A Blueprint for Change: Appreciative Inquiry
How do we free the energy within organizations to find what works in order to enable positive change?
In every organization, something “works.” Small to large pockets of time, projects, and people exist who give life to the organizing system. Finding what “works” is a matter of discovering and giving voice to the stories that sow the seeds of positive change. (This is the third article in the Leading Strategic Change series. Previous articles include: Managing Resistance to Change and Leading and Managing Change.)
Imagine that you receive a call today telling you that you will be moving from your current home in the next 30 days. Furthermore, the caller offers “sketchy” details as to the nature of the new house that you will be occupying and no clear idea of what assistance you will be receiving in the move. You are told that additional information may come at “some future time,” on a “need to know basis.” What are your reactions? Perhaps you think, “Fantastic, an adventure.” Or, you might think, “Hey, wait a minute move?…Nobody else has said anything about moving. I think that I’ll just wait and see if this is really serious.” Or your reaction might be, “I love my home. I don’t want to move. Everything is fine the way it is. Why would I want to pull up roots and relocate? I’m not moving!”
The metaphor of moving is one that we believe captures the emotional intensity and uncertainty that many of us experience when faced with organizational change.
Now, imagine another scenario. You are approached with an invitation to consider the possibilities of moving to another location and occupying a house that you will have a part in designing and building. The invitation carries with it a promise that the things you cherish most about your current home will be considered in building the new home. Furthermore, you are asked to consider what you would like to see in a “dream” house, and those ideas will be included for consideration in the new home. Finally, because you have been involved in the specifications and the architecture of the new house, you have faith that it is built on solid ground and will weather internal and external environmental challenges. Now, what are your reactions?
All of us have a dream house within a place that we can envision as the perfect setting for our perfect life. We believe this is also true for organizations that people have a dream organization a place where they and others can do their best work. This article is about freeing the energy that already exists in people and organizations towards reaching that dream.
Creating the Architecture for Successful Organizational Change Building the Collective Dream House
David Cooperrider and various colleagues have put forward the idea of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a change philosophy and methodology. AI offers a model for harnessing the imagination and passion of each individual’s dream organization in a process that can be applied to a total organization or a unit within an organization. This process is often accomplished using variations on four basic processes outlined below.
1. Carry the best of the past into the future. Make sure that “beloved” objects and characteristics are carefully packed for the move. It is easier to let go of the current state of affairs if we believe that in moving forward, we won’t lose what we are most passionate about.
This process begins with an inquiry into the best of the past: What is it that we want to bring forward into the change effort and the organization of the future? In essence, it is a discovery through dialogue. If we are creating a house, the topic of the inquiry is “the ideal house.” If we are looking into employee commitment, the topic of the inquiry is identifying “highly committed employees.”
It is important that the inquiry focus on the desired attributes that one wishes to bring into the future. A series of questions are posed to pairs of people including prompts about times when the best has occurred with whatever is the topic of discovery, what people value about themselves and their work, and what wishes they have for the future. The mutual interview creates connections and energy as people discover more about themselves and other people. The stories from these interviews cascade into larger and larger circles of people in the organization as themes emerge about the organization’s “life giving” forces, the passion of its people, and the possibilities that exist for the future of the organization.
2. Harness the power of imagination and dreaming. Engage each individual in the opportunity to imagine their dream house what it would look like, without any concern for time, money, and other resources.
This process creates possibilities and stimulates the desire for change through imagination. During this process in an organization, small groups of people are invited to envision, unconstrained, what the desired organization might look like, be like, sound like, and feel like. While this is similar to visioning, there are some differences. First and foremost, this “dreaming” is grounded in the reality of the past and present the discovery dialogue in the first phase. In addition, we have found it important to tap into the creative energy that is natural to people through use of music, drawing, poetry, or acting. Permission to be spontaneous is often what helps people tap into the wellsprings of creativity just below the surface. Grounded in the discovery of the past, this process asks people to imagine an ideal future.
3. Create a blueprint for change that integrates the past and the future. To start developing clarity, distill the essence of the best of the past and the positive desires for the future in terms that are relevant to today’s organizational reality.
Creation of a blueprint is in effect a unique yo-yo, going from past to future to present. The desire for the future creates a tension that motivates change. People involved in the AI approach have found that you can’t short-circuit the process. While nostalgia and dreaming are an important part of the change equation, they are more powerful when joined with a bridge back to the present and a platform for understanding and mobilizing individual and organizational resources. In essence, this creative tension is a means of designing through integration accomplished by forming bold aspiration statements that capture the results of the previous imagination and envisioning process. These statements form the foundation for design elements necessary in creating the future of the organization. For example, in building a house, one must follow a blueprint that shows where to install the doors and windows, electrical outlets, plumbing, etc. Organizations also need a blueprint that illustrates communication networks, key roles, delivery systems for quality products or services, and essential tasks and processes that must be in place for the organization to function.
4. Begin the remodeling or new construction by matching resources with interests and abilities. Assess costs of labor and materials, craftsmanship, and timetables. Find out who has a desire for constructing which part of the “house” and who has energy for taking this structure to new heights.
The preferred past is brought forward. The collective imagination of people has created the dream organization. The blueprint has been boldly designed, taking into account the who, what, how, and when that a clear and disciplined plan requires. Now, transforming that design into reality is the task at hand. Many times, the energy of the previous steps in the design process carries that natural momentum into the organization, and people start acting to make this design a reality. Creativity has been tapped and is unstoppable. The key part of this process is that people are committed and take accountability often in new ways.
The general rhythm of the creative process is analogous to an accordion: going from individuals to small groups, to larger groups, and then back through the cycle. This process usually incorporates individual reflection, paired dialogue and small group report-outs capturing the learning along each step of the way to the gathered larger group. It is an iterative building approach to the change effort which culminates in a planning phase in which actions are mobilized by commitment that has been built in the previous stages of the intervention.
Laying the Foundation: 3 Key Principles of AI
Three principles are critical to the appreciative inquiry process. In addition to shaping the process described previously, we’ve found that to be an AI practitioner, it is much more effective, persuasive, and powerful if we live the principles listed below.
Principle One: People are drawn towards the positive.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has
genius, magic, and power in it.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A recent (2005) television commercial features young children talking about their desires in a parody on current life. They used phrases such as, “I want to grow up to be a bored middle manager,” or “I want to grow up and be a low performing bureaucrat.” Is this commercial intended to be funny or sad? What young children say normally is that they want to grow up and be something pretty “cool” in their minds: firefighter, ballerina, or astronaut. When given the choice, almost all people choose the positive: happy marriages, exciting work, great colleagues, etc. Therefore, if enabled to discover, dream, and create such a positive world, most people would work to make their dreams reality.
The power of the positive has been given new emphasis in a variety of fields. The relevance of this principle is illustrated by some startling findings summarized in a recent Fast Company article on personal change. In developing an understanding of why patients recovering from heart surgery failed to make the needed lifestyle changes, it was found that lasting personal change must be initiated by an appeal to emotion as well as reason. Furthermore, the emotional appeal must be grounded in positive, not negative emotions. In other words, one is less likely to be motivated by a fear of death than by a desire to embrace a joyous, healthy life. One emotion, fear of death, prompts avoidance of the subject matter and a tendency to slip into old behavioral patterns. The other emotion, joy over a life well-lived, inspires action and willingness to take action.
Principle Two: Thoughts and words create worlds.
Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Imagine two homes, side by side, identical physical structures. Would you expect that the occupants would describe their home life in similar terms? No. Much of what happens inside depends upon such things as the conversations around the dinner table, or lack thereof, the family stories that are passed down from generation to generation, and the unstated and unwritten rules of behavior that govern what goes on in a given family.
Appreciative Inquiry as a change methodology is based on the power of words to create worlds. Unlike the mortar, bricks, and steel that create much of the physical reality of an organization, the organization’s culture is vested in the values, beliefs, and informal rules and expectations that govern organizational life and that are shaped through human thought and conversation. The power of shared conversations to shape this organizational reality is illustrated by the “water cooler effect.” Find the place where employees gather in any organization and listen to the conversations that flow throughout a typical day. What are the topics that spark attention? What stories get told and retold? Who are the heroes and villains of the organization? The power of these shared conversations to shape reality is apparent. By intentionally focusing the topic of an inquiry on what is desired and by using the power of story-telling and cascading conversations, AI stimulates a desire for change and motivates individuals to act.
Principle Three: You create the world you pay attention to.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
What was Michelangelo focused on, the stone which had to be chipped away or the angel within the stone waiting to be revealed? There are several studies that suggest that what you focus on determines what you get, whether this is through the effect of a powerful “other” (such as a boss, a teacher, a parent) giving you messages about your competence and your internalizing it, or your own mind’s turning its attention to a particular event or issue or competence. Athletes know that improvement comes from focusing on when they do something well. Teachers know that students can live up or down to their expectations. In an organization, we can talk about that “turnover” problem, or we can talk about ways to “retain high performing employees.” Think about what is more energizing. This principle also incorporates the idea that inquiry and change are not separate. From the very first question someone asks, the mind is drawn to a response to that question, and therefore the rest of the conversation shifts.
If I ask you to look at a house and pay particular attention to the cracks in the wall, paint that may be peeling in one or more places, etc., those things are what you will focus on and see. If on the other hand, we walk in and I say, “Ah… look at that archway the graceful beauty of the old wood on the ceiling, etc.,” that is what you will focus on.
Many models of change talk about dealing with “resistance.” You’ll notice that we do not do so when talking about AI. Resistance is only relevant if one is pushing against something. Pushing harder only makes you tired. The alternative is to stop to do something else. AI as a process of change offers the opportunity to experience doing something different that makes life more pleasurable.
We also encourage organizations to “leapfrog” to the desired state. Instead of focusing inordinate energy on “fixing the problem,” we suggest that you focus on what is desired and spend energy on that. We have found that often the “problem” disappears by focusing on the desired state.
Finally, we have noticed there is a perverse belief that struggling is an honorable pursuit. In our culture we seem to have a belief that struggle and pain signify growth. We go to the gym, work out hard, and then talk about with some degree of bragging how “hard” we worked, how much effort we put into taking care of our bodies! What if life and work were effortless that what we wanted flowed from what we could imagine and then create? We are suggesting that the process of change need not be one of pain and struggle, but one of stirring the imagination, creativity, and energy of people.
In this article we have merely highlighted the key components in the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) process. Therefore, to develop full appreciation of the potential of this process and philosophy, we encourage readers to access the references that we list at the end of this article.
Deutschman, A. “Change or Die.” Fast Company. May, 2005.
Ludema, J. D., Whitney, D., Mohr, B. J., & Griffen, T. J. The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2003).
Watkins, J. M., Mohr, B. J. Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001)
Links to Cases and Resources
http://www.aiconsulting.org/roadway/Roadway.htm (no longer accessible)
 Cooperrider, D. L., Sorensen, P.F., Whitney, D., Yaeger, T. Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change. (Chicago IL: Stipes Publishing, 2000). Cooperrider, D. L., Sorenson, P.F., Yaeger, T., & Whitney, D. Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development. (Chicago, IL: Stipes Publishing, 2001).
 Cameron, K., Dutton, J.E., and Quinn, R.E. (eds.). Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003).
 Deutschman, Alan. “Change or Die,” Fast Company, 94, May 2005:53.
 All Great Quotes, http://www.allgreatquotes.com/michelangelo_quotes2.shtml
About the Author(s)
Terri D. Egan, PhD, is Academic Director of Pepperdine University's top ranked Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. She has taught graduate and executive courses in personal development, leadership, team effectiveness, organizational change and development, creativity and innovation and international organization development. Her award winning research has been published in a number of journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Journal of Public Administration, The Information Society, Human Relations, and the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner. Dr. Egan’s current research and practice focuses on integrating neuroscience discoveries into organization and leadership development theory and practice. She is the co-founder of Lahl and Egan, LLC (www.lahlandegan.com). She holds an interdisciplinary degree in Social Sciences, an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior all from the University of California, Irvine and is a guild certified practitioner of the Feldenkrais® Method of Somatic Education.
Ann Feyerherm, PhD, is Director of the Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and chair of the organization theory and Mmnagement discipline. Previously, Dr. Feyerherm spent 11 years as a manager of organization development at Procter & Gamble. As a consultant she worked with top-level companies on projects ranging from team function to leadership development and managing change. Dr. Feyerherm's research focuses on government, business, environmental community collaboration and increasing human capacity through strength-based approaches. She is currently serving a five-year leadership position within the Organization Development and Change Division of the Academy of Management.