‘Appreciative inquiry’ accelerates what’s working

by Lindsey Godwin

Aug. 28, 2018

Editor’s note: The following is a contributed piece by Lindsey Godwin, academic director at the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry at the Robert P. Stiller School of Business at Champlain College.

I knew a large manufacturing company that was experiencing low morale. Since I was friendly with the CEO, he shared with me his action plan.

First, he assigned one of his trusted managers to help solve the problem. The very first question both my friend and his manager asked was, “What are all the reasons why people have low morale here?”

This instinctive question seems reasonable enough, after all, we need to get to the root of the issue and uncover all the things we need to change, right? Actually, no.

The question led to this company conducting surveys and focus groups in which employees were asked to reflect on and document all the reasons they do not like working there.

I acknowledge that this is a script followed by many, if not most, organizations. But it’s the wrong script.

Consider the ripple effects of simply asking: “What are the causes of low morale?” We think that question invited respondents to impartially look back at their experiences, but they did much more than that. Low morale actually continued and even increased in this company because that simple question concentrated everyone’s attention on all the bad times and all the reasons they did not like the organization. So low morale actually increased, or appreciated, throughout the organization.

Unfortunately, one more low-morale survey, even with all the good intentions, will not tell us how to create a sercharged, highly engaged workforce. Learning what not to do is not the same as discovering what creates and accelerates success. And isn’t that what we really want to appreciate — or escalate — in our organizations: our root causes of success?

If we want to create a highly engaged work system, wouldn’t we would be better off doing 100 interviews of “high point moments” in people’s careers? Isn’t it smarter to ask about times when employees were most committed and alive in their work, as well as when and why they were going way beyond their job descriptions?

Imagine what we would uncover and reinforce at the same time.

This is exactly what appreciative inquiry invites organizations to do. In a world where change has become all about diagnosing organizational ills and following up with carefully designed interventions, appreciative inquiry offers an alternative to seeing organizational life as a ‘problem-to-be-solved.’ Appreciative inquiry invites organizations to uncover what is working, to leverage their strengths and focus on creating the successes they want to see in the future. Appreciative inquiry reminds us that change begins with the very first questions we ask. Our questions can focus us on discovering what is broken, or they can focus us on what is working and how we can leverage it.

Our questions are fateful.

Peter Drucker, one of the most prolific management scholars of our times, once said, “the true task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths that makes a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” Leaders around the world are seeing the value in appreciative inquiry as they begin to ask questions that help align strengths within their organizations. Instead of asking more questions about what is not working, they are asking about which assets they have to leverage, what they want the future to look like, and how they can move forward together. For example:

  • Fairmont Minerals, one of the largest sand mining and manufacturing organizations in the U.S., used appreciative inquiry to identify opportunities to design rapid prototypes that helped move the company forward, becoming recognized as a top corporate citizen by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Walmart used it to help develop their sustainability index to use with their suppliers.
  • The U.S. dairy industry has employed appreciative inquiry to transform their sustainability efforts, resulting in the launching of nearly $300 million in projects that were singled out by the Secretary of Agriculture as models for other industries.
  • Massachusetts enlisted it to help the state develop its long-term energy-efficiency goals.

If leaders want to create organizations that are much more than merely just “not broken,” but rather are thriving, they need to shift their approach to change. Change is not about simply identifying and eliminating the bad — it is about discovering and dreaming about the possible.

If you are the leader of an organization, I urge you to ask your people from day one what they want more of, not what they want to reduce.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until there is a problem to think about change. Do it now, and start today by asking appreciative questions of those around you and see what grows.


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