Asking the right questions
is critical to solving problems. As business leaders, you spend
your day solving problems by asking questions. But, you may be seeking
the answers to the wrong questions because you have been trained
in traditional problem solving methods.
Traditional problem solving
teaches us to find the cause of the problem and make a diagnosis.
We produce page after page of what is wrong, often finding fault
and placing blame along the way. Focusing on what is wrong with
the organization does not lead to increased cooperation or innovation.
Focusing on what works
is the core of Appreciative Inquiry (Ai), or as we like to call
it "Looking for the Good Stuff". This approach was developed
in 1985 at the Case Western Reserve University business school by
Dr. David Cooperrider. Even though it is used by some of the most
advanced companies in the world, it is not yet widely known by the
majority of businesses and organizations. It is in use around the
world by businesses and non-profits, community developers and emerging
nations, churches and the military. Appreciative Inquiry is a form
of problem solving that takes people into account, something that
most problem solving methods can't or don't do. This is important
because it is the people who solve problems, not the processes.
has many forms and many applications. In organizations, it is most
often done in four stages which we call:
Imagine, Innovate, and Implement.
"What gives life to the organization?" Stories are gathered
through asking questions like, "Tell me about a time you
were excited to be part of this organization."
Imagine asks 'What might be?" It invites you to create
a vision of the future that includes elements of past successes
and excitement. The visions are captured in possibility statements.
Then the visions are brought to life through creative presentations
like skits, news broadcasts, imaginary tours, etc., making them
Innovate asks "What would you look like?" What
processes, structures and relationships do you need to create
or change to make your vision a reality?
Implement asks "How do you do it?" This is the
delivery stage where resources are allocated, time and priorities
are determined. The steps you must you take to achieve your vision
Does it work? Just like
duct tape, it works in a variety of situations, some you might not
imagine. Here are some of the Ai success stories:
a Corporate Culture
1995, as an internal consultant and trainer at GTE, Bob New was
selected to be part of the core team to introduce Appreciative Inquiry
to 64,000 front-line employees of Telephone Operations.
The situation was grim:
- GTE Telephone Operations
had undergone a major re-organization, process re-engineering
and significant downsizing.
- The Telecommunications
Act was deregulating the industry. They were no longer a protected
public utility. They must now become a competitor in a fierce
marketplace and everyone, regardless of position, was feeling
the effects of massive change.
- They had to transform
the entire culture from one that operated by rules and regulations
as a public utility to one that encouraged new ways of communications,
cooperation and innovation.
Just two short years
later, GTE received national recognition for the best Culture Change
Initiative from ASTD, the American Society for Training and Development.
In accepting the award,
President of GTE Telephone Operations, Tom White, attributed over
10,000 innovations directly to Appreciative Inquiry. This meant
that 1 in every 6 employees had an idea to improve service or reduce
cost. The talent was there all along. All that was needed was Appreciative
Inquiry as the catalyst.
GTE merged with Bell
Atlantic in 1998 to become Verizon Corporation. The merger has been
hailed as one of the most successful giant mergers ever, and much
of the credit is given to Appreciative Inquiry.
Innovation on a shoestring
One of the 10,000 innovations
resulting from Ai occurred at the GTE Call Center in Wentzville,
Missouri, 50 miles west of St. Louis. A Call Center is the sweatshop
of the telephone operations. It is a drab, concrete building, with
few windows. Employees, wearing telephone headsets, are literally
plugged into their cubicles. All day long, they listen to what is
wrong with the telephone service; every customer has a problem.
As you might imagine,
absenteeism was up, customer complaints were up and employee morale
was down. Bob had just trained the Call Center supervisors in Appreciative
Inquiry, so they decided to try it in this situation instead of
their normal disciplinary processes.
The supervisors asked
the employees, "Tell me about a time when you were excited
to be a part of this company." They documented the stories
and then looked for common themes. They wanted to identify the factors
that were important to these employees. They were expecting to see
concerns about money, working conditions and other issues that they
had no control over.
Imagine their surprise
when they found almost all of the stories were about recognition.
That was the key, but
what are they going to do? There was no budget for recognition and
they couldn't shut down the Call Center just to recognize people.
That's where innovation took over. Each supervisor had a petty cash
fund. They pooled their money and bought balloons and a helium tank.
The hole-punch and the paper shredder produced lots of confetti.
From that point on there was some sort of recognition almost every
The Confetti Patrol (that's
what they called themselves) would roam the building, seemingly
at random, closing in on the target of the day's celebration. Excitement
grew as heads popped up over cubicle walls like prairie dogs. When
they reached the right cubicle, one of the supervisors would take
over the headset and the party was on. They only lasted 3 minutes
five at the most. There were mini-celebrations for service anniversaries,
birthdays, customer commendations, perfect attendance and once when
the family dog had puppies. It was simple, but it worked!
When Bob was there several
months later, the supervisors took him on their Confetti Patrol
so he could join in the excitement. Then they beamed as they reported
"Complaints are down, absenteeism is down and the employees
love it." And they didn't have to spend a lot of money to get
Change - Diversity
David Cooperrider, the
creator of Ai, received a call from a New York consulting firm that
specialized in gender and diversity issues. The lead consultant
had been working with Avon Products Mexico Division to reduce incidents
of sexual harassment. After two years of sexual harassment training,
every measure was going in the wrong direction. The numbers of complaints
were up and the number of lawsuits were up as well. Every indication
showed the problem was growing.
After the training, the
employees said they felt less able to communicate with the opposite
sex. They felt more distance and less trust, and the glass ceiling
for women remained firmly in place.
The consultant was frustrated and asked David, "How would you
take an appreciative approach to sexual harassment?"
David had his own question,
"What do you really want to do?
"We want to dramatically
cut the incidence of sexual harassment. We want to solve this huge
"What would that
look like?" asked David.
"You mean what do
I really want? What we really want is to be a model of positive,
cross-gender working relationships!"
they had it. It was an awkward phrase, "positive
cross-gender working relationships" but do you see that it
is an appreciative topic for focus as compared to "sexual harassment"?
To fast-forward the Avon
Mexico story, they conducted a small pilot program to encourage
stories of successful times when men and women worked together.
The pilot surpassed everyone's expectations. Hundreds of pairs of
male and female co-workers stepped up to tell their stories.
Building on the success of the pilot, 100 people were trained in
Appreciative Inquiry interviewing. They learned how to ask for the
stories of best experiences. Over the next several weeks, they completed
over 300 interviews. Stories poured in. There were stories of:
- trust building
- authentic joint leadership
- effective conflict
All the stories focused
on positive cross-gender working relationships. They had collected
thousands of examples of the good stuff, the times when men and
women effectively worked together. As a result Avon began asking
men and women to co-chair teams and task forces and admitted their
first woman to the Executive Committee. Appreciative Inquiry changed
the focus from sexual harassment to positive cross-gender working
relationships. Two years later, Catalyst, a women's business interest
group, awarded them the Best Place to Work for Women in Mexico.
Appreciative Inquiry in Community Development
Asset Based Community
Development (ABCD) is an offshoot of the Appreciative Inquiry movement.
One of the key ideas is that when communities are seen as having
assets instead of being seen in terms of their deficits, the effect
is positive. When they are seen as needy, they are seen as a problem
to be fixed. They rarely change as rapidly as communities that are
valued for their assets and perceived as having the means to help
For example, in one tenement
building, it was discovered that 60% of the residents had become
skilled plumbers (out of necessity) and suddenly they were helping
to revitalize the building. They became a key element in developing
the community. They were seen as an asset, rather than as a drain
on the community. It is the same reality; it's just seen from a
Simple Success Story
At an Appreciative Inquiry
Summit on Child Welfare, one young man who had experienced the child
welfare system as a foster child offered an idea that lit up the
conference. It was elegant in its simplicity. His possibility statement
was about improving the user-friendliness of the court system for
children. He said, "Juvenile courts could be physically redesigned.
We could use smaller, round tables to instead of imposing long ones.
Have the judge come down from the bench and sit at the table with
the child and his or her advocates. Create a special waiting room
for children so they would feel at ease." The participants
stood and cheered as they realized the impact of this idea on the
court system for children.
on What You Want
Children's Hospital in
Boston was one of the charities supported by GTE. A GTE executive
was making a good-will visit, during which he toured the children's
cancer ward. What struck him most was the complete isolation of
the children. Because of their fragile immune systems, they were
isolated from parents, visitors and even from each other. When he
talked to the doctors about this, they agreed there was value in
human contact but the risk was too great for these children.
Bothered by what he had
seen, the executive began talking with the engineers and technicians
at GTE, explaining what he had seen and talking about his vision
for somehow connecting the children to their parents but more importantly
to each other. Several months later when he visited the hospital
again, it was to see his vision in action. He was delighted to see
the children laughing, talking and playing games with each other
on the interactive computer network created and donated by GTE.
Change Agendas and Results using Ai
Employee Retention - Lovelace Sandia Health System
20-30% turnover rate for a staff of 300 nurses meant that at any
one time, approximately 75 nurses, or the equivalent of one full
shift, was in transition. This meant short staffing, poor teamwork,
and sky-rocketing recruiting costs. The VP of Hospital Operations
took the appreciative approach and began to focus on why nurses
stayed at Lovelace. The first year there was a 30% reduction in
turnover. As the nurses' camaraderie went up, so did patients' satisfaction
Financial Performance - Roadway Express
Express was looking for improved financial performance through employee
involvement. Their first initiative was a test of the process, focused
on producing small but visible victories. Within 5 months after
the Appreciative Inquiry Summit, they were able to document a series
of substantial wins:
- Padding and packing
material costs were reduced 32%, saving $4,100.
- Cost of skids and
pallets reduced 66%, saving $7,600.
- Airbag costs reduced
53%, saving $60,000.
- Driver delays due
to overloaded rigs virtually eliminated, saving the Akron terminal
$10,000 each month.
- Truck drivers tried
their hand at selling Roadway services and increased sales by
Overcoming Mistrust - John Deere Harvester
efforts to create self-directed work teams at John Deere had been
met with employee apathy and failure. In an Appreciative Inquiry
Summit, they were able to prove to employees that they were serious
about supporting change. In one 5-day summit, they achieved the
cooperation and involvement that ended 20 years of mistrust, and
as a result one plant reduced new product cycle time by two years
which created millions of dollars in new market share for John Deere.
Improving Customer Service and Satisfaction
a US subsidiary of British Petroleum, is in the auto repair business.
At the end of their first year of operation, customer satisfaction
surveys showed 95% of all customers were 100% satisfied - an astounding
statistic. However, ProCare wasn't satisfied. They decided to conduct
customer focus groups with the 5% who were dissatisfied. Then they
posted vivid descriptions of the causes of dissatisfaction in every
shop. Within months, customer satisfaction and employee morale plummeted.
With great hesitation, the owners agreed to use Ai to interview
the satisfied customers. When they posted vivid descriptions of
what the customers liked in every shop, they were stunned as the
satisfaction indexes began to climb. One of the key principles of
Appreciative Inquiry is, "What you focus on expands."
Becoming an Employer of Choice - US
Admiral Annette Brown, of the Navy Personnel Command, says the Navy
is using Appreciative Inquiry to become an employer of choice, a
Fortune 500 equivalent. There are over 30 initiatives currently
under way in the Navy. Here are a few of the key projects resulting
from Appreciative Inquiry Summits:
- At the Naval Post
Graduate School, the Center for Positive Change was established.
They now train Naval Officers in Appreciative Inquiry as an approach
to leadership and change.
- 360 Degree Feedback
Programs have been created to give constructive feedback on desired
- A mentoring program
has produced documented results in increasing retention and advancement
and reducing disciplinary actions and incidents of drug and alcohol
- Virtual tours of shipboard
life are widely used in explaining choices during recruiting and
duty assignment. They also increase the confidence and reduce
the stress of a sailor's first deployment.
- Web-based tools allow
sailors to apply for duty assignments and compete on the basis
of their qualifications to attain their choice of assignments.
Admiral Vern Clarke,
Chief of Naval Operations, said "Appreciative Inquiry
is a method that helps us develop the goals and dreams
support the future of our Navy."
Restoring Lost Values - Hunter Douglas
Window Fashions Division
Douglas Window Fashions Division had grown from 27 employees in
1985 to over 700 in 1996 and in the process it had lost much of
the intimacy and sense of community that were responsible for both
economic success and employee satisfaction. They were a victim of
their own success. Employees talked about the 'good old days' and
were doubtful about their future. In 1997, Hunter Douglas began
the first of three separate Ai initiatives, each working through
the four step process, and each addressing a separate change agenda.
The first was focused on culture transformation, getting back to
their roots. The second initiative centered on strategic planning
and the third was on developing better customer service and improving
business processes. Here are just a few of their hundreds of innovations:
- Through improved planning,
collaboration and cross training, they virtually eliminated mandatory
overtime, cited as the #1 employee frustration.
- They created "Focus
on Excellence" teams that were credited with a first year
saving of $3.5 million.
- Career paths and a
mentoring program opened doors of opportunity that had not been
available to many employees.
- English as a Second
Language classes were instituted to assist the multi- ethnic workforce.
Ironically, this was something the Human Resources department
had been trying to do for years.
- Operational improvement
suggestions submitted by the workforce went up by 100%.
- Employee turnover
reached the lowest level in over 6 years.
- Process innovations
avoided $220,000 in new equipment costs.
Results change when your perspective changes
we find negatives in the past, we talk about doubts in
- If we find positives
in the past we talk about potential in the future.
- If we find shortcomings
in others, we talk about what they need.
- If we find the good
stuff in others, we talk about possibilities.
is a lot like duct tape. The possible applications are endless and
the results are almost always unexpected and often spectacular.
© Clarity Works! 2003.
All rights reserved.
The 4-I Process: Inquire, Imagine, Innovate,
Implement is a trademark of Clarity Works!.
Many thanks to Diana Whitney and Amanda
Trosten-Bloom (The Power of Appreciative Inquiry), as well
as Sue Annis Hammond and Cathy Royal (Lessons fro the Field).
Their books were an invaluable reference in the preparation of this
paper. Thanks also for the many contributions of David Cooperrider
who made all of this possible.
To explore possibilities
in your organization please contact us at Clarity Works! (321) 452-7308
or e-mail info(a)ClarityWorks.biz.