Have you ever noticed that when you think positively, the world seems a more positive place? Likewise, when you focus on problems, the world seems a more negative place? What we focus on seems positive to determine the reality we live in.
This notion is central to the practice of appreciative inquiry, a philosophy designed to shift organisational thinking away from problem solving and towards strength building.
According to the principle of appreciative inquiry, if we focus on identifying and solving problems, then problems are all we will see. We will be forever fighting fires instead of effecting real change. Likewise, if we focus on our strengths, we will build on those strengths and ultimately realise our true potential.
This may sound like common sense, but it is actually a departure from normal practice. For the vast majority of organisations, the default way of approaching performance or development is to discuss what we’re doing wrong, or what’s not working well. In fact, we are so accustomed to focussing on the negatives that the question “what’s going well” would take many of us by surprise.
This approach is understandable, as identifying and eliminating issues seems to be the most logical way of improving the way we work. But it doesn’t take into the account the broader effect that this mind-set can have.
By focussing solely on what’s wrong, we subconsciously see work as a series of problems to be solved. Over time, this deficit-based view drains us of energy and motivation, as we spend our days in a negative or defensive state of mind. We create a reality where we only see issues, and we rarely focus on the good stuff.
How it works
Appreciative inquiry turns this approach on its head by asking us to focus on what we’re already doing well. By identifying the things that are currently working, we can look to further build on and strengthen our successes in the future.
The appreciative inquiry method actively engages employees in positive discussions about their work. This reinforces their self-confidence, and helps motivate them to keep building on their skills and successes. Equally, by sharing these successes with colleagues, we can create an environment that promotes positivity, engagement, motivation and energy – all the things needed to bring about genuine improvement.
The following five steps describe the typical appreciative inquiry process and can be used to build on the strengths of an individual, team or organisation.
- Define – choose an area that will be the focus of your inquiry.
- Discover (what is) – identify strengths and processes related to the chosen area that are working well.
- Dream (what could be) – use the identified strengths to imagine new possibilities in the future.
- Design (what should be) – plan the steps needed to make this vision a reality.
- Deliver (what will be) – how the design will be delivered at an individual, group or organisational level.
So let’s take a look at how this could work in practice.
Say we want to apply the above process to help an individual become more engaged in their work – that’s step 1 done.
For step 2, we would find out the things that the person already loves about their job, the particular work they are proud of and enjoy doing, and the things that motivate them.
In step 3, we would use these findings as a starting point to imagine a future where the person is truly, 100% engaged in their work.
Step 4 would see us planning the steps we would need to take to get to that future state, which we would then put into action in step 5.
There you have it: a complete plan to improve an individual’s experience of work, using the things that are working right now as the starting point for a better future.
Why it works
Appreciative inquiry creates an environment of positivity and recognition, and focusses on the best aspects of work – the things we’re really proud of at an individual and collective level. This naturally energises and motivates people to do better.
By following this method, we are encouraged to imagine the kind of organisation we would like to work in. This takes an essentially future-focussed, ‘bigger picture’ approach – something that problem solving can never do.
In this way, appreciative inquiry is ideally suited to today’s workplace, where discussions around the future of work are ongoing. People want to feel that they have a stake in the future, and that things are moving in the right direction; appreciative inquiry does this by putting people and their experiences at the heart of positive change. Unlike the traditional problem-solving approach, which is naturally backwards looking, appreciative inquiry can bring about rapid transformation by uniting everyone around a shared vision of the future.
Beyond its practical applications, this approach has the ability to change how we view and approach work: from something to fix to something to improve.