What Is an Appreciative Inquiry?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Appreciative inquiry is an approach to organizations that focuses on a collaborative exploration of their strengths to develop new organizational plans and procedures. Companies preparing for expansion, reorganization, or a shift in direction often approach it from a problem solving perspective, looking for issues that need to be fixed. In appreciative inquiry, the organization works from the opposite direction to determine what is working well for the company, and uses this information to develop a strategy for the future.

A key component of appreciative inquiry is collaboration.
A key component of appreciative inquiry is collaboration.

A key component of this approach is collaboration. Members of an organization have input at each stage of the process and may be actively asked for their thoughts. The first step in appreciative inquiry may involve surveys and conversations with people at all levels of a company. In this stage, employees discuss what they like about their work, the structures that function well for them, and areas where the company is doing well.

With information in hand about how the company currently operates, appreciative inquiry can start to expand into how it could function in the future. Employees may propose projects and policies that could further company goals. They can discuss ways for the company to expand safely and effectively if expansion is in the plans. In all cases, they build on the positive discussions held earlier to keep the company headed in the same direction.

In the course of developing plans to help a company grow and organize itself more effectively, the appreciative inquiry can cut away policies and procedures that are not working. A system that does work may replace or nudge out a dysfunctional system, for example, changing the company culture. The inquiry can also develop concrete plans to help the company avoid pitfalls that may arise, often using input from lower-ranked employees who might not otherwise be asked for contributions.

A company can lead an appreciative inquiry internally or call upon a specialist. Some consulting firms offer this as a service and can train company personnel so they can support the inquiry and carry on their own followups as the company moves forward. One advantage of a consultant or third party service is the fresh perspective, paired with neutrality. This can help shy employees or people who are worried about speaking up to supervisors when they are asked to provide feedback; they may answer more honestly and completely when they feel comfortable with the person asking the questions.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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