Let’s Accentuate the Positive by Kay Kobayashi

s a quality practitioner, I have learned problem based management is pretty much the standard. So when I was introduced to a positive approach known as appreciative inquiry (AI), I was initially intrigued by it and eventually embraced it.

AI was developed by David Cooperrider, Suresh Srivastva, Frank Barret, John Carter and others at Case Western Reserve University in the 1970s. They theorized that organizations change in the direction in which they question. For example, an organization that delves into its problems will keep finding problems, whereas an organization that attempts to appreciate the best of what is will discover more good things.

AI considers the positive attributes of an organization’s possibilities and capabilities. It is a methodical way to discover what gives a system or organization life. It finds the best attributes of a system and envisions its powerful purpose. Instead of asking what problems they are having, it forces employees to ask what is working well around them (see Table 1).

The notion of finding and amplifying the strengths and successes of the employees and their organization is a refreshing alternative to traditional deficit based management. Focusing exclusively on what’s not working may succeed in situations where, for example, a machine is broken and, therefore, needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, this type of approach often creates more problems.

AI can be likened to the placebo effect, in which the mere suggestion that a drug will be effective makes it effective, regardless of the actual ingredients. Concentrating on the best and envisioning a positive image of the future can be an enormously powerful tool. It invites people to engage in creating the type of organization and community in which everyone wants to work and live. It strengthens an organization’s ability to make the most of its employees’ energy and passion and realize its full potential around a shared dream.

The 4-D Cycle

The AI process follows a 4-D cycle:

• Discovery: The discovery phase starts with an appreciative interview in which people tell stories of their high points and uncover life-giving experiences in their group, department or organization.

• Dream: The stories from the discovery phase are shared in the dream phase, bringing tremendous energy into the room. Various techniques are used to facilitate dialogue around the stories and reinforce the positive thinking. Participants are able to envision the group’s greatest potential.

• Design: Participants construct and align their ideals, values, structures and mission in the design phase. They ask what the organization would look like if it were designed to maximize the positive core to realize the vision.

• Destiny: In the destiny phase, participants declare their intended actions and actual plans to realize the preferred future. They innovate what will be.

AI can result in substantial improvements in organizational productivity, efficiency and effectiveness because employees are working to further improve what they already regard as beneficial to the organization. Their motivation can also be substantially improved through this process because it allows them to prevail over the frustrations that bog them down and encourages them to concentrate on what they really want to do.

As AI becomes a way of life, employees at all levels will begin to identify the best practices the organization can build on to respond to new challenges. The act of spreading that knowledge and initiating action will become routine and contribute to continuous improvement.


Appreciative Inquiry Commons, http://ai. cwru.edu.

Cooperrider, David, and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry, Berret-Koehler Communications, 1999.

Hall, Joe, and Sue Hammond, “What Is Appreciative Inquiry?” http://lib1.store. vip.sc5.yahoo.com/lib/thinbook/

Hammond, Sue, and Cathy Royal, eds., Lessons From the Field: Applying Appre-ciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing, 1998.

KAY KOBAYASHI is an organization development and leadership consultant at HPOD Consulting, Vancouver, British Columbia. She earned a master’s degree in organization development from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA. Kobayashi is the deputy regional director of ASQ Western Canada and the chair for ASQ Canada Vancouver Section 408.


Problem solving Appreciative inquiry

Identify the problem. Appreciate and value the best of what is.

Analyze the cause. Envision what might be.

Find a solution and develop an action plan. Discuss what should be.

Basic assumption: An organization is a problem Basic assumption: An organization is a mystery
to be solved. to be embraced.

96 I DECEMBER 2005 I www.asq.org

Two Different Approaches

Focus on what works in an organization,
not what doesn’t.


If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board at www.asq.org, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.



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