Skip to content
September 8, 2011

Guest Blogger Dina Medina: Employee Engagement Through Appreciative Inquiry

Dina MedinaA while back, I was looking over the written comments from the annual employee survey for an organization I was supporting. The comments were stinging. They reflected an ethos mired in pessimism, unempowerment and closed thinking as a result of significant organizational changes the group had undergone a few years prior. Yes, I know change can be difficult, yet, as someone new to the group, I could see a lot of good resulting from the changes. As the employee communications manager supporting this group, I knew I needed to do something, and I knew it would take more than the traditional communication tools available to me. How would it be possible to impel a mindshift among employees so entrenched in seeing everything that was wrong with the organization?

There is a collaborative communication practice that I believe can make a difference because it treats organizations for what they are - human systems - and leverages recent breakthroughs in positive psychology.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational development methodology that looks at finding what works well in an organization and how to make more of it. It uses a five-step process to take the organization through an “inquiry” with an “appreciative” lens. Instead of looking at how to fix what is broken in an organization, AI asks the question, “How can we create more of what we want?” In addition to its focus on the affirmative, AI involves the entire organization in the change process. Through facilitated dialogue and discussion the organization co-creates a shared meaning of its future together.

The AI 4-D cycle is preceded by the affirmative topic choice. First, the organization needs to decide on what it wants to focus its inquiry. Topic selection is an important first step because the questions we ask are fateful: We move in the direction of that which we study. AI is predicated on the idea that where we put our focus will grow and expand. So, we need to choose carefully.

With a strong affirmative topic, the organization embarks on the first of the four “Ds”of the cycle: Discovery. This is the data collection part of the inquiry, where the organization discovers the best of “what is.” Using appreciative interviews, the organization collects stories of high-point experiences – times when people found themselves at their best - in their personal life and careers. Discovery seeks to answer two basic questions:

  • What in this particular setting has already made (affirmative topic) possible?
  • What possibilities exist, expressed or latent, to do (affirmative topic) even better in the future?

The second phase of the cycle is the Dream phase. Now, the organization begins to envision “What might be?” Through a carefully-planned, group dream activity, the organization engages in a facilitated dialogue about the positive stories collected from the interviews. And through this dialogue they begin to identify broad common themes – the life-giving forces of the organization already present – that form the basis of their shared vision of the future.  Grounding the future in examples from the organization’s past creates the opportunity for stronger, longer-lasting change.

Next, during the Design phase, the organization asks, “What should be?” and designs the ideal organization. Again, in a facilitated group activity, the organization identifies the elements that comprise their ideal organization (e.g. structure, behaviors, policies, etc.) and devises Provocative Propositions - possibility statements that bridge the “best of what is” with “what might be” – that serve as the guiding principles for achieving the vision.

Finally, during the Destiny phase, the organization creates a roadmap for achieving the vision. This is where the rubber hits the road. As a group, the organization – energized by the work achieved through the discovery, dream and design phases – decides how to make the vision a reality.  Self-selecting teams plan next steps for implementing changes, sustaining continuous learning and generating even more of what it wants.

The implications for employee communication are tremendous. First, it’s about recognizing that organizations are human systems and that communication sits at the center. How we talk to each other and about what does matter. It also provides a framework through which people can constructively talk together about their futures and come out with solid plans of action. Communication becomes the enabling force and an energized, committed and engaged organization is the outcome. Finally, true to the spirit it’s trying to propagate, AI is open source. The methodology, the principles and the process are available for anyone to use, thanks to the global community of AI practitioners.

Clearly, my comments here are but a very brief introduction to AI. There are many things to consider when designing an appreciative inquiry, and while leadercommunicators can benefit from becoming educated on the topic, it’s also helpful to work closely with someone experienced in the practice. Hopefully, I have laid out a compelling case that piques your interest to learn more. If so, I recommend a visit to the AI Commons. You can also find numerous books on the subject on Amazon, particularly those by David Cooperrider, the creator of AI. Or feel free to drop me a line at dina.medina@hp.com.

And finally, consider, as a leadercommunicator, what is it you want to create more of in your organization? And how can you make it happen?

Dina Medina is an internal communications manager at Hewlett-Packard. She has been practicing Appreciative Inquiry since 2004. As an employee communications professional, she appreciates the nexus between corporate communications and organizational development that can lead to exceptional organizations that thrive.

Comments on this post

Other posts you might be interested in

View All Posts