Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

I can still hear my son’s soccer coach yelling at him on the field, telling him what to stop doing without ever acknowledging what he was doing well and what to start doing instead. As a behavior specialist, it drove me crazy because I knew what he focused on would keep occurring and it did. Consequently, it eroded his confidence and left him disempowered. Leaders and managers all too often do the same thing.

The generation gap is very real in the business world today. Having personally coached hundreds of business owners and leaders, I have found the traditional “problem-oriented” approaches to change from the 70s and 80s rarely produce sustained positive transformation with optimal team performance, especially with the Millennial generation. Instead, these management techniques tend to create a negative bias culture from the top down where leadership focuses more on the problem (negative outcomes and behaviors) than the solution (desired outcome and behaviors). 

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a powerfully motivating, engaging, and liberating method of solving problems placing far more emphasis on strengths and a positive outlook. The traditional way of solving a problem is to focus on the problem, the causes, and the blame game. This prominent modality of leadership creates a culture afraid of failure and devoid of trust where it is nearly impossible to achieve exceptional results. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I am by no means suggesting you become a Pollyanna, ignoring unwanted results and behaviors. There is a place for the carrot and stick approach when up against deadlines and managing specific accountabilities. However, for most challenges and opportunities companies face, AI produces far better results and lasting positive transformation individually and collectively.

A Practical Application of AI

AI models and methodologies can be rather expansive, so I want to make this practical and actionable for you. One application of AI is referred to as the “Problem to Opportunity Exercise” which does not require a deep dive into AI to utilize. 

Start with two flip charts. On each page, you will be drawing a tree. Each tree will be constructed using three parts: 1) the trunk (or base of the tree), 2) the roots, and 3) the fruit (branches and leaves, if you will). 

The first part of the process is drawing the “problem-oriented tree” starting with the trunk. Our first question is, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Once the team has come to an agreement, write it on the base of the tree (e.g. lack of communication). Next, start drawing and defining the roots which represent the causes feeding into the problem (e.g. “What’s feeding the lack of communication?”). Lastly, define the results or symptoms of the problem, listing them on the limbs of the tree. The question here is, “If these are the roots feeding this problem, what results, or outcomes (fruit) are they producing?”

Now we flip this over to an AI framework using the second tree. It is the same process with DIFFERENT questions. We start with the trunk or base of the tree by defining the positive opposite of the problem noted on the first tree (e.g. strong communication). Next, consider what contributing factors will lead to this positive outcome (e.g. What would contribute to better communication?). Write them down on the roots. And lastly, list all the results created from these contributions to a healthy tree (e.g. What will be the results of stronger communication? Or What impact will stronger communication have on our company?).

This process moves the focus from negative results to desired outcomes and solutions to create them. Once familiar with this process, it can be easily adapted to performance reviews and on-the-job coaching for development. The bottom line is, spend more time provoking possibility thinking with questions aimed at desired outcomes, positive thinking, and specific desired behaviors.

Leadership expert Ken Blanchard said, “People who feel good about themselves produce good results, and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.” The late Stephen Covey suggested this is about managing the emotional bank account in relationships where negative criticisms are withdrawals and positive acknowledgments are deposits. And ahead of his time, the great Harvey Mackay said the best way to make positive acknowledgments is by wandering around catching people doing things right and praising them publicly. This all aligns with AI and is a recipe for exceptional leadership developing exceptional people through exceptional relationships forming an exceptional culture that produces exceptional results.

The world is in desperate need of true servant leadership and will reward those willing to answer the call. If you would like some perspective and ideas for attracting, developing, and retaining top talent in your organization or leading to grow your business through these challenging times, click the button below and let’s have a conversation. I’m passionate about helping businesses go beyond survival to thrive.