Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Method to Change an Organization

Column by Elena Yang

People always lament that change is very difficult, especially in an organization. 

They usually don’t mean that they themselves would resist all changes, as long as they are reasonable. 

So, what’s reasonable? That, right there, begins the messy process of change. 

In a crude manner, I break organizational change into three categories:

(1) Change for the sake of making changes. It strikes me that a lot of new managers when taking on their new title feel the need to demonstrate that they are doing something different. They feel compelled to make a few changes whether they are necessary or not.

(2) Forced changes because of some accumulated problems or errors; these can be brought on internally, externally, or most likely a combination of both. Examples are diversity programs, ethics courses, or downsizing (funny, we seldom hear of the opposite, like a surge of hiring) 

(3)  Change to fulfill a vision of a different – and hopefully better – future. This is probably the most rare type. All of them do evoke at least some discomfort, and most of the time, fear, but occasionally, they can bring about excitement when done right.

How to right the wrong? Certainly not by more admonition, berating, clamping down, choking off, worrying, or any other negative or punitive treatment. 

But this is what most organizations do when management proposes changes. 

A few managers may adopt the type of approach that highlights only the positives, sometimes even in the face of not-so-positive evidence.

But changing an organization cannot be done with only a few people’s vision, ideals, and programs. 

Neither can it be achieved by top management issuing edicts, doling out measures, and expecting the workforce to embrace the directives.

Deficit thinking

By and large, changes and problems are intertwined. When we are asked, “where is the problem area?” or “what is your problem?” we immediately get a sense of dejection; we feel a knot in the stomach.

We either become defensive or we surrender to measures imposed by external forces.

This is called “scarcity mode” or “deficit mode” of thinking and operation.

The conventional methods of finding “solutions” or doing a “gap analysis” emphasize the comparison of strengths and weaknesses, but are still based in deficit mode. 

Haven’t we sensed a drain in energy whenever we talk to those who only focus on problems?

The typical mode of locating a solution to a “defined” problem (assuming the isolated problem is indeed a real and major one) treats the solution as an entity targeted at the problem but separate from the rest of the organization. 

For instance, after an R&D oriented organization had an accident/incident, the management devised a whole new round of procedures to, hopefully, prevent exact or similar accidents from occurring again. 

This was done without ever giving a thought to how the new procedures might impact on the greater context of how research was done, and accordingly it did choke the flow of research. 

Such a machine model generally creates more problems that beg for yet more solutions which lead to new problems, and on we go. 

Hence, the saying, “the more changes you make, the more you stay the same.”

Appreciative thinking

Imagine, instead, having a forum in which you do the opposite of the above approach, and actually start with some of the “excellent” moments in your experience. 

The premise here isn’t about ignoring “the problem,” but how to couch the problem-solution in the whole context of the organizational goal for the future. 

The aim isn’t about tearing something down but how to build something up. And it all begins with individuals.

So, let’s try it…now, focus on one great experience you’ve had…think about what you were doing, who was involved; what were the circumstances that made it so fabulous; what were the outcomes of the work. 

Note particularly how you feel in remembering this experience, especially your energy level. You can’t possibly feel dejected right now, can you?

This aspect of locating that positive reserve is the key of a relatively new framework called Appreciative Inquiry. 

It teaches people to explore, to allow an individual space for an in-depth and complete narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. 

This method is not meant as an excuse for us to bask in fond memories and wish we could return to our glorious past. 

We can never recreate or duplicate a social world. But employing this method, the collective entity – everyone – can share a positive foundation from which to build a future that just may recapture some of the energizing forces of our experience, forces with which we can then build something different, and hopefully better. 

By advocating this approach, we are not implying that we try to bypass or ignore the problems, but in employing a larger framework, the problems might be rendered nill or less serious by the potentially more effective solutions. 

David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva are responsible for conceptualizing Appreciative Inquiry (AI). 

This concept/framework/approach (it’s always difficult to pigeon-hole  complex thinking) has since been practiced and written by many, Diane Whitney, Cathy Royal, Barbara Sloan, Jane Magruder Watkins, to name a few. 

You can find great examples and cases in their books.  

Research foundation of AI

Appreciative Inquiry isn’t a Pollyanna approach; it is about how to engage people in feeling vested and eager for the future; it looks ahead; it creates momentum. 

Appreciative Inquiry has a strong research base in three areas. 

The first research strand is in medicine:  the placebo effect, where healing can occur owing to one’s belief that it will occur. 

The effect is even stronger when the experiment is “double blind” in that neither the doctor nor the patient knows which dose is placebo.  (From the perspective of “modern medicine,” the placebo effect is a nuisance that interferes with finding a genuine cure; this is an example of deficit mode thinking pervading an entire field.  From the perspective of Appreciative Inquiry, the placebo effect is a glorious mystery with unrealized potential waiting to be utilized.)

The second research strand is the “Pygmalion” effect. When teachers are told that certain students are gifted – randomly assigned – the students begin to have superior performance, brought on by the teachers’ behavior as influenced by the expectations.

Longitudinal studies show that these effects are nearly permanent. 

The opposite is also true: when a person’s spirit is broken, she or he keeps going downhill. 

The third strand lies in recent research on positive emotions.

We have already accepted that negative emotions (stress, fear, anxiety, distrust, etc.) affect us, psychologically and physiologically. 

As researchers have begun to pay attention to how positive emotions affect us, they have found that people whose “internal dialogue” (the constant commentary running in our head during our waking hours) is about 2:1 or higher between positive and negative comments, tend to succeed in their endeavors. 

Those with 1:1 ratio of good and bad comments are less successful, often approaching unhealthy.  

When it gets above about 10:1, the person is in delusion. In a healthy marriage, the ratio is 5:1 of positive to negative exchanges. 

Imagine how it works in a large organization?! Yet, people in most organizations are not accustomed to hearing praise about their work.

Or, when they do, they get a little suspicious. 

Many professionals may think that their sense of accomplishment in their work is the best praise. 

However, in the prolonged absence of any positive acknowledgement and recognition, most organizations, or people in them, would deteriorate. 

To appreciate is to value, to give energy to, to give more life to living systems.  (Its opposite, to depreciate, is to devalue or even insult, to pull energy from.) 

To inquire is to search, to explore, to seek information, to investigate, and to discover. 

Using a positive process to uncover and discover the life-sustaining forces will help an organization change toward a future that the workforce can aspire to, and keep on renewing itself.

Of course, just by an organization employing this approach through a 4-day workshop does not even begin to better that organization. 

The key is always about sustainability; it is especially critical when attempting to change an organization fundamentally. 

There are no shortcuts, no 12-step manual to refer to when one feels rusty, and this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all program. 

In fact, part of the beauty of AI is its organic nature where each organization creates its own version of AI for its particular future. 

Lest you suspect that I may be one of those “new age” airheads, I will pull some examples from some of the reading materials in my next post.

Till then, Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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