Designing a Better Future: Appreciative Inquiry Continued

Welcome back to our four-part series of articles on implementing the guiding principles of appreciative inquiry in your organisation.

Let’s have a brief overview of appreciative inquiry in practice before jumping into his piece. The official description comes from the man who conceived the overall concept, David Cooperrider. “At its heart, Appreciative Inquiry is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them.”

“Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes.”

Cooperrider breaks the process up into four parts: discovery, dreaming, designing and delivery. We’d advise reading our pieces on the discovery and dreaming parts of this process from previous posts before jumping into the third stage of the process. Appreciative inquiry is a means of analysing your organisation as a whole, and rather than over-emphasising small, niggling problems, you essentially double down on what you’re doing well at. The discovery and dreaming portions of the process as you first identify the area in which you’re excelling, dreaming the ways in which you can make the delivery of your product or service even better.

This particular post is geared at the design stage of the process: the way you design new practices and processes to deliver that improved product or service. The sky really is the limit when it comes to this part of the process, and regardless of your service or industry, the basic principles remain the same across the board. However, this is also the most challenging area in terms of implementing an AI approach to your management system. In recognition of this, researchers in the field of appreciative inquiry – including Cooperrider himself – have designed a series of statements to help organisations in the design phase of the process.

The idea is to connect the dots between what is the current – or known – state of the organization with the imagined, or desired state that you and your team envisaged in the ‘dream’ phase of the process we’ve already talked about. According to DesignWithDialogue, “the point here is to connect ‘what is’ with ‘what might be’ through the concept of social architecture – those things present within an organisation that are necessary for implementing its designed future state.

To help out a bit, the researchers have listed a number of open-ended questions for you to toss around at both your quarterly strategic planning sessions or management review meetings so you can more accurately plot a course on your journey of improvement. The statements centre on how your current practices could be optimised to better deliver upon your promises. Included in these questions are mentions of your business processes, communications systems, culture, customer relations, education and training, leadership, management practices, policies, shared values, social responsibility, strategy, structure, systems, technology, beliefs about power and authority, relationships, governance structure, and finally your systems of knowledge management; quite an all-encompassing sweep as you can see.

Appreciative Inquiry also poses a number of guidelines to create effective statements in response to the various aspects of your organisation we just mentioned:

-Is it provocative? Does it stretch, change or interrupt the status quo?

-Is it grounded in the organisation’s mission statement?

-Do members of the organisation want it?

-Is it stated affirmatively?

-Does it rely on others to be realised?

-Is it participative?

-Can it stimulate intergenerational learning?

We’d like to close this off with a question of our own for you to consider when you’re in this stage of the process: are your customers going to suffer in the process? You might have a grand plan envisaged, but if you’re running the risk of upsetting your current clientele, we’d argue that this plan needs to be refined before you should move any further in implementing it. Your current clients are your bread and butter, and while the long-term benefits might seem to outweigh the short-term detriment, it’s an important thing to consider. There’s not necessarily a straightforward or definitive answer to this question, but it’s something you need to consider as you move forward in the process.

Having said that, however, we encourage organisations of all shapes and sizes to experiment when it comes to new policies and procedures. Attempting to innovate new means of improving what you’re already doing well at. It also mitigates the risk of your operations being disrupted by a competitor if you’re keeping in mind ways to consistently improve and consolidate your strengths.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that a quality management system is jam-packed with the knowledge of appreciative inquiry in its teachings, as well as a whole lot more. As you’re likely to have already considered, some tactics might not be appropriate in tackling certain problems. In much the same way, appreciative inquiry isn’t necessarily the only management theory you should keep in mind when you’re looking to improve your organisation, but it is one that has a raft of positives with very few risks.

What’s the harm in doubling down on what you’re already doing well at?

So, get out there, and design some new ways you can better serve your customers; they’re likely to reward you with new business and consistent referrals.

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