Expert Speak – Using Appreciative Inquiry for bringing a positive change

” Appreciative Inquiry is singularly focused on leveraging strengths & best practices as the launching pad for imagining possibilities, choosing change goals, designing how to get there and implementing.”

Dr. Ronald Fry is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Fry is widely published in the areas of Organizational Development, Appreciative Inquiry, Team Building, Change Management, Executive Development and the role and functions of the CEO. He spoke with PeopleWiz on the concept of Appreciative Inquiry and its application for large systems change.

PeopleWiz: What is unique and valuable for large systems change as an approach to organization transformation?

Dr. Ron Fry: Most organizational changes are executed through functional groups where one group passes things along to the other. On the other hand, large groups and system-wide  interventions involve multiple groups and multiple  stakeholders at the same time. This is unique because it intentionally tries to address the whole system at once instead of in a sequential manner. So you don’t have the small group making a key decision and passing it on to a passive set of recipients or change targets. Instead you bring everybody together as a whole for deliberations from the very beginning of change and through to its actual implementation. This is unique because it intentionally tries to put the whole system face to face, or voice to voice, so that when you are working on some issue you are carrying the perspective of all kinds of stakeholders—internal and external. Whereas traditional OD (Organizational Development) interventions are very limited in terms of involving external stakeholders and the number of groups that can participate.

The drawback of this whole-system approach would be the cost and logistics of getting people face to face and a perceived risk with large groups that they are going to be hard to control and that a handful of people may dominate. The latter has not been the case in our experience using the Appreciative Inquiry Summit Method.

PeopleWiz: How is Appreciative Inquiry different from other approaches to large system changes?

Dr. Ron Fry: The main difference is that AI is singularly focused on leveraging strengths & best practices as the launching pad for imagining possibilities, choosing change goals, designing how to get there and implementing. Most other options focus on diagnosis of clients system’s problem. Appreciative inquiry is a different way of dealing with problems. It deals with an issue by finding out what has been the best experiences thus far — related to that problem — and then uses that information (success factors) to imagine new possibilities of what could be. It then allows you to design how you want to get to the possibilities you are most interested in.

It has been shown in Barbara Fredrickson’s research (among others) on positive psychology that people in positive affect conditions are able to consider many more alternatives than when they are in the negative affect. We need to realize that most of our popular change methods such as six sigma, lean manufacturing, and continuous improvement, which are all effective in their own context and are necessary for competitive advantage, are also deficit-oriented methods. For example, even though continuous improvement sounds great it is still a method of  gap reduction. People working day in and day out with such approaches start looking at everything in their life as gaps or problems to be solved. Such methods are important for gaining efficiencies but are not intended to help change or create high engagement and innovative cultures and some of the other things we need in today’s organizations.

PeopleWiz: How can the business leaders use Appreciative Inquiry as a guide to creating effective organization, what is the whole cycle?

Dr. Ron Fry: At the beginning there is usually a problem, something people feel stuck on, would like to do quicker, or would like to achieve more progress in. In a few cases there may not be a ‘problem’ but a situation where people identify and decide to create something new.  We call this beginning point as “topic creation”— it is to take that problem or opportunity but not assume that this will be the one you will choose to work on. You do a little inquiry as to what is it you actually want at the end of the day and you frame the issue in such a way that it is attractive, affirmative, and bold. It is literally worded more on the opportunity side than deficit side.

For example, British Airways identified the initial problem as how to reduce lost baggage claims. They had not been able to resolve that despite using many processes and huge consulting contracts. So they took a step back to think what is important to them as an organization at the end of the day.  They figured that arrival experience was the most important thing – getting the whole arrival experience right for their customers. So when they started to work on this insight the topic was reframed as “exceptional arrival experiences”.  They examined what already made for the best arrival experiences, introduced changes based on those discoveries and as the arrival experience improved for more passengers, it actually reduced lost baggage claims for the first time in nearly a decade.

So we always start with reframing. World Vision had to get together to create a 10 year strategic plan but instead of trying to get people interested in another strategic plan they called it a ‘summit for goals to change the world for children’. It’s the intentional search for a new framing of an issue that changes people’s perspectives right away. Most of the time it means changing the actual wording of the initial problem.

Once you have the topic then you think about who needs to be in the room, who has the perspective, who is going to be affected by this, who has the information to help us make the best choices of design and action. This is called ‘stakeholder mapping’ and is a key part of Appreciative inquiry process—getting the right people in the room. This mapping of stakeholders is done in a small group that we call the design team. It always includes the top leadership. Besides choosing an affirmative topic, the final step in this preparation phase is to prepare a set of questions for people to engage in when they come together.

When they come together we begin the first stage of the Appreciative Inquiry cycle called as the discovery stage. This involves one on one conversations between stakeholders or between consultant and stakeholders using the Appreciative Inquiry questions drafted in the preceding step. These are story-based questions about positive experiences related to the topic and a question about how you think you would like the organization to be at some point in the future—all related to the topic decided in the preceding steps by the design team. Everybody pairs off and conducts these interviews taking detailed notes of each other’s responses.  The pairs are put together at tables of 6 to 8 where they summarize and share with the entire room the responses of all pairs at their table. Then we engage in the process of finding common themes across the tables —what are the common underlying success factors in the positive experiences and what are the common images about future that people bring in with them. In this way a summary of the whole room is built. This is called the “positive core”. It is displayed in the room such that everybody can see it—a summary of strengths of the organization with respect to the topic at hand. Next is the dream stage. Hearing everyone’s stories and strengths builds their confidence in each other and increases their efficacy as a whole group. They are then asked to dream more  deeply –what could the ideal future look like. They ‘dream’ and share their dreams in creative ways using three-dimensional techniques that involves everybody in the group. We ask them to present skits or role plays or poems or something in non- traditional ways that shows the rest of the room what their ideal image will look or feel like. We don’t choose one of those dreams we just fill the room with those images.

Then we move to the design stage. We ask people at each of the tables about the image they are most attracted to, and what would be 2-3 change ideas related to that image that they would design. We collect those ideas and ask everyone to vote on them. Then there is a very important shift in the process where, depending on the votes, we shortlist the popular ideas. We display this shortlist and ask people to get up and stand next to the idea they would most want to make happen. Basically new groups form at that point. Those new groups are committed to a specific change idea. Their task begins with defining an aspiration– or sometimes we call them possibility statement or propositions—i.e., if we were successful with this idea what would it look like? Then they design how we can get to the image of success they just described. They use actual planning tools, design tools, prototyping, and range of other things to help create the change plan.

This marks the beginning of the fourth stage—destiny. It is the launching of that change. It starts with a public declaration, so they announce it to the entire room that this is the aspiration, here is the plan, these are the first steps, and who is going to do what.

The organizational leadership –often called the steering committee—ensures that the teams committed to different ideas have the organizational support and resources to take these ideas toward implementation. Many organizations often repeat the process later on to take a pulse of where they are with the different change initiatives and engage in further refinement.

PeopleWiz: Appreciative Inquiry is singularly focused on the positive. Is this focus on positive sufficient or does it have to be balanced with the negative?

Dr. Ron Fry: There are two ways of answering it. One way is theoretically—No; we have found no evidence that this method somehow leads to the organization running the risk of missing something or not attending to something.  As illogical as that may sound, we have not seen any evidence of that.

The other way of responding to that question is to say that the focus on the positive is just another way  of dealing with the negative. You start with something that has negative tone, or a deficit language and you intentionally shift it to the positive. For example, the US Navy set out to decrease the number of people quitting after their first tour of duty. They achieved that goal by reframing the topic from retention to “bold and empowered leadership at every level”. It’s a different way of problem solving. It does not mean that you are not realizing that the problems exist but you are going about it in a different way. If you take Peter Drucker’s idea that the task of leadership is to align the system’s strengths such that it’s weaknesses become irrelevant then you can change the system by simply focusing on and developing strengths. It does not mean that if there is a requisite set of skills needed for a job, say knowing how to work with a word processor and someone is lacking in that they should not focus on filling that gap. But once you have the requisite skills you are better off leveraging your strengths to get higher engagement and higher productivity.

PeopleWiz: Lastly, what advice would you give to business leaders who might consider appreciative inquiry as tool for change?      

Dr. Ron Fry: I would say find ways to reconnect your employees to their strengths. Part of that is telling them what they are doing well, and showing them data about their progress and so forth. But it’s also important that it not be only way. So the other part is engaging them in sharing stories of what’s working, when they are feeling most engaged, when they are feeling most connected with customers and so forth. Just that story sharing by itself will change the level of attention and energy.

Start small by applying this in your day-to-day interaction with the employees. Ask intentionally, positively oriented questions. So instead of asking someone how they are doing ask them what’s the most exciting thing they did yesterday. You can start this at home at your dinner table—instead of asking your child or partner how did their day go, ask what was the best part of their day, or what was the most interesting, most memorable. It changes everything.  The questions we ask are fateful.


For further reading, tools, case studies and other resources: The Appreciative Inquiry Commons at

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One Comment

  1. Sonali

    Very insightful, gives in a totally new perspective to bringing about change. Thanks a lot for sharing it on this spcae

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