What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Affirmative Topic

Once the basic concept of the positive core is understood, the 4-D Cycle can be better explained. The first step in an AI intervention is selecting the affirmative topic choice. This is, in short, the selection of topic(s) that will become the focus of the intervention.

Selecting the affirmative topic choice begins with the constructive discovery and narration of the organization’s “life-giving” story. The topics, in the initial stages, are bold hunches about what gives life to the organization. Most importantly, the topics (usually three to five for an inquiry) represent what people really want to discover or learn more about. The topics will likely evoke conversations about the desired future.

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Positive Core

The positive core of organizational life is one of the greatest, yet least recognized, resources in the change management field today. AI has demonstrated that human systems grow in the direction of their persistent inquiries, and this propensity is strongest and most sustainable when the means and ends of inquiry are positively correlated. In the AI process, the future is consciously constructed upon the positive core strengths of the organization. Linking the energy of this core directly to any change agenda suddenly and democratically creates and mobilizes topics never before thought possible.

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The primary task in the Discovery phase is to identify and appreciate the best of “what is.” The distinguishing factor of AI in this phase is that every carefully crafted question of the topic choice is positive.

This task is accomplished by focusing on peak times of organizational excellence, when people have experienced the organization as most alive and effective. Seeking to understand the unique factors (e.g., leadership, relationships, technologies, core processes, structures, values, learning processes, external relationships, planning methods, and so on) that made the high points possible, people deliberately “let go” of analyses of deficits and systematically seek to isolate and learn from even the smallest wins.

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Once an organization “discovers” its positive core, the next step is to imagine and envision its future. The Dream phase of the AI 4-D Cycle accomplishes this step. One aspect that differentiates AI from other visioning or planning methodologies is that images of the future emerge out of grounded examples from its positive past. These images are compelling possibilities precisely because they are based on extraordinary moments from an organization’s history. For many organization stakeholders, this is the first time to think “great” thoughts and create “great” possibilities for their organization. The process is both personally and organizationally invigorating.

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DesignThe Dream phase articulated the strategic focus, such as a vision of sustainability, a powerful purpose, and a compelling statement of strategic intent. In the Design phase, attention turns to creating the ideal organization in order to achieve its dream. Future images emerge through grounded examples from an organization’s positive past. Good-news stories are used to craft provocative propositions that bridge the best of “what gives life” with a collective aspiration of “what might be.”

The Design phase of the 4-D process is key to sustaining positive change and responding to the organization’s most positive past and highest potential. The positive core identified and expounded in the first two phases begins to take form.

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The Destiny phase represents both the conclusion of the Discovery, Dream, and Design phases and the beginning of an ongoing creation of an “appreciative learning culture.”

The Destiny phase delivers on the new images of the future and is sustained by nurturing a collective sense of purpose. It is a time of continuous learning, adjustment, and improvisation (like a jazz group) — all in the service of shared ideals. The momentum and potential for innovation are extremely high by this stage in the process. Because of the shared positive image of the future, everyone is invited to align his or her interactions in co-creating the future.

Stakeholders are invited into an open-space planning and commitment session during this phase. Individuals and groups discuss what they can and will do to contribute to the realization of the organizational dream as articulated in the provocative propositions. Action commitments then serve as the basis for ongoing activities.

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