A guest blog post by Tony Nicholls, Management Thinker @TheTonyNicholls

Appreciative Inquiry: Developing focus, effectiveness and fulfilment

I’ve recently been working with a Head Teacher and her leadership team at one of England’s largest inner-city primary schools.

Our work has been focused on setting strategy, developing management and leadership skills, reviewing progress against objectives and building stronger relationships.

Interventions of this kind would normally involve the team reflecting on their successes and failures. The team would highlight strengths, problem solve for underlying causes of weakness and action plan for change. This is certainly an approach I have taken in the past.

More recently, I’ve been taking a different approach. I’ve been using elements of Appreciative Inquiry. My aim was to move away from approaches that focus on identifying and fixing ‘problems’ or ‘weaknesses’. I wanted to reduce the levels of anxiety I see in people who are being told, constantly, that they need to change.

This anxiety is reduced when progress and growth is born of curiosity for what is and what might be, rather than demands for change coming from a parent-like ‘other’. Sometimes this ‘other’ is our own sense of guilt, inadequacy or insecurity.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) focuses on strengths and is appreciative of all that is and all that might be. It is expansive and aspirational in its view of the individual or team. This compares with problem solving, which tends to be narrow in its focus on what is ‘wrong’.

AI is also a genuine form of inquiry. To quote¹ Gervase Bushe:

“The theory’s central management insight is that teams, organizations and society evolve in whatever direction we collectively, passionately and persistently ask questions about.”

It is also curious and non-judgemental. It accepts and appreciates the individual as they are, warts and all. In problem solving, labelling something as a ‘weakness’ is to be judgemental. No one likes to be judged.

Instead of being judgemental, AI helps teams explore alternative ways of being and doing through dialogue and mutual understanding. It recognises that growth is best nurtured from the foundation of one’s strengths and with the motivation that flows from exploring and setting aspirational goals.

Appreciative Inquiry is liberating. It is also very effective.

What it isn’t is ‘pink and fluffy’. AI doesn’t ignore problems. Genuine development needs are, instead, viewed through an appreciative lens. This allows for a more structured, less anxious conversation around areas of genuine concern. It allows for the exploration of strengths that might be deployed to mitigate any weaknesses.

In essence, Appreciative Inquiry supports the development of presence. It reduces anxiety, stimulates creativity and develops openness to change.

Introducing AI to your community can be supported through the guidance and facilitation offered by a seasoned practitioner. There are well-researched and honed practices available that can be adapted to any context. For example, the annual review of school performance and setting of next year’s strategy and actions, is ideally placed for support from an AI perspective.

More tactical reviews and action planning sessions related to improving SATs results are also ideal scenarios. These can be stressful, problem-centred reviews where ideas are thin on the ground. Utilising an AI process can create a more engaging context, a celebration of current success and motivation for improvement. Critically, new ideas flow from those who assumed they had thought of everything already.

Finally, it is worth noting that Appreciative Inquiry is as much a way of being as it is a practice with associated facilitative processes. Being more appreciative and inquiring as you go about your everyday activities can yield immediate results.

Starting meetings with an appreciative inquiry into what has gone well in the last week, including the mundane successes we all take for granted, can set a more positive, creative tone for the inevitable discussion into problem areas.

Perhaps most fruitful are those appreciative inquiries into our own professional practice. Full of self-criticism and self-doubt, we can be our own worst enemy. Taking a more appreciative and inquiring approach to celebrating our strengths and forgiving our mistakes can leave us more motivated, grounded and change-able.

Returning to our Headteacher and her team, over the two years I’ve been working with them, I have seen them become less anxious about their perceived shortcomings and more appreciative of what they achieve every day in what can be a challenging environment.

Plans with impossibly long lists of actions have been pruned to more sensible levels. Their focus has regained some balance between what is important to their community and what they need to prove to their external stakeholders.

They have also rekindled their appreciation of themselves as imperfect, unique and passionate professionals. They are more focused and more effective, happier and more fulfilled.

If you would like to explore how interventions based on Appreciative Inquiry can help you, your team or your community please do drop me a line. I can be contacted here.

¹Bushe, G. R. in Kessler, E.H. (Ed.) (2013) Encyclopedia of Management Theory. Sage Publications.

Other useful references:

Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (2005) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Hammond, S. A. (1998) The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Thin Book Publishing, Oregon.

Whitney, D. & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2010) The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.