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Appreciative Inquiry’ (AI)

Taken from a Theory Base Paper for
Antioch University ‘Whole System Design’ MA Program

Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations and the world around them. It involves the discovery of what gives ‘life’ to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and constructively capable in economic, ecological and human terms. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate and heighten positive potential. The inquiry is mobilized through the crafting of the ‘unconditional positive question’, often involving hundreds or thousands of people. AI interventions focus on the speed of imagination and innovation, instead of the negative, critical and spiraling diagnoses commonly used in organizations. The discovery, dream, design and destiny model links the energy of the positive core to changes never thought possible.

Cooperrider, Whitney, Stavos (2002)

Inherent in the above definition is the basic premise of Social Constructionism that we can construct our future, and it includes some assumptions that are not intuitively obvious to most of us in this culture.

First, our language, and thus our stories and narratives are steeped in deficit language and assumptions about the world, our organizations, and who we are as individuals. As a result we see these entities as ‘problems to be fixed’ rather than ‘sources of wisdom’. We have in essence created stories of scarcity where there is abundance. Sometimes this is intentional as in our marketing approach of convincing people that they need something that they obviously do not need. And we see this philosophy of scarcity extended to areas where there seem to be virtually no limits to abundance such as love and happiness and appreciation. It is interesting to note that we have also created stories of abundance where there is scarcity such as the capacity of the Earth to renew the resources we extract or cleanse those we pollute. Appreciative Inquiry makes every attempt to avoid all deficit language, and as a result alter the conversation of scarcity so that it is oriented toward fairness and compassion, and the conversation of abundance to one of awe, gratitude, and possibility.

Second, we are appreciative, but often don’t take the time to acknowledge those from whom we have benefited. This, it seems to me, is a key principle of the ‘Interview Process’ which is described below.

Third, each of us without exception have lived out of a sense of virtue at some time in our lives, and when we get back in touch with the strength it gave us, we want to continue to live it -- to shape a desired future that includes the virtue as a way of life. The same is true for organizations. “Every organization has something that works well, and that these strengths can be the starting point for creating positive change.” (Cooperrider, Whitney, Stavos (2002), p 4)

Fourth, the success of any AI process is directly affected by the quality of the relationships among its participants. Often within an organization there is assumed or real adversity; sometimes due to the separateness of our lives there is virtually no relationship. Both can be transformed into positive relationships with thoughtful ‘interviews’ prior to entering the ‘4-D cycle’, and/or within it. Like others before me, I have included a first step named definition primarily to include these interviews and also to establish an organization for designing and managing the Appreciative Inquiry project.

Last, is inclusivity and the need to involve all stakeholders in a fundamentally non-hierarchical manner. When all stakeholders are brought together ‘Appreciatively’, a greater wisdom emerges, there is greater passion for implementation, as well as commitment to the group by the decision makers who otherwise might operate in isolation.

I drew the AI ‘5-D Cycle’, definition, discovery, dream, design and destiny, shown on the next page from the notes I took from a Cooperidder presentation on October 8, 2002 -- the first day of my AI Certification program. Within this project it has been used as the basis for 2-3 minute group introduction to AI, 15-30 minute sharings individual sharings, 1/2 - 1/12 hour interviews, and a one day community session held in May 2003, a 1/2 day session with educators, and, if successful, a multiple day community session. Almost all our meetings with staff, students, and parents open with a 3-5 minute preface and set of questions to have individuals reflect, and then create an ‘Appreciative Story’. One or two are shared and this sets both a tone and specific reference points for the rest of the meeting.

At the heart of the cycle is an ‘Affirmative Topic of Choice’; the focus of the intervention. And at the heart of selecting the ‘Affirmative Topic of Choice’ is an understanding of the ‘positive core’ mentioned in the definition at the beginning of this section. Selection of the ‘Topic’ and tapping into the ‘positive core’ are crucial, and have been influenced by our ‘Definition’ phase interviews.


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