In research and in leadership, it’s good to know what your biases and values are. In my own work, I take an asset-based approach, finding the strengths and building on them. I’ve grounded much of my professional, leadership and research work on this philosophy, which is grounded in Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The other day, someone asked me what AI is, so I’m posting a brief overview that I wrote up for another project about a year ago. It’s a “quick and dirty” overview, with some references:
Appreciative Inquiry: An Overview
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach used in academia, business and the not-for-profit sectors. The main pioneer of AI is widely recognized to be David Cooperrider.
Traditional methods of assessing and evaluating a situation and then proposing solutions are based on a deficiency model. Traditional methods ask questions such as “What are the problems?”, “What’s wrong?” or “What needs to be fixed?” Sometimes such questions are sugar-coated in trendy jargon. Instead of asking “What’s the problem?”, which can seem a little harsh, the question may be couched in terms of ‘challenges’: “What are the challenges?” Regardless of whether the question is asked harshly or softened with less antagonistic language, the model remains as one of deficiency. The thinking behind the questions assumes that there is something wrong, that something needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’. Business people (especially consultants) like to say they ‘can provide solutions’. The underlying belief is that there is something wrong and it needs to be fixed.
Appreciative Inquiry flips all that on its head. It is an asset-based approach. It starts with the belief that every organization, and every person in that organization, has something good about it. Each person has something valuable to contribute and the organization itself has merit of some kind. It asks questions like “What’s working?”, “What’s good about what you are currently doing?”
AI seeks to uncover the best of what an organization is currently doing, using interviews with its members. The interviews challenge participants to examine and discuss what is good about their current situation and explore what works well within the organization. This approach then utilizes the data collected from those interviews to construct a plan for enriching the organization by building on what is already working and what is already considered to be successful.
An initial reaction for some people is to balk when they hear questions like “What’s working?” An retaliatory answer may follow of “Nothing is working! It’s all a mess!”. People are so used to working within a deficiency framework, that it is almost like the brain can not process questions that are rooted in an asset-based approach. It may take some time for people to come up with an answer to questions based on an AI approach. This is because AI challenges us to shift our paradigm from deficiency thinking to asset thinking. Changing paradigms takes some time, but the results can be worth it.
Appreciative inquiry can be particularly useful in organizations where individuals or group of people are polarized over major issues. Rather than exacerbating the polarization between or among the parties, it assumes that a core of positive traits exist which can be highlighted and expanded up on to create even more success in an organization.
Cooperrider, D. L. (2007). Business as an agent of world benefit: Awe is what moves us forward. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/practice/executiveDetail.cfm?coid=10419
Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2008). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. Retrieved March 27, 2008, 2008, from http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/uploads/whatisai.pdf
Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.
Eliot, C. (1999). Locating the Energy for Change: An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development / Insitut International du Developpment Durable.
Faure, M. (2006). Problem solving was never this easy: Transformational change through appreciative inquiry. Performance Improvement, 45(9), 22-31.
Murrell, K., L. (1999). International and intellectual roots of appreciative inquiry. Organization Development Journal, 17(3), 49-61.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.