Changing the approach to change: Lessons from the eight principles of appreciative inquiry

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. – Albert Einstein

Sometimes people have really bad days. I caught the train back from the airport the other day and there was a woman talking loudly on the phone about her really bad day. I didn’t pay attention to the particulars, but her challenges involved a lost phone (later found), a missed flight, and a fight with airline staff who she promised to report to the highest authorities. One comment I kept hearing over and over was that she was having ”the worst day ever’.

As she shared her woes with her friend on the phone and the rest of the carriage, I thought about how easy it is to find problems. Indeed, we are conditioned to look for problems. Politicians make a name for themselves by opposing the other party’s ideas. The media generates revenue from sensationalist headlines that highlight transgressions from commercial and political leaders. Change initiatives start because something is broken and needs to be fixed. Entire industries have been created to mitigate risk, litigate wrongs, and in general to find, stop, cover up, excuse, and solve problems.

A challenge to our propensity to find problems is the notion that “what we focus on, we create”. We will always find problems if we are looking for them. Those who are really proficient can even create problems that do not yet exist just so those problems can then be fixed. A problem with problems is that while they can be compelling motivators to initiate change, few people are inspired long-term by a vision to “stop having a problem”.

Many people in organisations can approach change with the same perspective as the woman on the train, as though their position or career is a long really bad day. Rather than approaching situations as a problem to be solved, what would it look like if the situation were viewed as an opportunity to be appreciated? This response to the problem with problems has developed into an approach to change called Appreciative Inquiry.

Appreciate the theory

Grounded in research in positive psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, Appreciative Inquiry is a model of change attributed to work by David Cooperrider and others working out of Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s. The approach has been challenged and refined over the past few decades into a framework that has resulted in organisational and individual effectiveness.

The premise of the theory is that traditional change processes can be ineffective when they continually focus on changing what is wrong. Leaders who approach change as a problem can make an assumption that the project and the people involved are problems to be ” solved” . By comparison, the Appreciative Inquiry approach focuses on what is at the “positive core” of a group and how they might get more of what they want instead of less of what they don’t want.

I will explore the process involved with Appreciative Inquiry in another post. What I want to focus on now is how the eight principles of Appreciative Inquiry might be used by my friend on the train and anyone else to re-frame and build resiliency in their approach to change.

If you are looking for more information, I borrow from two books from the original researchers: The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook and The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change.

The eight principles of Appreciative Inquiry

8 principles of appreciative inquiry

1. The Constructionist Principle

The first principle is based on the notion that we create our reality through our conversations; our shared understanding of the words we use and the stories we tell. We continually reinforce, or change, this reality through our hopes and fears about the past, our present, and our potential future. This means we can create and change our situation in part through the questions we ask and through reframing the narratives we tell ourselves and others.

What is the narrative you create through the stories you tell? What kind of language do you use to recall past events? If you were to read your conversations as a movie script, how would you feel about the actor behind the words? What kind of ending is the actor creating for herself or himself?

“The purpose of inquiry, which is viewed as totally inseparable and intertwined with action, is the creation of ‘generative theory,’ not so much mappings or explanations of yesterday’s world but anticipatory articulations of tomorrow’s possibilities.”

2. The Poetic Principle

Our stories are not set in stone, but open for re-interpretation and/or affirmation. Each person’s story will also be interpreted differently based on who is reviewing the story. As we interpret stories of ourselves and others, we can choose which parts we will focus on and how we wish to interpret those stories.

What part of your story do you focus on? Is it the good parts or the bad parts? How do you interpret your story? Do you change the meaning? How do you interpret the story of others?

“An organization’s story is constantly being co-authored. Pasts, presents, and futures are endless sources of learning, inspiration, and interpretation, like the endless interpretive possibilities in a poem or a literary text. The implication is that we can study virtually any topic related to human experience. We can inquire into the nature of alienation or joy, enthusiasm or low morale, efficiency or excess, in any human organization.”

3. The Simultaneity Principle

Change happens as soon as we start inquiring about the change. Simply by asking the question, we are affecting change. This places emphasis on the types of questions that are asked even as we learn about the situation.

If you want to change something in your life, do you belief that change only happens once you define what it is you are going to do? Or does change start as soon as you ask the question? If the latter, then how are your initial questions setting you up for the change you want?

“This principle argues against the traditional action research model where first we do the inquiry, diagnose the system, generate and select change options, and only then implement the change. Rather, AI theorists argue that questions are fateful and that change begins the moment the system begins to engage in inquiry.”

4. The Anticipatory Principle

We have a propensity to move in a specific direction as a result of anticipating that direction. If we anticipate something positive, we will move towards a positive outcome. If we anticipate something negative, we will behave so as to minimise the pain and move away from the negative. If we are unable to anticipate the outcome at all, then we have a propensity to not move at all. Progress can then be defined by our capacity to imagine and anticipate the future and direct our attention to achieving that future.

Do you anticipate your desired outcomes, or do you just let the outcomes happen? How much do you anticipate the results you are after?

“In studies about the effects of positive imagery from placebo studies in medicine, to studies of the Pygmalion dynamic in the classroom, to studies of the rise and fall of cultures, to research into the relationships between optimism and health, to studies of ways for accelerating learning, to analysis of the importance of positive inner dialogue to personal and relational well-being, to research on positive mood states and effective decision making, and to theories on how noticing even small wins can reverberate throughout a system and change the world— the conclusions are converging on something Aristotle said. ‘A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it.’”

5. The Positive Principle

While the Anticipatory Principle says we move in the direction we anticipate, the Positive Principle extends the thought by saying we are more likely to achieve a positive outcome if we approach the situation with a positive perspective. This is a common principle that extends across fields of research, such as people reporting greater satisfaction if they move into a job they like rather than away from a job they hate.

Do you expect the best or the worst in a situation? Do you lean towards pragmatic pessimism or realistic optimism? How do you feel your expectations are contributing to your outcomes?

“AI theorists argue that sentiments like hope, excitement, inspiration, camaraderie, and joy are central to the change process. What we have found is that the more positive the question we ask in our work the more long lasting and successful the change effort. The major thing we do that makes the difference is to craft and seed, in better and more catalytic ways, the unconditional positive question.”

6. The Wholeness Principle

We achieve a better outcome when we hear the whole story. This means everyone is in the room and we hear their perspective. It also means we hear the full perspective; not the politically correct message but the entirety of each person’s hopes, fears and interests. This requires a safe environment where the focus is on the open conversation rather than agreement.

How do you feel if you are just given a task to do? How do your feelings change if you are part of the process to come up with the task and/or you have a big picture perspective on why you are doing the task? How does it feel when you know the motives behind a request, as compared to just receiving a request without context?

“Ours is a time of acute problems and unprecedented opportunities. We shall be able to accomplish our historic task of developing our inheritance only if, irrespective of our political opinions, religious beliefs, or philosophies, we try to understand and help one another and act in concert for a better future.” ~ Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev

7. The Enactment Principle

The Enactment Principle proposes that we act “as if” the future state we want to create is already present. If we want more compassion, we should act as though there is already more compassion. If we want things to be more efficient, we focus our energy on doing things that are more efficient.

Rather than waiting for an outcome before you change our behaviour, what if you started behaving as though the change was already here? Do you negotiate with yourself saying “When this happens, then I will…”? Or do you change your behaviour as though the future you are after is already here?

“A well-known expression of this idea comes from Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion: ‘Be the change you want to see.’ As a social activist, Gandhi lived his belief that the only way to create a just, nonviolent world in the future is through just, nonviolent action in the present. His life was a living model, an enactment of his deepest beliefs and dreams for the future.”

8. The Free-Choice Principle

You will get better outcomes if you act as though you choose to do what you are doing of your own volition rather than being forced to do it for pay or other pressures. In the same manner, people are more effective when organisations do not take them for granted, but treat each person as though they were a volunteer.

How do you approach work? Is it a necessary evil? What would it look like if you acted as though you were volunteering your time and committing to your organisation? If you manage teams, what would it look like if you treated each person as though they were volunteers and stayed because they believed in what they were doing?

“Free choice builds enthusiasm and commitment to the organization and fosters high performance. When people have free choice, organizations excel. Free choice is foundational to what management consultant Jane Seiling calls a Membership Organization. In her book of the same name, Seiling recommends that employees be considered members who choose to work in the organization— even if they must do so for economic reasons. ‘In a Membership Organization, the members individually and collectively work beyond participation. There is a mindset of high personal responsibility, shared accountability, and member connectedness, making it possible for a more level working community to exist. The concept of membership stimulates enrollment in the organizational purpose, facilitates acceptance of a shared urgency for top performance, and expands opportunities for contribution and success for every individual and group within the workplace community.’”

Eight thoughts to consider

Appreciative Inquire is a framework for change for both organisations as well as for individuals. Changing how we approach change is an ongoing process that requires us to be mindful of our inherent beliefs, values and thought patterns. Adopting the eight principles is not a quick-fix process, but a matter of forming new habits.

For organisations, it can require a shift in culture and organisational mindset. For personal application, it can require asking questions of yourself throughout the day to check your stories, language, expectations, and perspectives.

This blog post is in part a reminder to myself to:

  • be aware of the story I am creating with my language and the parts of the story I focus on;
  • consider the personal change I want even in the questions I ask myself;
  • anticipate my achievements and focus on positive outcomes;
  • pursue the whole story of each person’s motives;
  • be the change I want to see as if the change had already happened; and
  • choose the perspective of a volunteer rather than a subject in my own personal change process.

I invite you to practice telling the story you want to create in the comments below. If you have appreciated this inquiry into appreciative inquiry, you are most welcome to share through the links below.


6 Responses

  1. Joe

    January 22, 2014 10:11 pm

    Thanks Chad – a great blog post. The free-choice principle really speaks to me. Removing peoples inherent need to act with volition might stifle one’s propensity for creativity and innovation. Just two of the very important traits that propel organisations above the pack. Leaders could benefit from some applied examples of how to let the “dog off the chain” but in doing so, “keep the dog in the yard”, so to speak……

    • Chad

      January 22, 2014 10:39 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Joe!

      I will save my personal AI examples for other posts. Here are a few applieed examples from Cooperrider’s AI Handbook:

      Academy for Educational Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
      More than 100 educators, government ministers, donors, and NGOs reflected on their many accomplishments and envisioned the future of education in Ethiopia for the next ten years.

      ANZ Bank, Melbourne, Australia
      ANZ Bank launched an inquiry into its purpose, involving more than 1,000 people—the largest engagement activity ever at the bank. Within a month, the bank crafted its purpose and had it adopted by the board of directors.

      Avon Mexico
      Avon Mexico addressed the issue of gender equity and a pilot project for Avon globally. It won the 1997 Catalyst Award as the best place in the country for women to work.

      BAE Systems
      BAE Systems created a five-year strategic plan for its Armament Systems Division with internal stakeholders and customers using the SOAR framework.

      Boulder County Aging Services Division
      This organization was awarded the 2007 Local Government Award “Planning with Vision” by the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

      British Airways North America
      British Airways created and sustained delivery of “Excellence in Customer Service.”

      City of Longmont, Colorado
      Longmont completed the AI Core Project of the Year by the International Association for Public Participation and was awarded “All America City” by the National Civic League (2006).
      Cleveland Clinic The Cleveland Clinic discovered what made the clinic function successfully
      (first AI initiative).

      DTE Energy Services
      Its employees created a culture of choice.

      McDonald’s applied the Appreciative Inquiry approach in the Human Resources area and became among the best employers in each community around the world by putting “People First.”

      Newark Beth Israel Medical Center
      The hospital increased patient safety by redesigning the process of handing off patients from one nurse to another in a 670+ bed hospital. The staff built on their most effective handoff experiences, resulting in a 23.3% increase in patient satisfaction.

      United States Navy
      The focus of the initiative was to create enlightened leadership at every level of the Navy. The Navy brought together admirals and sailors at all levels for an AI Summit that included more than 250 people, and 30 projects were created to support the vision. A film was created of the event. Currently, AI Summits have occurred throughout the Navy, including the entire Pacific Fleet, to build leadership at every level.

      World Vision Relief and Development
      The organization built collaborative alliances to bring help and developmental assistance to thousands of children in hundreds of orphanages across Romania. More than 300 organizations were
      connected in a partnership, building on a strength- based analysis of each. Many papers were written about the effort, making possible the new “knowledge alliance” and resulting in millions of dollars in medical support.

  2. suzanne quinney

    January 27, 2014 4:15 am

    Thanks for this post, we have retweeted it too. I always like to see reference to the principles, and it is great to see your personal application. The 8th one that we like to include is awareness – you can see our summary of the 8 on the resources section of our website.
    I wonder if you might find our training materials useful in your work? Noticing that you are Australian -Sue James is our agent.