Change for the better: the “appreciative inquiry” method

More than a decade after its conception, the appreciative inquiry approach to change management still challenges conventional thinking.

First applied by the United States Agency for International Development, appreciative inquiry (AI) earned recognition as an approach to managing the change process in organizations in the late 1990s.

So why, more than a decade later, does it still sound new? Mette Jacobsgaard, an AI practitioner, trainer and writer, thinks it is because AI is at odds with our “problem-focused” Western society. “In the Western cultural paradigm, there’s a right and a wrong way of doing things,” she says. “We tend to forget about the right and focus on the wrong.”

Such an approach highlights individual and collective inadequacies, whereas AI approaches problem solving from a positive perspective, adds Sarah Lewis, a chartered occupational psychologist and the co-author of a new book, AI for change management. “If just using a problem-solving approach worked, I wouldn’t be needed,” she points out. “I get invited in when that hasn’t worked.”

Jacobsgaard explains: “Most of my clients have awful revenues, or their people and teams are not performing. You need to ask people to think about times when they were hitting the numbers: what is it that needs to happen for this person to hit the numbers again?”

“When people trust one another things happen quicker, motivation changes and perceptions shift.”

Sarah Lewis
Chartered occupational psychologist and co-author of "AI for change management"

This might sound straightforward, but it can transform the way in which an organization functions from day to day. This is, in part, because it enables business leaders to see their organizations as “living systems” that are composed of people working as a collective, rather than a series of individual, specialist functions. “Working this way requires a different leadership approach, in which the leader does not have to know and decide everything,” adds Lewis.

Anne Radford, the editor of international journal AI practitioner, says that good leadership requires a willingness to engage with members of an organization in order to find solutions, as well as a belief in the power of focusing on the positive and a willingness to learn and change.

Leadership is vital, says Radford, because AI is about whole-systems change. It incorporates issues such as workplace trust and relationships, setting goals and building a business culture that empowers people to make operational decisions.

Lewis picks out trust as a key factor in implementing AI. Leaders should trust their employees to make operational decisions, while they focus on innovation or strategy. “Trust is an under-recognized resource in an organization; it can save time and energy,” she says. “When people trust one another, things happen quicker, motivation changes and perceptions shift.”

BP, Johnson & Johnson and the UK’s National Health Service are just three examples of large organizations that have successfully applied AI. In addition, Radford cites the case of a Danish medical devices factory that, within three years of adopting AI, went from near closure to best in class. In the process, it increased productivity per employee by 44%, cut costs per unit by 17%, increased employee satisfaction, halved absenteeism and reduced customer complaints.

David Shaked, who adopted AI while working for a large global medical devices corporation, recalls his first experience of the approach. “The project focused on taking to the next level an existing relationship – which was good but highly competitive – between the company and one of its key clients in the UK,” he explains.

“From the first meeting, I was struck by the energy, creativity and level of engagement in the group. Within six months, the project had improved the relationship with the client and increased sales.”

Shaked’s experience prompted him to move into independent consultancy, helping others to make changes through AI. “It is such an affirmative approach,” he says. “It helps build confidence, engagement, innovation and commitment at levels I’ve not experienced before.”

The article was written by:

  • Derren Hayes

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