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Have you ever stumbled across something that turned your world around? That’s what the odd-sounding philosophy and methodology called APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY did for me. And, it’s available to you, too.

In late 1996, my friend and colleague Ravi Pradhan called me late one night from the Albuquerque airport saying that he had just attended a four-day workshop on something called Appreciative Inquiry [AI]. The instructor, Dr. David Cooperrider, was a professor of Organizational Development [OD] at Weatherhead School of Management within Case Western Reserve University [CWRU]. This is it!” Ravi said. “This is what we have been looking for.” 

What Might We Study?

Because I always take Ravi’s ideas about consulting seriously, I asked him to explain, and among the airport noises in the background, he told me, “Finally, here’s something that provides a workable research into strengths and successes rather than just focusing on problems and  organizational weaknesses..…oh, yes, and it’s designed to include the whole system.”

Rather than endless problem-solving and analysis of ‘what went wrong,’ AI invites us to study what gives life in organizations and communities when we are at our best. The AI methodology suggests inquiring into generative topics, discovering stories of success, where the strengths are, how solutions have been found in the past, where there are positive exceptions in troubled areas of organizations or communities.

Ravi said that the methodology was solid, so despite my doubts, the next day I called Weatherhead and discovered that Cooperrider was on sabbatical and no workshops on the books. Just as I was about to hang up, the person on the line asked me to tell him a bit about my background. As I recounted my international consulting work and studies, he said that I might be interested in the Global Excellence in Management Program [GEM], sponsored by the US Agency for International Development [USAID] and Weatherhead.

Discovering Appreciative Inquiry

I was accepted into the yearlong program for 1997, in what became an early certification program for AI. From the first day of the program, I felt like I had been waiting for this way of approaching organizational work all my working life.  The AI approach took issue with the usual consultative role of fixing problems for the client organization and shifted focus to inquire into workability, best practices, organizational wisdom and inclusive design.

It was broadening and strengthening: it made what had sometimes been difficult OD work so much more productive, and even uplifting. I found myself falling in love with my career again.

A few days after our first two-week training session in the GEM program, I began a project with a manufacturing client that had problematic cross-functional teams. I was contracted to work with each of four teams for six months, and I decided to begin that journey with an AI approach.

By the end of the first few training days, all four teams had bonded well and created such a clear vision of the way forward that they sent a contingent to the general manager. They thanked him for the time to focus on their teams, told him they had found better ways to work together and asked for permission to implement some new practices they had come up with. And, we had started the sessions with only a few simple questions conducted in pairs: Tell me about the best team you’ve ever been part of?  What made it work so well?  What did you most value about it?  What are your wishes for this team?

The general manager was incredulous.  He couldn’t believe the change in just a few days. While I continued to check in with the teams and the manager for a few months afterward, they worked so well together after those initial sessions that it was unnecessary for me to return to the company!  I had never experienced anything like it.

Twenty-three years later, I still feel the same way. I believe that Appreciative Inquiry is the most life-giving philosophy and most useful training of any kind I’ve ever received. It tracks with ongoing research in neuroscience and positive psychology. I began training others after receiving my own certification, and I’ve now shared AI with more than 2,000 people. One of those people was Wendy White, co-founder of Continuum, who became a treasured friend and colleague. She and co-founder Lisa Marie Main continue to incorporate AI into all aspects of their work and lives.

Appreciative Inquiry can work in any sort of organization or community. Some of the projects I’ve worked on are proof of that and have taken me around the world in the process. Here are just a few:

  • 500+ members of different political parties in Nicaragua amassed in a tent to work on a shared issue;
  • a large religious community of nuns looking to shift into 21st-century realities;
  • an Australian bank redefining their societal purpose;
  • a non-governmental organization aligning its managers from 60 countries on a new set of strategies.
  • an IT company in France looking to reinvigorate a flagging brand.
  • a manufacturing operation that needed to create a way to get to zero-waste.

Join us

The principles underlying AI and its highly workable planning methodology provide a roadmap to successful applications. Even in the midst of tragedy and a global pandemic, there are resources and regenerative possibilities to be tapped and ways to take a more powerful focus.

Continuum is pleased to host a virtual workshop, THE PRACTICE OF APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY. This foundational course, taught live via Zoom, by Sallie Lee and Sally Beth Shore, will be highly interactive and provide small-group access, connection and community throughout. 

Instead of “problems to be solved,” human systems are “universes of strengths.” In a real way—when you think about how the appreciable world is so much larger than our appreciative eye—human organizations are the offspring of the life-giving miracle of human interaction and imagination, our cooperative relatedness, and the remarkable story of civilization itself. The more we study “what gives life” versus “what’s wrong,” the more we can move in the direction of or become what we study.  David Cooperrider,  Appreciative Inquiry in a Broken World

Sallie Lee is a consultant with Continuum She has served as a thinking partner, strategist and facilitator for a global client base.