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Appreciative Inquiry: Does it work in the workplace?

What application does Appreciative Inquiry have in the workplace?

The business world today is in a constant state of flux. Given the rapid rise of technologies, continuous shifts in the marketplace and ever-increasing competition in many industries, no business can afford to rest on their laurels and take it easy.

As such, ongoing change and development is a key priority for all organisations - and who is more responsible for driving change than the leader at the helm of the company? The approach a business leader takes with regards to planning and implementing change in the organisation can make a world of difference, with results hinging on the decisions they make.

There are many different strategies a business leader can take to facilitate organisational change, and one certainly worth looking into is the theory of Appreciative Inquiry. Having been first introduced to the world just under three decades ago, organisations of all backgrounds have implemented the approach into their change management strategy with great success.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

The model of Appreciative Inquiry was first introduced in 1987 by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, the United States. As its fundamental premise, the theory states that entities - be they individual people, teams, organisations or entire societies - change "in the direction in which they inquire".

The implication of this in the organisational setting is that the 'direction' in which an organisation changes and develops - either positively or negatively - depends entirely on which aspects its people consciously choose to focus on. If an organisation takes a wholly problem-solving approach, focusing on what is currently going wrong and the flaws of the business, then that is only likely to lead to more problems as they compound.

Likewise, if an organisation chooses to focus on its strengths and what is working well, and take steps to strengthen these aspects even further, the positive vibe generated around the organisation is likely to be conducive to such change.

In theory at least, it certainly sounds like a good model to follow - but what evidence is there to suggest that it should be implemented in the workplace?

Why Appreciative Inquiry?

In addressing organisational issues and implementing change, most people would tend to place priority on identifying what's wrong and fixing them. However, a recent survey suggests that taking this reactive approach may not be as useful as once thought.

Last year, the Katzenbach Center - a subsidiary of PricewaterhouseCoopers - conducted its 2013 Culture and Change Management Survey, which interviewed more than 2,000 business leaders around the world on organisational culture and its impact on change. One of the issues explored in the study was why change simply doesn't last in even some of the best companies around the world.

According to the survey, one of the top reasons employees resist change is that they are "sceptical due to past failed change efforts". In addition, feeling uninvolved in the change process and not understanding the reasons for change were two of the other main factors that made employees hesitant to change.

As explained earlier, one of the key tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is to avoid dwelling on failures - as this is likely to engender similar failures in future. And as a process that invites everyone across the organisation to provide positive input, it is a good way to avoid the problems with involvement mentioned in the Katzenbach Center's study.

So how can an organisation actively implement Appreciative Inquiry in their workplace?

Activating the process: The 4D cycle

In terms of taking action, Appreciative Inquiry proposes a four-step process known as the 4D model:

1. Discover - "What is"

The first step is to get the entire organisation involved in discussing what its current strengths are, and when they felt it was at its best. By going into depth in what is working well in the organisation and where its strongest competencies lie, the 'positive core' of the business is identified.

2. Dream - "What might be"

The next stage of the process is for employees to discuss how they would like the organisation to be in the future. It is about building on the positive image that was generated in the Discover stage and envisioning a future state where this image is consistent.

It is essential that employees have a clear idea of the organisation's vision - according to the 2013 Employee Engagement Survey from employee feedback solutions provider TINYpulse, fewer than half (42 per cent) of workers around the world know their company's vision, mission and values. Working together in the Dream phase can help employees across the organisation be more in tune and create a shared vision for the future.

3. Design - "What should be"

In perhaps the most important stage of the process, the organisation then starts taking steps to concretise these ideals and turn them into reality. This involves looking at precisely needs to be changed in the organisation to allow this transition, and who should be involved.

4. Destiny - "What will be"

As the final step, the changes and action points outlined are enacted and a forum is created to maintain this development and identify opportunities for further growth.

In the midst of persistently tough economic conditions and pessimism among businesses, taking a more positive approach to change management with Appreciative Inquiry could be worth looking into.


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