In my last post, Appreciative Inquiry in Practical Terms, I provided an overview of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a positive approach to major organizational change. Appreciative Inquiry practitioners follow a four step exploration process they call the “4-D Cycle:”

  • Discover
  • Dream
  • Design
  • Destiny (or Deliver)

Let’s take a closer look at the 4 Ds in practice.

Discover

Discover questions are designed to bring out stories about current strengths and best practices—what AI practitioners call “the forces that give life to your organization when it is at its best.” Simply stated, you want participants to recall a time when they were “in the zone,” or otherwise felt especially good about themselves and the job they were doing. In the Discover phase, participants work in small groups or “unlikely pairs.” These are people who normally do not regularly interact with each other. This questioning process is considered by many the “heart and soul” of AI.

Typical Discover questioning starts with the phrase, “Tell me about a time when …” to elicit a story about a positive experience within the organization pertaining to the focus topic. For example, if your focus is on increasing morale, an effective “affirmative question set” might include:

Tell me about a time at work when you felt most energized and enthusiastic, and when you felt especially good about the work you were doing and the team you were working with. What was the situation? What made this experience possible?

Sharing stories about past successes reminds participants that anything negative they are experiencing does not have to be permanent. The success story magnifies the positive experience and makes current challenges feel more manageable.

Dream

Questions in the Dream phase challenge participants to imagine what “might be.” Participants are encouraged to stretch their vision beyond what may be easy to achieve, yet stay realistic. Dream questions are for self-reflection.

AI practitioners position Dream questions in a way that helps participants envision the positive change as if it were already happening. For example:

Imagine it is three years in the future. Your department is receiving an award for your work. You are so proud of the accomplishments of you and your teammates, and you have enjoyed working together to do your best work. Morale is at an all-time high. The press has asked you for an interview to tell them what it’s like to work with your group. What made this award possible? What will you tell them?

Practitioners compile the responses and analyze them for reoccurring patterns.

“Dreaming” may seem a bit out of place in a business setting, but envisioning a positive outcome is actually a common coaching technique. If you are involved in sports, you may be familiar with the technique of envisioning yourself making the big win before an event. The concept also dovetails with the second of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits for Highly Effective People: “Begin with the End in Mind.”

Design

The Design phase involves making choices about “what should be.” The goal is to align the past and present positive best practices from the Discover inquiry with the desired potential future envisioned in the Dream phase.

Practitioners consider this the most difficult phase of the AI process. A small team is charged with analyzing participant responses and designing a roadmap for actions and resources required to realize the vision and dream for the organization.

Goals and procedures that emerge from the Design phase must be bold enough to motivate participants, yet grounded in realism in order to create sustainable, long-term change.

Deliver

It’s time to put the agreed upon design plans into action. This step requires a strong project management team to help set milestones, plan resource usage, and guide “dream teams” through the implementation and measurement of design tasks.

Just do it!

Appreciative Inquiry is deceptively simple. On the surface, immediate positive transformation starts by simply asking appreciative questions to the right people at the right time. Because of that, I am a strong proponent of borrowing AI-style questioning to flavor all training programs and even daily interactions with friends and colleagues. Having said that, I feel it important to note that real and lasting positive change in overall organizational effectiveness requires a fundamental cultural shift. Such a shift only emerges through more formal and intensive inquiry and analysis. The paradox is that it is true that you must first dream something or it will never happen, but simply dreaming it does not make it happen!

Is AI the silver bullet to wipe out every organizational woe? Of course not.

Organizations are comprised of people, and people are, as they say, messy.

However, having introducing AI to my own 20-person training team, I witnessed some exciting positive patterns beginning to emerge among our team members. We integrated an Appreciative approach to our internal performance interviews, which uncovered some hidden support needs—some of which were fairly simple to address. Additionally, our AI approach has formed a solid foundation for our newest work in supporting disruptive change in the corporate enterprise. I will write more about that in my next blog post.

There are a number of good internet articles and books currently available to help you learn more about AI, including a detailed workbook by AI founder, David Cooperrider. Maybe you (or your stakeholders) have been around the training block a few times and think you’ve heard it all before. Even so—or even if you don’t buy into all the hype around AI—there is very little to lose and a lot to be gained from performing a simple AI pilot with a small group in your organization. Give it a try!