Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to organisational development that moves beyond mere process to constitute a whole new philosophy of vision creation and organisational change. It begins with the premise that the creation of a vision of the organisational future will best be realised by asking a wide cross-section of employees to recall their greatest moments whilst working within the organisation. Through appreciating and analysing their most fulfilling and successful experiences, and retelling these as stories in their own words, all employees can potentially contribute to a collaborative vision of the future.

The Underlying Theory

AI is based around the following assumptions:

  • Collaborative working is vital for any organisation seeking to create sustainable change.
  • Each employee will ‘read’ the organisation in a unique way.
  • All of these readings are equally valid and must be captured.
  • Traditional ways of gathering employee opinions are rigid and outmoded.
  • Vision creation is the most powerful force available to an organisation.
  • Organisations evolve in the direction of the questions they ask of themselves.
  • When you articulate a vision, you have already started down the road to change.
  • The organisation will ‘grow’ towards a collective vision of its own future, just as a plant grows towards the sun.

Telling Stories

In this way, the power to speak about the organisation, to create its story, is the power to create and shape its very structure and operations. Where the power of discourse is held by some and not by others, where senior management get to enforce their perceptions from the top down, the organisation will be slow to make real change. AI works by empowering the entire organisation, at all levels, to contribute to the story of the organisation, and so to shape its future in a collaborative way. By understanding organisations as a collection of interpretations, AI smashes the singular stories of change, opens out the wealth of individual employee stories at the heart of the organisation, and uses these to re-engineer the organisation in a collaborative way.

The Appreciative Interview

An AI initiative, in any organisation, begins when the organisation figures out what it wants, and needs, to see more of in the future. This initial stage determines the ultimate success of the process. By contrast with other change processes that identify the negative in reviews of the organisation’s past, AI asks the organisation to identify that which has occurred in its past that it would like to see repeated in the future. This forms part of an appreciative interviewing process, ideally taking in as many levels and functional areas of the organisation as possible.

Within this process, the interviewers, who may themselves be employees, ask all participants to recall a time during their career at the organisation in which they felt most fulfilled, content, successful and alive. They also ask them to instances from the past that they would like to repeat, or multiply, in the future. In this way a ‘positive core’ of stories is drawn from the past, creating a patchwork of experiences in which the organisation has functioned at its very best. This core is used to identify the themes that are held to be most valuable throughout the organisation. Once identified, these themes can contribute to a vision of the ideal future organisation, a vision which can then be planned towards in detail. This is the basic sequence of the AI approach.

In this way, the appreciative process begins not by creating a groundless vision of the future, but by drawing from the strengths of its pasts and its people to create a viable improved future in which every employee can have some personal investment. This variety of stories is valuable precisely because it embraces the equal value of all interpretations of the past.

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