Do you believe that “organizing is a problem to be solved” or that, “organizing is a miracle to be embraced”? David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivatsva, who developed Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in the 1980s, believed in the latter. AI is based on the premise that “organizations change in the direction in which they inquire.” So organizations which inquire into problems will keep finding problems. And organizations that try to appreciate what is best in them will discover more and more that is good.
In 1985, a team from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management (Cleveland) was consulting with The Cleveland Clinic, consistently ranked among the top hospitals. They discovered something interesting. As the team asked the clinic's employees questions related to positive work aspects, a wave of energy was seen to be unleashed. The factors that had contributed to the clinic's success were actually being enhanced by the interview process. Thus was born AI, a philosophy and process that builds on the goodness in a person, a situation, or an organization and enhances capacity for collaboration and change. It is the opposite of problem solving. Instead of focusing on gaps and inadequacies an attempt is made to build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what does not. AI is a particular way of asking questions and envisioning the future that fosters positive relationships.
Building blocks of AI
AI should have four characteristics. It should be Appreciative, Applicable, Provocative and Collaborative. To understand how AI is implemented let’s look at how a company actually used it. In the late 1990s, Waterbury, VT-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) was expanding. It was tripling its sales force and doubling its plant size. It was an exciting time of growth for the now $100 million specialty coffee company that CEO Bob Stiller founded as a coffee shop in 1981. In 2000, Stiller realized he needed to capture the economies of the company’s new scale to prevent the company from sinking under its own significantly increased weight. He decided to deploy AI.
GMCR worked through the "4D" AI process comprising of following four phases:-
- Discover: Here people talk to one another, often via structured interviews to discover the times when the organization is at its best. These stories are told in as much detail as possible. GMCR team identified where the company's processes worked perfectly.
- Dream: This phase is often run as a large group conference. Participants are encouraged to envision the organization as if the best moments discovered in the ‘discover’ phase were the norm rather than exceptions. GMCR team envisioned processes that would work perfectly all the time. “We identified the one best path in each process,” says former CFO Bob Britt, “and asked, “Why don't we do this with everything?”"
- Design: In this phase a small team is empowered to go away and design ways of creating the organization dreamed in the conferences. GMCR team defined and prioritized the elements of perfect processes.
- Destiny: This is the final phase in which the changes are implemented. GMCR team participated in the process design creation.
Initially the four phases used to be spread out over a long period of time. But nowadays it is more common for the whole process to take place at an ‘Appreciative Inquiry Summit’, a 4 day large group event. Each phase takes place on a separate day. GMCR organized formal AI summits on the company's major business processes—procure-to-pay, order-to-cash, plan-to-produce, and market-to-sell. More than 200 employees, over half the work force, focused on raising productivity.
EXAMPLES OF AI BENEFITS
How can I use it?
Interestingly you can use AI to improve your team’s functioning too. The following exercise can aid in developing shared mental maps of group success, reenergizing the team and improving its performance. It can also help create a safe way of discussing difficult issues for a team.
- First, ask your team members to recall the best team experience they have ever been a part of.
- Ask each team member in turn, to describe the experience while encouraging the rest of the team to be curious and to engage in a dialogue with the person. Fully explore what about themselves, the situation, the task, and others made this a ‘peak’ experience.
- Once all members have exhausted their exploration, ask the team, on the basis of what they have just discussed, to list and develop a consensus on the attributes of highly effective teams.
- Conclude by inviting members to publicly acknowledge anything they have seen others in the team do that has helped the team be more like any of the listed attributes.
So often we fall into the trap of trying to understand why 1% of our customers are dissatisfied rather than exploring how we have satisfied the 99% of our customers. Or we conduct exit interviews instead of interviewing people who choose to stay with the company and work on factors that demoralize the team instead of dwelling on the factors that give energy to the team. Taking an Appreciative Inquiry approach will help you view your work and your relationships with others in a different perspective, more positively. And this will yield more positive results for you and your company.