When faced with a problem or challenge within your unit, your first inclination might be to immediately look for solutions. Makes sense, right? But when the problem or challenge comes from an individual or the way individuals interact—which is often the case—those who feel they are being viewed as problems to be solved might not appreciate being labeled as such. A better approach is a practice known as appreciative inquiry, which builds on strengths and what is working well to bring about positive change.
In an interview with Academic Leader, Jeanie Cockell, co-author (with Joan McArthur-Blair) of Appreciative Inquiry in Higher Education: A Transformative Force, gave an overview of appreciative inquiry and how it can be used to guide change in individuals as well as groups. Appreciative inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider and others in the 1980s, and since then it has been successfully applied in many organizations around the world.
The practice uses “appreciate” in two senses of the word: to value and to increase in value. It’s a way to “lead change that’s going to generate a more positive future,” Cockell says.
The inquiry part of appreciative inquiry is a process that is grounded in listening to stories and asking questions. For example, a department chair might elicit stories from a staff member that focus on that person’s strengths and what he or she is doing well and then move toward what that staff member could do more of.
“Starting with [strengths] makes people much more comfortable hearing feedback, for example, by saying something like ‘These are some things I suggest based on where I see your strengths…’ ” Cockell says.
Appreciative inquiry also can be used in group settings. For example, in a department meeting a chair could ask faculty to share their successes since their last meeting.
The examples above are ways of using appreciative inquiry in a basic, informal manner. One method of formal appreciative inquiry involves a four-step process: discover, dream, design, deliver and is often used for team building, planning, evaluation.
Before the process begins, Cockell uses icebreakers to prepare participants. For example, she might have each person select an image from a magazine that represents them at their best. This gets them thinking about their individual strengths, which can help them present themselves in a positive manner to the group and to see others in a positive light.
Individuals come to the process with different attitudes and expectations. Some may resist. The culture within the unit may present challenges. (Cockell recently worked with an academic department that had a “poisoned” culture for 16 years, with faculty members filing harassment complaints against each other.)
Figuring out the purpose and direction of an appreciative inquiry can take time. One way that Cockell likes to begin is to ask people within a unit about their best team experiences. If they don’t have any examples from their current team—because they are new or the group is that dysfunctional—she asks them to share their best team experiences from previous positions. “The point of asking that question is to find out what people already know about being in a highly effective team and build on that by pulling out themes,” Cockell says.
If the group is small, the whole group can work together to develop these themes. If the group is larger, people can work in pairs and do appreciative inquiry interviews with each other. Questions might include: What do you value about your work? What do you value about your department? What is the core of the department? What would you like to carry forward into the future? What do you hope for the department? Then those pairs can share the highlights and themes of those stories with other pairs. “You start to see the energy shift as people deeply listen to one another and come together in small groups to share what they heard from their partner, bringing into the room what struck them about what happened in the interview, and they start to collaboratively come up with common themes,” Cockell says.
During the dream stage, participants build on the themes that emerged in the discovery stage. They pick a theme or cluster of themes and create images and provocative propositions (vision statements) that provoke action and guide their planning for the future.
In the design stage, participants come up with a plan to make the dream a reality, implementing strategies and actions to get the desired results they aspire to. An important part of the design is building in accountability measures and how success will be celebrated.
During the delivery phase the unit implements the plan. This is an ongoing endeavor, and having gone through the process once does not ensure that all issues will be resolved. “It’s not like you take a pill and everything’s better. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a practice of re-discovering/dreaming/designing,” Cockell says.
One of the challenges of engaging in appreciative inquiry is transferring what occurs during the process to the day-to-day experience within the unit. It’s important to provide people with opportunities for them to share their successes, such as at department meetings. “That’s a simple thing to do. Just go around and hear some of the stories. It creates energy. People say, ‘Wow! This is working.’ Or ‘You’re doing that? Oh, can we talk later? I want to know more about how you did that.’ It engages people with each other. Oftentimes in the world of higher education, people go into their classrooms and are isolated from one another. Sometimes those great ideas don’t actually surface because there’s no time to spend sharing them. Appreciative inquiry is a process to address this issue,” Cockell says.
In addition to providing opportunities to share successes, Cockell recommends acknowledging and reinforcing positive behaviors or, as Gervase Bushe terms it, “tracking and fanning.” “Track the things you would like to see more of in a person. For example, if a person who never responds in a timely way finally responds promptly to an email, notice it, track it, and fan it. Fanning is basically saying thanks or acknowledging it, letting the person know this is a great thing,” Cockell says.
Appreciative inquiry can be used in any situation where a team wants to co-construct a high performing future.