I really love what I love.
And Appreciative Inquiry is one of those things.
I was researching master’s programs in Organization Development when I first heard about Appreciative Inquiry, or “AI”. [envoke_twitter_link]AI’s intent to take into account the whole human being, rather the BEST of what’s human[/envoke_twitter_link] – not just the stiff, working portion of us – in organizational life was very compelling to me. Turns out, the founders of AI, including Mr. David Cooperrider himself, base their research and teaching out of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Intrigued and attracted, I naturally chose CWRU as the home for my graduate studies. (Lesson here: follow what attracts you.)
At Case, my deep dive into neuroscience, positive psychology, and organizational change was intense and identity rattling. Everything I thought I knew flipped upside down, my personal and academic sense of “the right way” got completely transfigured, and I came out the other end with a profound sense of humility and wonder.
I went through the keyhole backwards, as one my clients likes to say. Ouch. And, thank God.
Here’s what I learned from it:
Change – personal, organizational, cultural, ANY – can be messy as hell. A strategic, well-organized, thoughtful plan for organizational change is critical when you know it’s coming. Also crucial are leaders who actually want/need to see that change through.
In the past, leaders were told they needed a “burning platform” to terrify people into changing or improving their behavior. While that can work in the short-term (certainly lights a fire!), it burns people out and often breeds cynicism, distrust, and animosity, especially when the change isn’t followed through by senior leadership. This model left a lot of organizations worse off than when they started their change process in the first place.
Since the advent of Appreciative Inquiry, change leadership has woken up. We’ve woken up to the fact that we’re dealing with human beings, not widgets. Humans have inherent needs for hope, vision, safety, connection… Traditional change management doesn’t come close to meeting those crucial needs.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” oblique_section=”no” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space height=”20px” image_repeat=”no-repeat”][vc_column_text]AI is a whole system, strengths-based approach to change. It asks for all stakeholders to provide input and it infuses the changing culture with new levels of collaboration, creativity, and joy (yes, joy!) in the process; in doing so, AI honors the people involved in the process.
Appreciative Inquiry rests on ten principles, all of which are supported by ongoing research. The fundamental premise of AI that speaks to me so deeply, though, is its belief that:
All organizations have something that works, something that is going right, and something worth valuing.
How transformative would all aspects of our lives be if that were the perspective we carried with us?
By inquiring into the domains that are working well, a group of people can learn about how those unique strengths came to be, what keeps them alive, and how they can generate more of them in support of what they want in the future. In other words, by studying what we already do well, we create more of that positive asset.
AI also asserts that the more practice building an appreciative intelligence a team or community gains, the more collective energy and capacity they’ll build into their organization. With vitality, energy, and inspiration comes engagement and long-term performance. Hoorah!
Last bit on this: while big growth can be inspiring, it also can be painful, especially when we’re challenged to give up how we’ve always thought or behaved. As a result, most of us tend to lose steam and quit before it’s over. Management lore has it that 70% of all change efforts fail.
With Appreciative Inquiry, the system itself is building energy around a shared vision so “buy-in” and external “motivation” aren’t needed. The system itself and the brilliant people in it are bringing their current reality closer to where they want to be, especially when the vision is something about which they care deeply.
How? By focusing on their strengths and building from there.
So, why do I evangelize AI when clients come seeking growth, change or “fixing”? Because it works. Because it feels so much better to be a part of. Because the results last.
Can I share with you two “the proof is in the pudding” bites? To be honest, I haven’t finished writing up the official case studies but the stories are too good to keep to myself.
- Last spring, my team and I were invited to support a highly productive fundraising organization as they coalesced around a new mission, vision, and values (MVV). They wanted to break down their ultra-siloed divisions into “one team,” unified and supportive. Their goals were huge, mirroring the effort and vision required to transform the organization at large.
To get to the most meaningful and relevant MVV, we needed an AI Summit. My team brought together 300 staff members from across the whole organization and spent two full days discovering the unique values and strengths they collectively shared. In the AI Summit experience, the client converged on an identity, a purpose, and a vision based on who they were at their best, who they wanted to be in the future, and how they would achieve it.
Led by 30 highly committed, energized Design Team members, this organization is still in the process of bringing their shared vision to life. They have recently instituted a new training and development “academy” based on the specific desires their team members shared (goal: continuous learning & retention). We’re also currently working on integrating MVV into their HR and performance management systems, so they’ll be hiring, rewarding, and measuring their people on what they say matters most.
- In the second case, the client is a highly specialized hospital unit delivering care to a critical patient population. The department has struggled with rapid growth in staff, leadership turnover, and cultural “mischief.” Pre-AI, my team and I utilized an engagement survey to gather baseline cultural data. We then delivered four, one-day AI Summits so all care providers (physicians, nurses, specialists, etc.) could participate in the process.
What I’ve seen thus far: the very acknowledgement that everyone’s voice matters here was revolutionary, especially in an industry where hierarchy reigns. This democratization process, if you will, has been shocking to their system and is causing quite a stir (mostly very positive, especially to those with a stake in the department’s future). However, in a fragile ecosystem like this one, more remains to be seen. For this deficit-oriented group to stick with a paradigm shift of this magnitude it will require an intentional tapping into of their natural resources and feeding it back to themselves. Wish us luck.
We’ll circle back to these clients and I’ll look forward to sharing long-term data with you soon.