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Appreciative Inquiry

David E Nelson, president, The Human Agenda
Senior Associate Minister, CRES

   Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry
   The Five Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
   An Appreciative Adventure

Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry

1.  In every human being and every organization something works.

2.  What we focus on becomes our reality.

3.  Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.

4.  Being present to another person influences the person in some way.

5.  People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward part of the past (the known.)

6.  If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what are best about the past.

7.  It is important to value and celebrate differences.

8.  The language we use creates our reality. 

The Five Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

1.  The constructionist principle. We create the future through our ideas and imagination.  Language is the tool with which we create and make things meaningful, and reveal possibilities.  To increase our use and understanding of words will add value to our organizations.

2.  The principle of simultaneity.  In asking a question, we are at the same time creating change.  By our inquiry, we plant the seeds for co-creation, collaboration.  The mere act of asking questions will have an impact on the organization

3.  The poetic principle.  Organizations are a lot less like machines and a lot more like a work of art, open to multiple interpretations.  They can be a source of inspiration.    Reality is what we pay attention to.

4.  The anticipatory principle.  Human beings move in the direction of inquiry, as plants move toward the light.  To intervene at the level of the imagination is key.  We can dream and create stronger and more creative and humane organizations. 

5.  The positive principle.  The more positive the question asked, the more positive the storytelling and data.  When more people are telling positive stories there is greater chance for finding common ground and creating a positive future. 

The following was originally drafted for a business environment, but the principles apply everywhere and was used successfully as a  central feature of the historic 2001 "Gifts of Pluralism" interfaith Conference.
An Appreciative Adventure

Have you ever noticed while driving past a field of sunflowers that all the large blooms were facing the same direction? I am told that if you would take a day to watch, the field of yellow and black blooms would follow the Sun as it meanders its slow path across the summer sky. This interesting reality is known in science as the heliotropic principle. Plants turn to face their source of light and energy. Human organizations and groups operate in a similar fashion. Unlike machines that can be programmed to ignore the environment, people and organizations are influenced by what they pay attention to.

“APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY” is a completely affirmative approach to doing business. Some have called it the most important advance in action research in the past decade. Traditional organizational development has focused on finding what is not working and preparing strategies for correcting it. In recent years we have discovered, however, that looking for problems and concentrating on fixing what is broken can consume energy with little result. My experience as a personal and professional coach has shown that the five principles outlined below have improved service to customers, increased staff satisfaction, enhanced service, and nurtured the growth of individuals and teams.

Problem-solving identifies the “felt need.” Appreciative inquiry values the best of what is. Instead of spending time and energy on analyzing causes, it envisions what might be. Instead of looking at an organization as a problem to be solved, appreciative inquiry sees an organization as a mystery to be embraced.

The Constructionist Principle: Human knowledge and organizational destiny are interwoven. The staff and customers in an office create the office environment, not some predetermined outside force. Together we create the quality space and atmosphere. Each person’s unique perspective, woven together with others’, creates a beautiful tapestry of excellence. Appreciative inquiry begins with interviews that help the leadership team identify the positive core from which to build.

The Principle of Simultaneity: Inquiry and change are not separate moments but happen together. Inquiry is intervention. Excellent services begin when a potential client phones or walks into the office. The first questions we ask are often the most important in shaping the office experience. Even the most innocent question evokes change. The question is not, “Will we have an impact on another person?” We certainly will. Our choice is what will be the impact we will have.

The Poetic Principle: Human organizations are more like books than machines. Pasts, presents, and futures are endless sources of learning and inspiration – like the endless interpretive possibilities in a good poem. As we share stories that give life and hope, we not only recall the past but also shape the future. There are never too many joy stories.

The Anticipatory Principle: Our positive images of the future lead our positive actions. The studies of rehearsing success in athletics, research into relationships between optimism and health, experiments with placeboes in medicine, and the work with the Pygmalion* dynamic in the classroom all validate the insight that what we pay attention to becomes our reality. To increase satisfaction, it makes more sense to interview satisfied customers than dissatisfied ones. We are more likely to move in the direction we study.

The Positive Principle: An affirming outlook and social bonding building and sustaining momentum for growth. The more positive the question we ask, the more long-lasting and successful the result. Hope, excitement, inspiration, caring, camaraderie, sense of urgent purpose and joy in creating something meaningful together are all central in evolving to the next level.

APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY has become the guiding theory in my consulting and coaching work. This method has made it possible for supervisors who once dreaded leading others now to enjoy being part of a life-giving force. Everyone deserves to reflect with appreciation about one’s work – and life. Remember the lesson of the sunflower. We grow in the direction we pay attention to.

* According to Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who lived on the island of Cyprus. He once sculpted an ivory statue of a woman whose beauty garnered a newfound, and nonetheless unrequited, love from Pygmalion. Aphrodite’s pity for the sculptor led her to awaken the statue to life.

This myth was the basis for George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which in turn was transformed into the much beloved musical comedy My Fair Lady.