Center for Behavioral Excellence,
Talent Transformation, Wipro Ltd.
Leadership through Appreciative Inquiry (AI)
It has become almost cliché today, to say that change is a constant. Our organizations are always changing, always trying to get better through a new change initiative. While on one hand it looks like an opportunity for some to advance their scope of responsibility, on the other hand, people react with a sense of fatigue or resistance.
According to studies done by Case Western University, most people are in a state of denial even when the change has already been initiated by the organization. For transformational change to occur in any organizational system, at least a majority of the members of that organization must ‘want’the change. An atmosphere of positivity, excitement and enthusiasm towards the change is needed to make it successful.People needs to own the meaningful purpose or the intended outcome from the change.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a Game-Changer
To bring in positivity and enthusiasm, Leaders need to practice Appreciative Inquiry that creates an atmosphere of change by focusing on the strengths and not the weaknesses.
Considering this pearl of wisdom for future generation by Peter Drucker’s – “Task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths making a system’s weakness irrelevant”, it is evident that driving change through AI brings positive energy into the organization.
In this article, I have highlighted‘Appreciative Inquiry’as a concept and how leaders could use AI in Organizational Change initiatives.
Speaking about change and change initiatives, let us look at British Airways, UK’s largest international airline. All through 1990’s,BA had a huge rise in baggage damages. The cost of compensation went up year on year. They tried internal means to manage it like trained the handlers and revamped systems, but nothing altered much. Finally, the leaders hired an external consultant for an intervention. Through repeated discussions, the staff members planned to work on providing ‘exceptional arrival experience’.This resulted in a positive shift in the experience of BA’s travelers. Needless to say, the baggage issues reduced substantially. This signifies that the people preferred to focus on where they wanted to be instead of just focusing on the current problem. This is a classic application of AI.
Appreciative Inquiry leverages strengths to drive change instead of overcoming weaknesses, promotes collaboration to build relationship and endorses inclusivity to involve all stakeholders. AI makes the environment generative, a setting full of possibilities that increases productivity & cooperation, improves intrinsic drive to work on ideas and resilience with time.
Here is more example where AI added significant value to all stakeholders of Roadway Express3, a 4-billion-dollar transportation organization. Roadway held large AI Summits involving almost all their employees —to re-design facilities, and come up with innovative ways to improve customer satisfaction.Within a short period,Roadway saw its stock move from $14 to $48 dollars per share and significant improvement in employee morale, retention, and in building a culture of innovation and appreciation.
Why is AI Important?
In most organizations, people seem to be more inclined to know what is wrong and what can they fix. We seem to live in a world that revolves around fixing weaknesses. Our society’s relentlessly focusses on people’s shortcomings and therefore invest more energy in correcting their deficiencies than developing their strengths to explore numerous opportunities and possibilities around. These deficit conversations lead to stress, anxiety, fatigue, breakdown in relations and increase resistance to change.On the other hand, AI gives a different approach to start with. It promotes inquiry of what is right, encourages teams to see an image of future, and inspires them to design steps to reach there. Undoubtedly in these conversations, team members feel positive, see possibilities of a better future and remain engaged.
Obviously the emotional state shifts from focus on past to focus on future, from fear to hope, from problems to possibilities, from pessimism to optimism. With such positive psychological shifts, employees tend to engage in high quality relationships with all the stakeholders through mutual sharing of strengths and dreams to collaborate and co-create the future of their organization.
How should Leaders practice AI?
Leaders could unleash untapped energies by redirecting the attention away from problem solving and towards stories of success held by the people within the organization.
Therefore, there is a shift from
Problem Identification -> analysis of causes -> analysis of possible solutions -> action planning
Appreciating- what is ->Dreaming – what might be -> Discussion – what should be -> Creating – what will be
This leads to a 4D method explained by David Cooper rider and Suresh Srivastva from Case Western University in their article on the model which leaders can follow during change or when they are stuck in problem solving, or engaged in any change initiative minor or major.
Choice of Affirmative Topic
In AI, large change begins with determining an Affirmative Topic to work on because transformational topics generate positive change every time. Where does the topics come from?AI searches for “what the team needs to work on” through numerable individual success stories linked with excitement and pride. Like in the British Airways example, the topic they could have worked on is “Reduction of lost and damage baggage claim”.However, they reframed to work on “Exceptional Arrival Experience”. Other examples are instead of working on customer complaints, team can work on innovative ways to enhance customer experience. Instead of working on attrition, the team could work on how to create a compelling work environment.
Discovery- What gives life? The best of “What is?” Appreciating
The discovery phase involves data collection and narrative study. It explores positive, successful, moments in individual and team lives. Through carefully developed interview questions based on the affirmative topic, the focus is to appreciate the stories that are shared. Questions can be created only if you know what you want to do. For example: Do you want to do a survey on Low Morale or do you want to learn from moments of highest engagement and commitments?
Dreaming – What might be- Visualizing Results
This phase begins the process of what could be. Whether visualizing, or envisaging, the team’s focus in this phase is on identifying and thinking of possibilities beyond the current means. The stories shared in the interviews, form the foundations for building the future because the potential of the team clearly surfaces.
Design- What should be – Co-creating
Design phase in AI begins to link “what is” (present) with “what could be” (future). Using the topic and dreams that have evolved from the prior three phases, the design phase seeks to create a desired organization.
Destiny—how to empower, learn, adjust, improvise—Sustaining
The final phase of appreciative inquiry is destiny. Appreciative inquiry generates a re-modeling of relationships with self, others, and the world. For this phase the team can be asked to write a mail to another team member to congratulate or appreciate on how they experience each other. It is an opportunity to observe what happens to the relationships.
Thus Appreciative leaders look for things to appreciate in the environment, ask positive questions, engage and empower people, connect through storytelling, relive life through positive stories and create 4:1 imbalance of hope vs hopelessness in all conversations with team.
To conclude, AI encourages to shift a system from a dynamics of reaction to dynamics of appreciation, from fixing gaps to elevating potential and from healing to building capacity. Undoubtedly it results in new, innovative and bold ways of working through positive transformation. Positivity builds resilience, removes fatigue, builds resources, and eliminates negative resentment. Hence Leaders can use AI as a tool to elevate positive emotion in a stress prone life and business.