Appreciative Inquiry: An Approach for Faster and Deeper Change
Schools, like all other organizations, can survive and thrive if they become change capable organizations. Schools are now facing more difficult social challenges, a need to compete globally on achievement, and accelerating introduction of new technologies. This environment of unprecedented change can prove to be an opportunity if schools are able to respond effectively. Changing effectively means pursuing the right changes and accomplishing these changes rapidly. In order to change effectively, schools must develop an organizational capability of constant inquiry and aligned action of the whole system.
Utilizing a strength based approach such as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) could bring schools a new level of change capability.
Ap-pre’ci-ate, v., 1. Valuing; the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life to living systems. 2. To increase in value
In-quire’, v., 1. The act of exploration and discovery. 2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) operates from the following assumptions:
In every organization, group, or individual something works and can be valued
People have more confidence to journey to the future when they carry forward the best parts of the past
These assumptions lead to the five principles of AI. AI is not a tool but a principle based methodology. The five principles of AI are:
Constructionist Principle - Our capacity for imagination and creation of the future allows organizations to be altered or reconstructed.
Anticipatory Principle – An image of the future precedes the actual change.
Simultaneity Principle – Seeds of change are planted in the first question asked. Inquiry and intervention are simultaneous.
Positive Principle – The more positive the inquiry, the more powerful and deeper the change and the data gathered. Systems move in the direction of the questions asked.
Open Book Principle – Organizations are like an open book. The book is open to multiple interpretations and conclusions (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999).
Appreciative Inquiry is the essence of science. Bennis defines long range value of science as the spirit of inquiry which is a love of truth relentlessly pursued that ultimately creates the objectivity and intelligent action associated with science (Bennis, 1962). Most people have associated the scientific approach with only one methodology referred to as the problem solving model. Appreciative Inquiry is another approach to the spirit of inquiry from a different level and direction (see Figure 1).
Traditional problem solving involves understanding the current state, identifying problems and gaps, brainstorming solutions, selecting and testing a solution, and analyzing the results. This approach is especially effective with low level, bounded, mechanistic problems and has provided progress for centuries.
What problem solving also does is focus on what’s wrong or broken. It has been proven that this approach lowers individual’s energy and creativity. Appreciative Inquiry, as an alternative approach, has proven to shift organizations and individual’s perceptions and effectiveness by focusing on what’s right, positive, or possible.
There have been many studies in the field of athletics that prove focusing on what an athlete did well and imagining the best outcomes have greatly increased results over comparator groups that reviewed mistakes. Medicine is focusing on the study of health in addition to the study of pathology. Research on patients recovering at Mayo Clinic have proved that the patients that have a 2:1 positive to negative dialogue recover significantly faster (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999).
As we venture into the postindustrial world, a problem solving model of deficit based thinking may no longer be sufficient. A new model of strength based Appreciative Inquiry should be engaged. The industrial world of stability valued prediction and control. Incremental change was all that was needed. In the postindustrial world of accelerating change, flexibility and responsiveness must be valued. A comparison of two models (see Figure 2) shows the fundamental differences in approach.
Our society is has utilized and benefited from problem solving and deficit based thinking so moving away from that basic approach might be a leap of faith. If a leap of faith is not possible, perhaps a step of faith would allow the utilization of both approaches and observe in what situations the approaches are most effective.
Step By Step Approach to shifting to Strength-Based Whole Systems Approach
Step 1: Leadership chooses the central issue of their inquiry. What we study becomes our reality. The topic that will most effectively move the organization to achieve the desired outcome should be chosen. Examples of topics might be increased student achievement, collaboration across grade levels, and parental involvement.
Step 2: The next step is creating the question. The more positive the question, the greater chance of a successful change so the question must be well constructed. Examples of the three classic questions are:
Describe a time when you were involved in a project or situation where you successfully joined with others to accelerate student achievement. A time that stands out where you felt most alive and most effective, tell the story.
Without being humble, describe what you value most about your self, your work, and your school community.
Project yourself five years into the future. The student achievement initiative has been unbelievably successful. Describe what is in place in our school community.
Step 3: With the powerful questions in hand, the inquiry begins with a group of individuals that are trained as inquirers. Many times, this group becomes the core group that designs and executes an whole systems change intervention (AI Summit). They have been referred to by names such as: Change Community or Core Design Team. The appreciative interview is data collection to discover the positive core.
The Core Team and others are deployed to all the stakeholders throughout the educational system to inquire on the chosen topic and to gather responses. It is especially effective to employ children in the appreciative interviews. An intergenerational dialogue adds a powerful dimension to the dynamic of the interview. The responses are transformed into information. Themes emerge, common threads of success, and knowledge about the positive core that already exists on which to build the future change (Discovery).
The inquiry provides important input to the organization readiness and design of the future. Focus on the topic has already begun the change so the cycle time of change is reduced. The inquiry also provides the information to create “possibility statements”.
Step 4 –Whole Systems Change Intervention - AI Summit: An AI Summit is a large group conference that brings the stakeholders together and moves through the four phases of AI (4-D Cycle, see figure 3). AI directly addresses resistance to change by engaging teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members in the design of the new system. The stakeholders are engaged through the creation of possibility statements (Dream), the consensual validation (Design), and co-construction of the future (Destiny).
The possibility statement is a vision that is grounded in history, tradition, and facts that emerged from the stories. Stakeholders connect to the stories and resolve to do more of what works. It is easier to move to the future when you take the best of the past.
The large group design conference generally takes three days and involves a critical mass of stakeholders representing the whole system. Large group conferences have ranged from 100-700 participants. This method achieves the goal of involvement, significantly improves the quality of the design, and reduces the implementation cycle time.
The basic principles of the large group design conference are:
Have clarity of purpose and commitment
Engage the whole system
Make the whole system visible in the global context
Focus on the future but acknowledge the past
Discover the common ground and the higher ground
Self manage – information and decision making are public
When a school system becomes competent in this approach, it will bring them a step closer to being a high performance organization and provide the community with a sustainable differentiation.
It is critical to the effectiveness of our schools in today’s rapidly changing world to effectively execute change. Those schools that are best prepared to understand through inquiry and handle change will be the leaders and create the leaders of the future. Appreciative Inquiry and large group conferences as a strength-based whole system change approach provides faster, deeper, and more effective change.
Bennis, Warren, General System Yearbook 7, 269-282, 1962
Cooperrider, David L., Whitney, Diana, Collaborating for Change: Appreciative Inquiry, Berrett-Koehler Communications, Inc., CA, 1999
Gergen, Ken, An Invitation to Social Construction, Sage Publications, London, 1999
Weick, Karl, The Social Psychology of Organizing, McGraw-Hill, Inc.,1979