Leadership Skills: Four Phases of Appreciative Inquiry

By asking positive questions, members of the organization begin to build a collective vision of what is possible. The future is designed through a self-organizing process that solicits the best from every member of the organization. The process generally consists of four phases.

appreciative inquiry
Discovery Phase

The discovery phase is based on the theory that “human systems are drawn towards their deepest and most frequent explorations.” This phase is characterized by interviews that are designed to determine the optimal capacity of the organization. In contrast to many discovery interviews that bring in outside consultants to uncover problems, the discovery phase is usually done in house with most members of the organization participating. It really becomes a “system-wide analysis of the positive core by its members.” As members of the organization are exposed to the possibilities expressed by other members, their level of appreciation and hope increases. The result is the discovery of themes and patterns.

Dream Phase

The dream phase guides participants into a transformational state by asking them to imagine what is possible for the organization. By tapping into the creative energy of the group, an imaginary future emerges for the organization. The dream usually contains “three elements: a vision of a better world, a powerful purpose, and a compelling statement of strategic intent.” As a result, participants feel a deeper connection and sense of shared purpose for their organization.

Design Phase

The power of the dream fuels the design phase. In a typical change process, the directive is top down and often met with great resistance. The design and strategy necessary to bring the dream into reality emerges out of the new system of cooperation, mutual respect, and shared vision. In most cases, participants enter the design phase with a desire to change.

Destiny Phase

Initially, the fourth phase was known as delivery because it was considered a more traditional stage of planning and implementation. However, after several years of working with the process, practitioners discovered that it felt more like a major transformation. Participants were realizing that their interpretation of the world has an effect on the process. As discussed in Chapter 2, their intention was creating their reality. So rather than focusing on planning and implementation, practitioners just let the participants guide the process. They completely gave up control. What seemed like a recipe for chaos turned into a perfect container for dynamic transformation and organization. Cooperrider and Whitney describe the Destiny Phase as follows:
Appreciative Inquiry accelerates the nonlinear interaction of organization breakthroughs, putting them together with historic, positive traditions and strengths to create a “convergence zone” facilitating the collective re-patterning of human systems. At some point, apparently minor positive discoveries connect in accelerating manner and quantum change, a jump from one state to the next that cannot be achieved through incremental change alone, becomes possible. What is needed, as the “Destiny Phase” of AI (Appreciated Inquiry) suggests, are the network-like structures that liberate not only the daily search into qualities and elements of an organization’s positive core but the establishment of a convergence zone for people to empower one another, to connect, cooperate, and co-create. Changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized when people constructively appropriate the power of the positive core and…let go of accounts of the negative.
Appreciative Inquiry is successful because every member of the organization has an equal voice. This has the effect of breaking down common communication barriers and inspiring full participation. It does not require any exceptional knowledge. Each member is asked to share his or her view of past and present organizational competencies. “The focus is on achievements, assets, potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high-point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, memorable stories, and expressions of wisdom.” The sharing of positive aspects brings the members into a sense of wholeness from which the insights, visions, and future dreams can emerge. Appreciative inquiry is based on the concept that every member has value in the process.

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