Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a practice and philosophy that that enables organizations to recognize and build on their strengths to meet challenges, and help its people move harmoniously towards a shared vision.
AI can be a powerful way to help an organization maintain strong, well-directed forward momentum and high morale.
Best of all for nonprofit organizations, it gives shareholders a great way to contribute to the direction the organization takes!
In this article, we will be discussing Appreciative Inquiry, the process, theoretical framework, and its significance to non-profit organizations in their strategic planning.
A Positive, Strengths-based Approach
In enacting a positive change, most organizations fall into the trap of a problem-focused approach.
Traditionally, the practice would be to identify the issue, trace the root cause, and figure out a solution. This paradox of ‘focusing on the negative, to acquire something positive’ has been the trend.
However, this problem-focused strategy carries significant flaws in the way that it forces us to focus on negativity and problems. Focusing on problems can ensnare organizations into a repetitive, self-defeating rut.
An organization that uses this deconstructive, negative approach to finding and solving problems can easily get stuck in a cycle that features these destructive traits:
- Repetitive regurgitation of the same tired ‘solutions’
- Lack of new ideas and innovation
- Perpetuation of the same culture that created the problem(s) in the first place
- Tendency to focus on negativity and problems, resulting in damaged morale and unhappy workers
- Reliance on the same people who came up with the ineffective strategies that may have created or worsened the problem in the first place
- Inability of stakeholders to contribute towards the development of new strategies and ideas
The result is a negative, repetitive, ineffective, and inflexible system that lacks sources of the external inspiration and innovation needed to create new strategies for tricky problems.
AI breaks organizations out of this cycle by allowing for a fresh, accurate view of the landscape through a positive, strength-focused lens.
By breaking out of this negative mindset of obsessively finding and solving problems, you can build a positive strategy that revolves around building upon strengths instead of weaknesses and find opportunities to improve collectively. This concept of constructive positivity forms the ideological base of Appreciative Inquiry.
The Role of Stakeholders in AI
Stakeholders are a non-profit organization’s most essential assets, so stakeholder engagement is crucial for success- especially in terms of keeping the organization relevant and visible.
For AI to be an effective catalyst in the organization’s strategic planning, you must learn to connect with donors, clients, volunteers, and the public.
Using AI to engage your stakeholders leads to better services and improved roles in the community by reinforcing stronger relationships, promoting learning and innovation, and recalibrating organizational goals. The best part is that this is all accomplished in a way that improves morale and creates a happier (and therefore, more productive) culture!
The 4-Step Process of AI
The core principles of Appreciative Inquiry were developed in the early 1990s by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivatsva and serve as the foundation for all AI work.
To get started with AI, let’s look at the four phases, collectively called the 4-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry:
Phase 1: The Discovery Phase. In this first phase, participants explore “the best of what is” by identifying the organization’s strengths, best practices, and sources of excellence. This phase focuses on appreciating what works, and identifying the common factors in those instances.
This is where members of the organization get together to discover the key factors behind the organization’s success thus far, and opportunities to build upon these strengths. This often takes place in the form of seminars and meetings where stakeholders, employees, managers, and everyone else in the organization can engage in a free exchange of data, stories, ideas, and experiences in the organization.
Phase 2: The Dream Phase. In this phase, participants envision what they want in the future – a future where the organization successfully fulfills its core purpose and strategic objectives in a way that’s satisfying to the organization’s members and supports at all levels.
This is where attendees discuss their most optimistic visions for the future of the organization, while staying faithful to reality and not engaging in pointless whimsy. This will include discussions and questions concerning the organization’s public image, position in the market, work environment, culture, and more. Just remember, it’s in the name; the goal is to create a dream for the future of the company- exciting, idealistic, and yet realistically approachable.
Phase 3: The Design Phase. In this phase, the participants look more deeply into ‘the best of what is,’ and use these factors to craft a strategy for achieving their recently-discussed dreams as an organization.
This is where the idealism and excitement of the Dream Phase is combined with the solid factual and ideological qualities of the organization and its assets determined in the Discovery Phase.
Phase 4: The Destiny Phase. In this final phase, participants enact the strategies that they identified in the Design Phase. This is where ‘the rubber meets the road’, and the organization begins its metamorphosis towards becoming what it was envisioned as being in the Dream Phase.
This is where all the exercises, operational shifts, training, and adjustments planned out in the Design Phase are deployed with both cold-cut data-backed efficiency and positive ideological vigor.
The Theoretical Framework of AI
For non-profit organizations, trusting in their people’s capacity and helping them navigate their positive achievements, values, and ambitions can unleash their full potential and bring out better outcomes for the organization.
Let’s now look into the AI theoretical framework in positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship. Three concepts form the foundation that we call the “three-legged stool”:
- Appreciation. AI recognizes the best in its people and the organization as a whole. It focuses on the strengths to eventually become the foundation of the future that they plan to build.
- Inquiry. Asking questions is a must in AI. It invites people to ask questions and seek answers to learn from one another. This process is essential to identify their shared vision and common goals in the future. A successful AI process involves people to have an attitude of curiosity and a hunger for new knowledge.
- Wholeness. This encourages participation from all stakeholders. The best ideas often arise unexpectedly, or by accident. AI helps facilitate this phenomenon by increasing engagement with stakeholders/. It also helps companies seek perspective externally, for additional inspiration and improvement strategies. All-in-all, it means that an organization will have a more effective strategy to gather and enact new ideas.
Application of AI to Individuals and Organizations
The strategy of AI has unlimited applications in a wide range of contexts. It’s a powerful and effective strategy both at a macro big-picture level, as well as down to a micro one-on-one level- and everywhere in between.
AI meets Positive Psychology in their belief that positive is always superior to the negative. It believes in the potential of a person or group to surpass shortcomings, build on strengths, and look to the future instead of the past.
Adjusting your lenses and adapting, then applying, a strength-based approach can resolve concerns by shifting the energy into positive endeavors while improving team morale and solving underlying problems.
Appreciative Inquiry serves as an indispensable tool for organizations to stay flexible, constructive, positive, and full of well-directed forward momentum. It’s a powerful strategy on any occasion but is most important for organizations that are undergoing strategic planning or tactical adjustments to their strategies.
It changes the way that an organization views its external landscape as well as internal resources, enabling them to find and apply new sources of inspiration.
Effective stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of any Appreciative Inquiry effort and has been shown to increase team effectiveness. Through shareholders, organizations can discover creative new ideas that might never have arisen internally.
Any stakeholder might hold the key to overcoming past mistakes and sharing ideas that keep the organization on course to achieve its vision.
The philosophy and practice of Appreciative Inquiry can make a world of difference.