Building on Success: Transforming Organizations through an Appreciative Inquiry

By Johnson, Gail; Leavitt, William | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Building on Success: Transforming Organizations through an Appreciative Inquiry


Johnson, Gail, Leavitt, William, Public Personnel Management


Appreciative Inquiry, developed by David Cooperrider and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University and The Taos Institute, is an organizational transformation tool that focuses on learning from success. Instead of focusing on deficits and problems, the Appreciative Inquiry focuses on discovering what works well, why it works well, and how success can be extended throughout the organization. It is both the vision, and the process for developing this vision, that create the energy to drive change throughout the organization. In 1998, the City of Hampton, Virginia, already nationally recognized as an innovative government, initiated an Appreciative Inquiry process to re-energize its workforce in bringing about their desired vision for the 21st century.[1] The Appreciative Inquiry process was successfully modified to meet the needs of the city government.

The past decade has seen dramatic efforts toward change by public sector organizations at all levels of government. The need to "work better and cost less" has driven organizational change efforts, and introduced numerous strategies and techniques designed to improve the quality of service delivery and make governments more efficient and effective. Many public sector employees have now been exposed to one or more approaches to organizational transformation, such as: quality circles; Total Quality Management or Total Quality Leadership; re-engineering and reinvention; High Performance

Organization philosophies; strategic planning; and self-directed work teams. Employees are asked to think differently about what they do and how they do it, and to see a range of possibilities instead of the one right answer. Organizational change in public sector organizations can be difficult to accomplish. It is not uncommon for employees to resist change, even when the change is desired to help the organization accomplish its mission. John Kenneth Galbraith, commenting on human nature, once observed that, "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof."[2] Most approaches to organizational change are similar in one respect -- they attempt to enable employees to think differently about processes that are habitual and comfortable. Frequently, organizational change approaches are premised on the belief that something is wrong and needs to be fixed, and may even lead to a focus on blame. According to David Cooperrider, one of the developers of the Appreciative Inquiry philosophy, organizations become "trapped by the language of deficit."[3] Traditional approaches to problem solving are, by definition, a way of seeing the world as a glass half empty. The Appreciative Inquiry is an alternative process to bring about organizational change by looking at the glass as half full. Essentially, Appreciative Inquiry varies from other approaches to organizational change in that it builds on what works well.[4]

A Closer Look at Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that is uniquely suited to organizations that seek to be collaborative, inclusive, and genuinely caring for both the people within the organization and those they serve. For those engaged in public service, finding ways to express these values has never been more important. Using an Appreciative Inquiry approach, organizations can discover, understand, and learn from success, while creating new images for the future. The approach provides an opportunity to celebrate what is done well, as organizations strive to move closer to their vision of the future. The focus is on success, rather than failure. Thomas White, President of GTE, asks, "In the long run, what is more likely to be useful: Demoralizing a successful workforce by concentrating on their failures or helping them over their last few hurdles by building a bridge with their successes?"[5]

Appreciative Inquiry is premised on three basic assumptions. …

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Building on Success: Transforming Organizations through an Appreciative Inquiry
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