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Appreciative Inquiry: What’s Right?

by Wayne Strider

I was introduced to Appreciative Inquiry (AI) at a conference several years ago. What I experienced in the AI session of the conference ignited my interest about the possibility of using AI with project teams.  Dr. David L. Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University is one of AI’s primary pioneers. AI originally grew out of the Organization Development (OD) field as far back as the 1970s.

Look for Abundance Not Only Problems

AI emphasizes finding what works well and doing more of that over the traditional problem-solving approach of finding what is wrong and fixing it. AI seeks to activate the abundance of positive energy in individuals, teams, and organizations for the creation of desirable outcomes rather than the elimination of undesirable outcomes. Problem solving is about deficits, needs, and gaps. AI is about abundance, desires, and possibilities. With problem solving the question is “What’s wrong?” With AI the question is, “What’s right?” AI is not a substitute for problem solving. We need to be able to identify problems and create solutions. What I make of all this is that working on deficits can keep us from sliding back. Working on strengths is where we get real growth. Excellence is more than the absence of deficits.

A Touching Demonstration of AI

An experiential demonstration of AI during the conference session touched me deeply. The experience of AI was far more instructive than the brief lecturette that preceded the demonstration. Here is what I recall happened. There were approximately forty participants in a large conference room. The chairs were first re-arranged in a sort of oval configuration from the original standard conference configuration–rows of chairs. The session leaders gave the following instructions:

“Pair up with someone. Tell your partner a real story about a time when you had a peak experience. A peak experience is:

  • A time when you used yourself in a way that you perceived had a positive outcome.
  • When you were at your best and proud of how you used yourself.

After you each have told your story to your partner we will then hear the stories in the large group in the following way. You tell your partner’s story and your partner will tell your story. Tell the story in first person using the I-pronoun as if it were your story. If you prefer not to have your story told in the large group please tell your partner that.”

There were stories of taking a risk, overcoming fear, creating solutions in innovative ways, and transforming interpersonal dilemmas. Project teams certainly face their share of risks, fears, searching for solutions, and difficult interpersonal dilemmas. Some common themes emerged–courage, hope, responsibility, compassion, persistence, and personal triumph. These are universals to which we all can relate.

When it was my turn I thought I would be unaffected telling my partner’s story. It was her story not mine. I was just repeating her words. Almost from the beginning my voice started to quiver. By the time I finished the less-than-two-minute story, my eyes were filling with tears of appreciation. I appreciated my partner for allowing me to share her shining moment with the large group. I felt a connection with my partner whom I had only known for a few minutes.

Applying AI to Project Teams

After returning home from the conference I began to work on ideas for how AI could be useful to project teams. Here are two that occurred to me right away.

  1. Project kickoff meeting: A project kickoff meeting seems like a perfect time to activate the positive energy in team members. Here are some questions that might get the juices flowing. The more detailed and concrete the answers, the easier it is to evaluate progress as time goes by. What worked well on previous projects that we want to remember to do on this project? How can we make the quality of our experience with each other better during this project? What would a quality experience look and feel like?
  2. Project retrospective: At the end of a project or a major project phase is a good time to include some AI in addition to problem solving. Try these questions. What worked well? What are we really good at doing? How much of that did we do? How could we do more of that next time? What did we enjoy most? How could we do more of what we enjoy?

Add the concept of AI to your project manager’s toolkit if you haven’t already. Some day it may be just the tool you need to rejuvenate your project team.

For more resources on AI you might start with the following web site: http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/

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