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Positive Questions Lead to Positive Change

There has been a lot of change in the last year or so with lay-offs and restructuring in Alberta organizations. Many of us experience stress in times of change. Sometimes a shift in mindset can open up new opportunities for solving complex problems and embracing change. The tools of Appreciative Inquiry can shift thinking from the negative to the positive, build engagement and lead to buy in for creative solutions.

Appreciative Inquiry is a positive, strength based approach to change focusing on the assumption that questions and dialogue about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are themselves transformational. It encourages listening and communication and above all it empowers individuals and demonstrates respect for other’s views.

The basis of why Appreciative Inquiry (AI) works is founded in the six conditions that need to be present to release personal (or organizational) power. These six conditions (freedoms) are:

1.     Freedom to be known in Relationship – allowed to be known in a relationship, rather than in a role.

2.     Freedom to Be Heard – to be recognized and have a credible voice.

3.     Freedom to Dream in Community – a safe place where people dream and share dreams.

4.     Freedom to Choose to Contribute – choose the nature and extent of your contribution.

5.     Freedom to Act with Support – safe to experiment with support from others involved.

6.     Freedom to be Positive – in organizations today, it is not usually the norm to have fun, be happy, be positive.

AI can create a surge of power and energy that, once liberated, won’t be re-contained.

The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
The initial set of principles for AI was that the inquiry should begin with appreciation, should be collaborative, should be provocative, and should be applicable. These were developed into the following eight principles;

1.    Words Create Worlds (The Constructionist Principle)
Reality, as we know it, is a subjective vs. objective state and is socially created through language and conversations.
2.    Inquiry Creates Change (The Simultaneity Principle)
Inquiry is an intervention. The moment we ask a question, we begin to create a change. “The questions we ask are fateful.”
3.    We Can Choose What We Study (The Poetic Principle)
Teams and organizations, like open books, are endless sources of study and learning. What we choose to study makes a difference. It describes – even creates – the world as we know it.
4.    Image Inspires Action (The Anticipatory Principle)
Human systems move in the direction of their images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the present-day action.
5.    Positive Questions Lead to Positive Change (The Positive Principle)
Momentum for [small or] large-scale change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding. This momentum is best generated through positive questions that amplify the positive core.
6.    Wholeness Brings Out the Best (The Wholeness Principle)
Wholeness brings out the best in people and organizations. Bringing all stakeholders together in large group forums stimulates creativity and builds collective capacity.
7.    Acting ‘As If” is Self-Fulfilling (The Enactment Principle)
To really make a change, we must “be the change we want to see.” Positive change occurs when the process used to create the change is a living model of the ideal future.
8.    Free Choice Liberates Power (The Free Choice Principle)
People perform better and are more committed when they have the freedom to choose how and what they contribute. Free choice stimulates organizational excellence and positive change.

The process for AI is indicated in the above image. After we define the issue in a positive way – example  “When have customers been most pleased with our service and what can we learn and apply from those moments of success?” we can move on to the four steps of AI as follows:

1.     Discover – Take a deeper look and share stories.  When are we functioning at our best? What characteristics are present?  Positive stories – unlike data, graphs, lists, etc. – stir imaginations and generate excitement about the individual, team, or organization and what it is capable of accomplishing.

2.     Dream – Continuing with the energy in step 1, dreaming asks individuals to create a future in which the high points identified in the stories are the everyday reality. Find what elements are common to the moments of greatest success and fulfillment and try to put as much ‘flesh’ on their visions as possible. “What would things be like if…?”

3.     Design –  This step puts the flesh on the skeleton that is coming to life. Individuals, team and/or organizational members innovate and improvise ways to create the preferred future.

4.    Deliver – The individual, team, or organization will literally design the structure – whether it is resources, business processes, policies, whatever – for achieving this desired future. Implement the changes and review change in an appreciative way.
Acknowledgement: In the early 1990’s, David Cooperrider created the five original principles of AI under the guidance of Suresh Srivastva, which describe the basic tenants of the underlying philosophy. AI consultants have recently started adding to the principles to reflect new learning and thinking. In 2003 Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom proposed three additional principles in their book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry. 

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