, Erin Gruwell, an enthusiastic school teacher, takes up a job at Woodrow Wilson in Long Beach, California where she is placed plumb in the middle of a multiracial, hard to integrate, class of “at risk and highly unteachable, students.” Amidst the tension ridden surroundings, students are forced into class by security guards, Erin Gruwell works her way through the resistance and the angst of not just the students but a lethargic and numb educational system by focussing on the sparks of potentialities in the students, on what works and on the possibilities of the future. She works through by gently appealing to the human side of the individuals and the groups involved. In the process she makes multiple sacrifices for her career, her family and her status in the community but eventually efforts bear fruit when at the end of two years her bunch of students graduate and move on to college and a life ahead. A good, strong apple that nourishes and brightens the life of people around her.

Though she did not follow any set method or a frame-work to clean out a system that was rife with a culture of failure and resistance. She manages to help a bunch of multi-racial, unteachable, angst-ridden student and their families into happy, productive entities through sheer passion and grit. Thankfully, for us, who are into individual and organizational development there is a whole school of thought and practice which can deliver results at par with those of Teacher Erin Gruwell of Woodrow Wilson High School in California.

The method of Appreciative Inquiry, developed by Dr. David Cooperrider of Case Western University, provides an approach and a way towards achieving excellence by focussing on exceptional performances of the past and current core strengths which can be blended with a clear, challenging and conscientious vision of the future. The method is holistic, life-giving, constructive and in resonance with all that nourishes us as human beings and human organizations.

The approach draws from two modalities. First, Appreciation: an act of recognizing the best in people, places and performances and then to add and increase in value. Second, Inquiry: an act of exploration to discover potentials and highlight possibilities. The first leans on our needs to love and be loved, while the second rests on our natural desires to wonder and be curious about things. The combination of the two modalities creates a powerful potion to build, construct and energize areas and behaviours that are working well and boost their growth and development exponentially. Highly regarded as a paradigm for seeking out what works and moving towards it, a method for many organizational development practices, Appreciative Inquiry for many, is much more than that. It, in many circles, is regarded as a way of life and like life it needs to be soaked in appreciation and inquisitiveness of what is and what can be.

In contemporary methods, most all systems and organizations are seen as problems to be solved by management techniques such as root-cause analysis, solution analysis, critical problem-solving and mechanized action planning. With Appreciative Inquiry, organisations become a mystery to be embraced, a world to be created by reflecting on what we do best and by sharing life-giving narratives of success and harmony, by making inspired choices and designing a future of our dreams. This ‘way of life’ can pervade through research and planning, managing, mentoring and coaching for change. It can be lived through and for developing communities, invoking business excellence and creating visions and missions.

The most powerful tool of Appreciative Inquiry, or AI as it is referred to, is the AI Protocol or the inquiry process. This inquiry process invokes excellence and energy. It is achieved through powerful and structured questions which leave the respondent empowered for idea generation, action planning and implementation. The questioning process is a tri-modal approach and is explored in depth after the discussion of the several assumptions the theory of AI makes for unleashing its effectiveness.

AI makes eight assumptions, and though they may have similarities with several other paradigms; they substantiate well the premise, the promise and the power behind the AI.

Assumption One: In every human situation there is always something which works. No matter how damaged, destructed or dysfunctional a system is, there is and will always be a spark of life and humanity in it which can be rehabilitated. Our objective then, from that window, becomes to seek, to enhance and spur that spark into a flame.

• Assumption Two: It is important to value and appreciate differences. Differences exist and differences are a fact of life in not just what is but also in what is considered to be is. It behooves us to recognize and respect that realities and our perceptions can differ. We need to synergize and seek strength from the diversity.

• Assumption Three: What we focus upon becomes reality. Our intellect can, but our mind is unable to decipher simulation from reality. Should we then focus upon the constructive and our capability to succeed, then we get drawn towards building and achieving success.

• Assumption Four: Realities are created in the moment and there are, always, multiple realities. Since most realities are our perceptions of the truth and our perceptions constantly change with changing times, economics and environmental conditions. Therefore, realities are multiple and our current perceptions are realities of the moment.

• Assumption Five: The language we use shapes our realities. Since our current perceptions are the realities of the moment and our words are used to describe our perceptions then our words and how we string those words together morph and shape our oncoming realities.

• Assumption Six: The act of asking questions influences the outcome in some way. Not really in “some way,” but in a way that can be, if needed, measured and controlled. Questions, we ask, are our invitations to others to express the reality of their perceptions. Others respond with words and language to our invitations to share perceptions, the language they use shapes reality and therefore influences outcomes.

• Assumption Seven: People have more confidence going into the future [unknown] when they carry parts of the present [known.] Since perception and reality are divided by a very thin, almost invisible, wall, perceptions which are like real-life experiences or actual experiences then they give strength and vigour to developmental thoughts and actions towards designing a positive future towards success and excellence.

• Assumption Eight: When we carry the best parts of the past into the future, they will create a better future. Enough said.

These assumptions are the driving force and the armament behind the double-barrelled approach of appreciating and inquiring. That, perhaps, is not a highly recommendable metaphor for AI, since AI is all about the right choice of words and the subtle and powerful influence the structure of language has on our minds. Nevertheless it brings us right into the discussion of inquiring in depth the practice-able of how, the way of life that AI is, works.

The theory of AI has a very simple, framework to apply. It starts with choosing a topic, a theme or a developmental challenge. This is then followed by a four-stage process as follows:

• Discovery: In this stage the AI practitioner helps uncover past strengths and successes while staying anchored and focused towards the central theme. In the Discovery stage allowing the respondent entity to express and share stories is the key objective followed by listening for “what gives life,” within those stories. These life-giving elements can be used to propel the dream and the destiny.

• Dream: In this stage, the practitioner invites the sharing of dreams and visions from the respondents. The process elevates hopes of achieving the ideals.

• Design: the design stage is critical since it needs to take account of external realities and material capabilities of the individuals and the organisations. This stage also calls for working out a result-based plan on how to achieve the dream.

• Deliver [Live the Destiny]: At this stage the practitioner helps the respondents visualize and simulate success of the design thereby imprinting, with power and passion, it as the reality on the minds of the respondent entities.

The critical step for these four stages is a proper selection of the core theme. The choice of words and the language structure needs to be empowering and affirmative from every angle.For example if a community development group chose, “Reduction of Crime and Graft in the Country,” then that theme, though logical, will have a negative tinge since it assumes the existence of crime and terror and may thus end up feeding that beast. The theme can be reworded to, “Nurturing Peace and Order in the Country.” This version assumes existence of peace and order, this shifting focus to what works for eventual development.

Therein lies the power of Appreciative Inquiry and the most consistent and handy tool for all these stages is the power of intelligent and empowering questioning, also referred to as the AI Protocol. The protocol is a process of questioning to empower the deliverance of dreams and destinies. Three powerful things happen when we ask the right questions.

• One. The questioning process raises a storm of curiosity and challenges all status quo. This, inadvertently, invites creative thought, followed by careful words and conscientious action.
• Two. Questioning helps converge thinking between the creative and the logical side. It also stirs up unconscious wisdom and challenges mindless rituals.
• Three, responses to questions make the responder an author of those ideas and, thus, drives them, eventually, into conscientious action.

All questions are made up of three elements.

• The first element of questioning well is the construction and the linguistic tilt of it. The format of the question can open up options or close possibilities.
• The second element of the question considers the capacity and the ability of the respondent. It is this element of questioning which mostly draws response regarding the “how” of things.
• Finally, the third element regards and analyses all underlying assumptions. The higher the ratio of positive and appreciative assumptions a question has, the better a response it generates.

Under the AI Protocol there are three forms of questions. Levels, if you prefer.

• Inward Questions are those that make the respondent reflect upon the how, the when and the why of past performances and past successes. These questions, through anecdotal responses, surface strengths and competencies of individuals and groups.
• Outward Questions string together innate strengths and successes to present day possibilities. These are questions related to the what, the when, the who, the where and the how of achievable plans.
• Forward Questions recreate and reinforce dreams and possibilities. These questions create stimulation and simulation of successes and celebrations in the mind. Forward Questions are future-paced. They give shape and form to visions thereby creating powerful and positive tension between what is and what can be.

The power of the AI Protocol is awe-inspiring and the holistic core of the AI Way of Life brings to fore good living and greater business successes. AI raises our benchmarks and our bottom-lines with ease and élan.

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