Appreciative Inquiry is NOT about avoiding problems
A mistaken notion about Appreciative Inquiry is that it requires ignoring problems to focus just on good stuff. Not true. Ai can easily work in problem-filled environments.
What differs with Ai is the approach to the problem. We often take a problem-solving approach which is a series of steps that works great for technical problems. A simple outline of such a process is
1. Define the problem
2. Isolate the roots cause
3. Brainstorm solutions
4. Select and implement the solution
These steps work great with mechanical or technical issues such as a flat tire or lack of electrical power. With such issues, there is a root cause and a clear fix. So, problem solving should be used in such situations.
When we take the problem-solving approach into human situations we can have, well, problems. Take the case of low morale. If we put that issue into the problem-solving formula, the second step would be to isolate the root cause. But morale is not a technical issue with a simple cause like a nail in a tire or an unplugged electrical appliance. Morale is a complex issue that arises from a variety of factors.
If someone has articulated the problem of low morale, the direction taken in Ai is to discover when and where high morale exists and find ways to increase the elements leading to the higher morale.
I had a project exactly like this where I was called by a small professional firm with the problem of low morale and high turnover. We approached the issue with Ai by asking questions about what contributed to the morale at the firm that made people want to stay for as long as they were staying. After all, there was some degree of morale there and people were not quitting on the first day, so there wasn’t 100% turnover per day.
The interviews revealed there were many positive things at the firm that could be built on or expanded. Other questions asked people to consider wider sources of information. What had they experienced at other workplaces that contributed to high morale and long-term retention? What ideas had they heard about that could be applied at the firm to boost morale and retention?
The approach avoided the blame and finger pointing that would have come from looking for root causes. Rather, these appreciative and constructive conversations instantly improved the situation. A number of ideas came out of the process and were implemented and when I checked back later, morale was on the rise and turnover was declining.
In summary, remember two things:
1. Distinguish if you have a clearly technical problem. If so, problem solving is probably the best bet.
2. If the issue is more in the human relations or human systems area, launch an Ai effort that looks at the opposite state of what is defined as a problem.