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Appreciative Inquiry
and the Quest

The appreciative

In everyday life, most people and organizations are constrained by the perception that their resources, and hence their horizons, are limited. This perception — that we must “face realities” — is without a doubt the greatest single constraint on human imagination, vision and enterprise.

Appreciative inquiry begins with a different set of assumptions. We begin with the belief that we have a choice — that we can consciously choose (in the Gestalt sense) what we “see” and act upon. In both the personal and social realms, we can choose to focus on problems, needs and deficits — the traditional problem-solving approach. Or we can choose to see possibilities, capabilities and assets — the basis of appreciative inquiry.

By focusing on what’s right, rather than what’s wrong with an organization, an individual or even a society, AI gives us access to the kind of energy that can be transformative. Having that kind of energy to work with gives us the confidence to develop and pursue a new image of the future.

A key question: If you want to inspire, mobilize and sustain human energy which is the most effective way — by focusing on problems or pursuing possibilities?

AI is a generative process that gives us a way to bring possibilities to life and develop our capacities. Through a carefully developed set of questions and a process of dialogue, we uncover stories of our “peak experiences” — those moments in our lives when we felt most effective, most connected, most alive.

These stories provide irrefutable proof of our actual capabilities. They give rise to new images of what the future could be. They raise our sights, energize us and give us the courage to dream and act boldly.

Rather than “accepting reality,” we see that what we call “reality” is defined by what we choose to see, what we choose to think and talk about, what we choose to act upon. It follows that we have the capacity to create the kind of future we desire.

Here’s a chart that characterizes some differences between deficit-based thinking and the possibility-based mindset of the Quest.

Appreciative inquiry and the philanthropic quest

AI was developed by Dr. David Cooperrider and his colleagues as a new paradigm with the potential to replace the conventional problem-solving methods of organization development.

A few years ago, a group of us adapted this process to the realm of philanthropy — broadly defined as “love of humanity” — and made it the keystone of the process known as the “Philanthropic Quest.”

Philanthropy is an excellent instrument for AI because philanthropy operates at the nexus of values and action — where individuals give concrete expression to their deepest beliefs, desires and aspirations for humanity. That expression can take the form of financial contributions or voluntary deeds. And if the employees of a business are really volunteers — in that it is their decision to work in a particular place (as Max DePree has suggested in Leadership Jazz), then their daily actions on behalf of the common good are also expressions of their “love of humanity.”

The Quest invites people to use AI to advance their built-in contributory spirit. Initially, the Quest has also focused on providing a new model for the process commonly known as “fund raising” — an area where people often experience a high degree of “cognitive dissonance” between their values and their behavior. As a professional in the field, it seemed to me that we could offer people a unique opportunity to bring their actions into harmony with their ideals — by developing a values-based “school” of fund raising.

But that wasn’t how we professionals conceived of the process. Most of us thought of fund raising (and most still do) as an elaborate game of cat and mouse, predator and prey.

So I was prompted to look outside the field for new ideas and methods — which led ultimately to appreciative inquiry and the Quest.

We’ve learned much from our experience in applying this new model to the development of organizations. Specifically, we’ve come to see how appreciative inquiry and the Quest can move beyond the organizational level to provide a new paradigm for the transformation of systems at all levels — from a single individual to a global system.

David Cooperrider and his colleagues — notably Jane Watkins, former chair of the NTL Institute — recognized early on that AI could have an impact beyond the organizational level. These efforts continued to focus on organizations as the vehicles for global change.

More recently, in the most advanced practice of the Quest, we’re finding that the organization can serve as a convener of conversations about what the future can be. The subject of our inquiry is society, rather than the organization. We ask questions about the kind of world we want to live in, rather than what the organization should do or be.

We speak with people inside and outside of the organization. We speak with all who have a stake in the questions being asked (not excluding people of financial means, nor including only people of financial means). And we invite them to meet together.

The stories that surface during these interviews and conferences may suggest what a more ideal society would look like. And these images may begin to change the way people inside the organization think and act. We’re finding that this can happen even if no one is paying conscious attention to making changes.

In this way, discoveries in the realms of self and society can function as a metaphor for the organizational realm. And an inquiry into society may be sufficient to transform the organization through metaphor.

An organization that sets out on this path — convening generative conversations about the future — has the potential to become both a catalyst and a model for a wider process of social, and even global, change.

As in all appreciative inquiry, the process remains grounded in the actual experiences of individuals. As these stories come to the surface, new images and possibilities can emerge and become realities in new and unforeseen ways. People begin to see themselves differently and act differently. It’s possible that the organization, and even society, may be transformed organically and spontaneously — without resorting to any kind of conventional planning process.

(This process reflect’s David’s principle of simultaneity: that inquiry and change are not sequential, but simultaneous processes. We don’t collect data, and only then plan the changes. Rather, as David says, change begins to happen with the very first question we ask.)

It is this feature of appreciative inquiry — that it’s firmly grounded in the “peak experiences” of individuals — which makes it an ideal process for personal development, as well as organization development and social change. The Quest adds to this process a focus on philanthropy, in the broadest sense: the deep desire of people to serve humanity through “meaning-full” acts of personal initiative.

Both Jane Watkins and Diana Whitney, co-founder of the Taos Institute, have contributed much to the ongoing development of AI and the Quest, and their ideas will be included in this Web site in the future. Recently, for example, Diana’s work in the spiritual realm has advanced my thinking about the role of AI in personal development.

The personal and the professional

When we grow as people — when we value more our true selves, our true capabilities, and our true potential — we naturally become more effective catalysts for the growth of all those around us, including the organizations we’re involved in.

All around us, we see people striving to bring their professional lives into greater harmony with their personal values — changing the tone, the structure and even the purposes of organizations, or migrating to new organizations or new careers that better suit the people they’ve become. Since organizations and societies are socially constructed — i.e., created by individuals (socially-agreed-upon “realities”) — we believe that a meaningful process of transformation begins with us. More on the personal level.

One of Dr. David Cooperrider’s major articles is here.

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