Last Updated Aug 18, 2008 6:40 PM EDT
When a company needs to fine-tune its strategy or troubleshoot
organizational issues, the best problem-solving solution may have little to do
with the problem itself. A host of organizations, including British Airways,
Verizon, and NASA, have embraced Appreciative
Inquiry (AI), a strategy based on the idea that focusing on what's
working is a better way to fix what's wrong. Despite the
esoteric-sounding name, AI is gaining real traction at companies that need to
make big or complex organizational changes.
Popularized by Dr. David Cooperrider, a management professor at
Case Western Reserve University, AI consists of a series of discussions and
brainstorming sessions designed to tap into the existing strengths of an
organization and to figure out how to perpetuate them. More importantly, AI
proponents claim that the positive approach is the antidote to one of the most
vexing problems that nearly every organization faces: resistance to change.
How It Works
AI involves a four-step process typically led by an
outside consultant. The steps are usually done either in a day-long workshop or
over a period of four days, but the end goal is the same: develop a concrete
action plan and carry it forward.
The first phase consists of a series of interviews with
employees of all levels, and even customers, to find out what’s
already working well in the organization. Then the group participates in an
open-ended brainstorming session, using the successful elements they identified
in step one to envision how a more perfect organization would operate. In the
third phase, the team defines and prioritizes next steps to make that ideal
vision a reality. By the final phase, participants are working exclusively on
the necessary tasks to execute the plan.
In 2000, John Deere used AI to turn around the performance
of its combined manufacturing unit. The numerous problems included poor
equipment quality, increasing customer dissatisfaction, low morale in the
workplace, and stalled cost-reduction efforts. More than 200 of the division’s
250 employees showed up for the weeklong AI summit. By the end of the process,
the group had identified, received approval for, and launched 10 new strategic
business opportunities. The end result? Morale soared, and one project —
a faster product-development process — saved the company $3 million.
[Read the href="http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/bestcasesDetail.cfm?coid=3273">John
Deere case study, PDF download.]
What It’s Good For
According to its proponents, AI helps businesses focus on
long-term goals, and by bringing people together in a positive atmosphere, it
reduces dysfunction. In 2005, Cleveland-based consultant and physician href="http://www.petrackconsulting.com/index.html">Emory Petrack successfully used AI in one of the most stressful work environments around –
the emergency room of an Ohio hospital. Referring physicians had begun to
complain about the ER’s standard of care and the number of tests
given to patients. Meanwhile, the ER doctors were concerned about the lack of
trust from their colleagues.
Dr. Petrack interviewed the referring physicians and
discovered that while they had specific complaints, in general they
acknowledged that the ER doctors’
work was a crucial resource for their medical practices. It’s not that you ignore the problems, says Dr.
Petrack. “AI gives you the
springboard to boost yourself up over your personal problem and focus on the
change that does need to happen,” he says. In the case of the Ohio
hospital, AI ultimately led to better communication between the hospital and
external physicians — and an increase
in overall referrals.
What It’s Bad For
AI is not a strategy for short-term results, like boosting
sales numbers in the next three to six months. While employees may feel an
immediate change in attitude, the ongoing processes can take anywhere from six
to 18 months to fully play out.
Because of the amount of time required to see the
process through to its end, companies also face the challenge of convincing
everyone involved to make a commitment. “Sometimes you’ll have
a CEO who says, ‘I want to focus on the problem. Who cares where the
energy comes from?’” says Mary Key, a director with the href="http://www.i4cp.com/home.aspx">Institute for Corporate Productivity.
But if the group isn’t willing to put aside skepticism, the AI
process loses its effectiveness.