Appreciative Inquiry in Practice: Dreaming Big
In this piece, we’re continuing our thread on appreciative inquiry and how it can transform your business from ordinary, to extraordinary with a relatively simple approach. Best of all, as is required by the appreciative inquiry approach - a bedrock in Best Practice’s teachings - it helps you improve upon the things you’re already doing well. In my previous post on the topic we discussed the ways in which you can enact the first of the four D’s: a four step process to consolidating your results and improving the way you serve your existing customers.
A handy by-product of this is the way you’re likely to score new customers from over-performing while serving your current clientele; word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing, after all.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of talking about the second step in the process, let’s take a look at a relatively simple explanation of the theory as a whole; I’ll let the two men responsible for coining the term explain it themselves: “At its heart, Appreciative Inquiry is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them.”
“Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ”
We can see from their description that appreciative inquiry is a means to strengthen your business by essentially doubling-down on the things you’re doing well. More importantly, it’s a one of the most effective lenses you can look at your operations through, and will help you identify new ways in which you can improve. I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, this isn’t the only means to achieve a more productive and profitable end for your organisation, but it is something highly effective to keep in your quiver for certain times and circumstances.
Okay, so, getting into the second part of the four D’s, appreciative inquiry asks you and your staff to dream ways your organisation can excel. I’ll often phrase it to my staff in asking them what their “ideal scene” is for them in both a professional and personal context. Don’t wait around for a quarterly management review meeting, even though this is obviously an essential time to put appreciative inquiry into practice.
Remove the Hierarchy
In these sessions, give everyone in the organisation the opportunity to offer their thoughts. This is one of the biggest tips I can give you in the context of organisational improvement. As much as the management team would like to take credit for good results, they’re build on the hard work of the feet on the ground and people sitting below them in the food chain.
Some of the best ideas I’ve seen put forward in terms of consolidating what an organisation does well (appreciative inquiry at its simplest) have been suggested by employees sitting below a manager. While the manager arguably has a better idea of how their division contributes to the well-oiled machine that is your organisation as a whole, that employee has invaluable experience communicating directly with customers, stakeholders and suppliers. If there’s one key takeaway from this piece, it’s to get absolutely everyone in the organisation onboard in the dream-phase, as you plot out ways in which you can improve.
Don’t just look at the numbers
What I mean by this is the fact that I’ve seen countless organisations take on the concept of appreciative inquiry in their operations (not-so-coincidentally, it’s at the bedrock of Best Practice’s methods of inspiring organisational improvement) by looking simply at the number that is performing the best, and sticking with that. In many cases, this will be the area in which you should direct the majority of your time and resources implementing the AI approach to improvement, but it isolates your most important stakeholder: your customers.
In my previous point, I mentioned the importance of getting each member of your team involved in the process, and likewise with this phase, get your customers involved. See what it is that they most value in their relationship with your organisation: is it the speed in which you deliver, the economic incentive of your prices or the friendliness of your staff? Find out, and make and effort to double-down on what your customer values, not simply your numbers.
This is an exercise in which you’re allowed, if not encouraged to get a bit hyperbolic. What is the absolute dream version of your organisation as a whole- how about specific departments? Try to keep time, resource or realism to the side for a moment, and envisage the absolute dream version of the situation. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to make that a reality overnight, it’s an invaluable way to predict where your organisation could be heading in the coming months and years, and allows you to do some planning for expansion, or consolidation.
Keep the promises you’re currently making to your customers and stakeholders at the forefront of this exercise, and make sure that in the process of mapping out this new vision, you’re ensuring the promises are not only kept, they’re improved upon.
As always, thanks for your time, and I'll see you in the next piece as we dive into the third and arguably most challenging - but rewarding - guiding principle of appreciative inquiry: designing ways in which you can make these dreams reality.
Excerpt from: Stavros, Jacqueline, Godwin, Lindsey, & Cooperrider, David. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution.