Appreciative Inquiry and the experience of meaningful work

Imagine working in an environment where waking up each morning to go to work made your heart sing. And imagine a working environment where everyone else felt the same.

Now imagine working in a role that fully utilised the very knowledge, skills and experience that you most loved about yourself and what you do. Those aspects of who you are that you would gladly give to others for nothing! A role you would pay others to let you keep.

Imagine a working for an organisation that was completely and seamlessly aligned to the needs, wants and desires of its customer and client base. An organisation where the very act of doing something for others that you considered your “life’s work” was fully cherished by those you provided it to. Just imagine the yet un-tapped possibilities for you, those you work with, and the organisation you are a part of if this was you day-to-day experience.

At its very foundation, Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a philosophy or a way of considering the world and our experience of it. Worlds just like those I just invited to experience.

And AI is more that this. It is also a set of principles – grounded in science – for how people experience the ‘world’ they experience. According to AI experts and authors of the book The Power Of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide To Positive Change, Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, there are eight key principles. The four that resonate strongly with me and influence how I work include:

  • Words create worlds- the words we use to describe our experiences create those experience, so if we talk about what is already working we will experience more of what is working;
  • Inquiry creates change – asking questions around what we want to experience in the future commences the change so that we can experience our desired future in the here-and-now is working create;
  • Images inspire action– when we create strong and clear ‘images’ of the future we want we automatically start to act in ways that bring about that desired future in the here-and-now; and
  • Acting ‘as if’ is self-fulfilling – living our desired future in the here-and-now is a powerful force for making that future reality.

Finally, AI is a set of methodologies and practices that support individuals, teams, and organisations create ‘worlds’ that people want to experience.

Rest assured, AI is not simply focusing on the positive in absence of those things in work and life that are not working. AI does not ask you to be a Pollyanna! Rather AI invites us to consider those things that may not be working in ways that bringing ‘life’ to the inquiry. For example, rather than focusing on high employee turnover AI invites us to inquire into how to make a workplace where people never what to leave.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

AI is the systematic study of what gives ‘life’ to human systems when they function at their best. It is an approach to personal and organisational change based upon the assumption that questions and conversations about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are themselves transformation. At a more granular level:

  • Appreciation has to do with recognition, valuing, and gratitude. It also has to do with the enhancing of value. In this way, the verb ‘appreciation’ has two meanings: (1) the act of recognition; and (2) the act of enhancing value.
  • Inquiry refers to the act of exploration and discovery. At the heart of lifelong learning is inquiry. Inquiry is not however, searching for answers or solutions. Rather it is the ongoing quest for new possibilities. In this way, the act of inquiry means: (1) to ask questions; (2) to study; and (3) to search, explore, delve into, and investigate.

Case Study: How do you ‘do’ Appreciative Inquiry?

The foundation of Appreciative Inquiry Process is the identification and enhancing of a “human system’s” Positive Core. The Positive Core is the ‘unconditionally positive’ aspect of any individual, team or organisation that is always working, regardless of what might be happening day-to-day.

It is the Positive Core that calls an individual, team or organisation into a higher-order of being and acting. It is what calls us all to look “just beyond” in making decisions about our ideal future and supports us in embodying and enacting that ‘ideal future’ in the here-and-now.

The inquiry into a human system’s Positive Core is enabled through the selection of anAffirmative Topic Choice (or Choices). The affirmative topic choice and question seeks to uncover the Positive Core of any situation, interaction or person.

By way of example, I have spent this week working with emerging leaders within an organisation. I have been working with this leadership cohort (of approximately 40 future leaders) for nearly two-years as their coach/mentor within the organisation’s Graduate Development Program. The program is reaching its conclusion. As a result, each emerging leader now needs to identify where in the organisation they want to work. Many are at a career path ‘cross-roads’.

In spending time with this leadership cohort last week, the Affirmative Topic Choice I chose was: “Identifying the conditions that enable people to experience meaningful work.”

In identifying the Affirmative Topic Choice, the next step is to ‘discover’ for each emerging leader what meaningful work is and the root cause for them experiencing meaningful work. We did this in small groups utilising an appreciative interviewing process.

In small groups of 5-6, I asked each emerging leader to respond to the following question: Describe a career rewarding experience from your time at in this organisation that continues to nourish, guide and sustain you. How are you continuing to learn, grow and apply that experience now within the organisation?

Within each group, we took turns responding to this question. In responding, each emerging leader was ‘interviewed’ by others in the group to uncover the following three appreciative elements within the story:

  1. The aspects of experience that bought joy and/or fulfilment to them;
  2. The unique strengths and ways of working that each emerging leader bought to the experience that made it successful; and
  3. The conditions and factors that enabled the emerging leader to be all that they could be in the experience they described.

In inquiring into these three elements, the aim was to discover for each emerging leader the Positive Core of their experiences to date within the organisation. In identifying these elements that enabled each emerging leader to experience ‘meaningful work’, each emerging leader could then utilise these to ‘dream’ about their ideal future as it related to having meaningful work within the organisation.

Once the emerging leader’s ideal future for meaningful work was clearly envisioned (note, an image of the future one wants is a powerful force for its attainment), the group then helped them to ‘design’ (i.e., describe) in affirmative terms what would have occurred if that ideal future was now a day-to-day reality. In so doing they described how they would feel and the attitude they would have adopted, the key actions they would be undertaking each day, the conditions they would experience, the relationships they would have in place, and the processes and structures that would be enabling them to work at their best. Finally, group helped the emerging leader to identify what needed to happen now to deliver and to manifest that meaningful work ‘destiny’.

At a practical level, in mobilising inquiry around an affirmative topic choice AI offers a simple methodology. The methodology consists of a generative and iterative cycle called the four “D’s”. The four “D’s” are: (1) Discovery (appreciating what is best); (2) Dream (imagining the ideal future from what is best); (3) Design innovating towards the ideal future); and, (4) Destiny (delivering upon the desired future). These are illustrated in the model below.

AI 4 Ds.jpg


The generative nature of Appreciative Inquiry

The very nature of AI is generative – it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it is best to just go with the positive energy, regardless of the context.

As I reflect upon my time exploring ‘meaningful work’ with the graduate cohort, my thoughts are drawn to another project I have been involved in this week. The project involved facilitating a workshop on the science and practice of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership and involved senior leaders of a multi-national organisation. Although they were exploring how Emotional Intelligence informed their leadership, I think they too were also exploring the conditions that allowed them to experience ‘meaningful work’. The outcome of their inquiry into ‘real’ leadership and Emotional Intelligence was the following enablers of meaningful work for them:

  • Be ourselves with all our ‘rough edges’.
  • Don’t try and do it alone.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty, maintain excitement.
  • Stay in the moment, consider the whole journey.
  • Look for the options that aren’t always obvious.
  • Remind ourselves to step into others’ shoes.

These seem like great suggestions for how I might also continue to experience meaningful work in my own life.