Appreciative Inquiry: A Transformational Leadership Strategy

In our dissertation work (at Asbury Theological Seminary), Joleen and I chose Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as the strategy for our field research (at the suggestion of our mentor, Dr. Russell West).

AI, which grew out of Dr. David Cooperrider’s Ph.D. work in the 1980s, is a response to more traditional approaches that tend to focus on problems. Rather than focusing on problems, AI focuses on discovering and building on the life-giving forces within an organization. A core belief of AI is that in every organization, something works.

AI has flourished as an organizational development strategy and has been used in many organizations, including Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), World Vision, American Red Cross, and United Way of America (check out “The Art of Appreciative Inquiry” to read more on GMCR’s experience with AI).

The Framework
AI is a process and is commonly described with the 4-Ds (discover, dream, design, and deliver) or the 4-Is (initiate, inquire, imagine, and innovate). I prefer the 4-Is, myself.

  • Initiate involves laying the groundwork for the AI process, including the selection of the topics that will be addressed. A core belief in AI is that what is focused on will determine the direction of the organization.
  • Inquire centers around interviews which seek to draw out positive stories about times when interviewees have seen things working at their best.
  • Imagine brings the stories (collected in the interviews) together so that themes can be identified.
  • Innovate involves developing practical steps to turn vision into reality.

Implications for Transformational Leaders
We believe AI has tremendous implications and possibilities for leaders who seek transformation in their organizations, because …

  • AI is collaborative. AI involves many people (potentially everyone in the organization) in the process, giving everyone a chance to contribute to the direction of the organization.
  • AI gathers stories. These stories not only provide insight into the life-giving forces of an organization, they also serve as resources in casting vision to keep the organization moving forward.
  • AI focuses on what’s right, not what’s wrong. Whereas focusing on what’s wrong (what’s not working) is de-motivating, focusing on what’s right (what’s working) is motivating and energizing. (This is not to say that problems are ignored; rather, they must be reframed.
  • AI generates positive action. The point of AI is not simply to learn what the life-giving forces of an organization are. Rather, the point is to maximize those life-giving forces and create positive action.

We plan to incorporate AI into our own work of transformational leadership in the churches we lead.

To learn more about AI …
Here are some books and Web sites we’ve found helpful …

I’m sure we’ll write more about AI in the future as we further integrate it into our leadership. We may also share the experiences/results of AI processes from our dissertation work. In the meantime, feel free to discuss AI in the comments section and/or to suggest other must-see AI resources.

5 thoughts on “Appreciative Inquiry: A Transformational Leadership Strategy”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Shirley. I just emailed you my abstract — I hope it’s helpful.

    My topic was how leader communicators shape a missional culture. Joleen’s topic was expanding the traditional small group model (of Bible study/fellowship) to include a ministry/outreach component.

    We wish you the best!

  2. i am trying to develop an AI tool that could help me track transformation among youth leaders. Any helpful document or thoughts. this is very new to me but very insightful, iam interetsed in any document that connects it to training leaders

    • I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do and I’m not really sure if/how AI does what you’re asking about. Rather than a leadership training (or tracking) tool, it’s a data gathering methodology that could help with leading change/transformation in an organization.

      Someday, I’ll have more to say about it when I get to do it at Centre Grove (perhaps sometime in 2010).


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