Creating positive change through Appreciative Inquiry

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Creating positive change through Appreciative Inquiry

Having led the City of Cleveland’s sustainability efforts for more than 6 years, a few tools really stood out as compelling ways to help organizations become the most sustainable, best corporate citizens possible. Appreciative Inquiry is one of those tools.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is the art of finding deep strengths in an organization, then leveraging those to create ways to solve challenges and achieve success. The flip-side of more traditional problem solving, AI starts with finding the positive core, creating a vision of a more “ideal” outcome, looking at “problems” as opportunities to create this vision, and working forward from there. Essentially, it focuses on increasing what organizations do well, instead of eliminating what they do badly.

Created over 25 years ago by Dr. David Cooperrider and Dr. Ronald Fry of Case Western Reserve University, the Appreciative Inquiry model is finding increasing use. Since it is a collaboration tool that thrives on the input of multiple parties, such as numerous levels of employees from many divisions or parts of the world, external stakeholders like customers, vendors and suppliers, and even watchdog groups, different viewpoints lead to unexpected outcomes. AI is self directed and inspired, harnessing the power of individual interests that lead to organizational success.

The four phases of Appreciative Inquiry – Discovery, Dream, Design, and Deploy – create a fresh perspective. Since we are barraged with little and big challenges in our daily lives, the art of AI can be a refreshing twist on finding solutions.

  • It starts with a positive mindset – Discover strengths. This positive frame of mind allows for creativity and innovation, whereas the “focus on the problem” mindset, from a psychological standpoint, closes the mind with something akin to a “fight or flight” reaction.
  • Dreaming comes naturally – what is the ideal future outcome?
  • Design flows organically with participants aligning with what they are most interested in.
  • Deploy asks participants to act and implement their design, thus fulfilling the plan. AI creates actionable plans and engages the whole system to implement them.

Several organizations have utilized Appreciative Inquiry to organize sustained change efforts including the United Nations with the UN Global Compact, Walmart and the U.S. Navy have both leveraged AI to enhance sustainability efforts. Fairmount Minerals (a BrownFlynn client) has been holding AI Summits every three years for nearly a decade, where hundreds of stakeholders gather for several days, including a day of volunteering, to find innovative ways to be as sustainable and community-focused as possible, helping them achieve a large number of their bold goals at each summit, thus advancing and embedding their sustainability agenda into the corporate culture.

The City of Cleveland utilized an appreciative inquiry summit to launch Sustainable Cleveland 2019 (SC2019), capitalizing on the ingenuity of almost 700 stakeholders representing a snap shot of the community. The city hosts a summit each year to reconvene the whole system, measure progress and adjust course. Since the first summit, an alignment of civic and business focus towards sustainability has produce new jobs, policies, green space, transportation access, increased local food production, more renewable energy sources, and even new entrepreneurial organizations – Bike Cleveland and Tunnel Vision Hoops – have come to fruition as a direct result of SC2019.

If your organization is looking for a positive, refreshing, innovative and creative new approach to solve challenges, Appreciative Inquiry may be it. After all, as Einstein famously said, "Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them."

More information and hundreds of case studies on the effectiveness of Appreciative Inquiry can be found here. More information on the fourth annual SC2019 summit here.

Image of Concept of problem solving by alexmillos for Shutterstock.

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