As leaders we are expected to lead and manage change. A core success in that endeavor is to foster, create, and lead highly collaborative teams. A powerful way to achieve this is through appreciative inquiry. It’s a process I use with groups of all kinds. In this article, I will illustrate how you could use appreciative inquiry in two practical examples, a time-limited project team and an ongoing department team. I hope these two examples will offer a structure that you can use in your own leadership as you build and foster the teams you lead and are part of.

Each example illustrates engaging a group/team in the 4D process—discovery, dream, design, and destiny (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2003). This process inquires into an affirmative topic in these examples, “best team experiences” and “our department at its best.” During the discovery phase participants examine what is already happening with their affirmative topic through questions, stories, and sharing themes that arise. Through this inquiry, they appreciate their strengths and what is giving life to their team. In the dream phase, building on the key themes that arise from discovery, people co-create images of their ideal future. In the design phase, they co-construct strategies to make that future a reality. Destiny is the delivery of the strategies in order to sustain what they designed by continuing to rediscover/dream/design around affirmative topics.

Evaluation project team
A college human resources department set up a project team to examine its staff evaluation practices in order to develop a new evaluation system. This team worked together for several months. In their first meeting, this new project team engaged in a five-hour workshop to learn about the theory and practice of appreciative inquiry, to engage in an appreciative inquiry to develop their project team, and to explore ways to use appreciative inquiry in their project consultation and planning. The project team was made up of representatives from across the college in different departments and roles. Before the workshop, the project leader sent the following out to the team.

In preparation for the appreciative inquiry session, please find below questions to reflect on. I encourage you to write down your thoughts, to be prepared to tell stories in response to these questions in interview pairs at the session.

The topic of our inquiry is “best team experiences.” The purpose of this session is to build our project team skills in preparation for leading appreciative consultation and planning processes.

  1. What is the best experience you have had working in a team? Recall a time when you felt most alive, most involved, or most excited about your involvement. What made it an exciting experience? Who was involved? Describe the event in detail.
  2. What are the things you value deeply, specifically the things you value about yourself, your work, and being part of the staff evaluation project team?
  3. If you had three wishes for this team, what would they be?

At the workshop, in the discovery phase the project team used these questions to interview each other and share key themes that emerged for what they knew about best team experiences.

Taking the key themes into the dream phase, this project team created visual images and provocative propositions (vision statements) to guide and provoke action for them to be at their best as a team. In the design phase, they co-constructed strategies and actions to take into their project. Over the six months of their consultations, they used appreciative inquiry to gather best practices of evaluation. Working highly effectively as a project team, they developed the final product, a new employee success process. The work of this project team is a great example of the power of appreciative inquiry to shift an often deficit-based approach, such as staff evaluation, to one that is strength- and success-based.

Our department at its best
A small university department wanted to further its academic plan by engaging to examine its mission, vision, goals, values, and collaboration across the department. They undertook a full-day retreat to do an appreciative inquiry into their department at its best. Although they all knew each other, they began by doing an appreciative inquiry exercise into the strengths that each one brought to the department. They each chose a magazine picture that represented metaphorically the strength(s) that they brought to the department. This exercise took them to a level of knowing more about “who” they each were beyond knowing the “what” they each did, important in building collaborative relationships. They also developed a set of agreements or ground rules that would guide their collaboration at the retreat and beyond in their ongoing working relationships. The appreciative inquiry phases were similar to the ones of the project team described earlier. The discovery paired interview questions were:

  1. Best experiences
    Recall a time when you were part of this department at its best.You were really engaged and involved, contributing your best. Tell me a story about that time. What factors made it highly effective? Who was involved? What did you and others contribute? Describe the event in detail.
  2. Things you value deeply
    What do you value about yourself and your contributions to the department?
    What do you value about the department?
  3. Life-giving core
    What is the life-giving core of the department that you want to make sure gets carried forward into the future?
  4. Focus on the future
    What three hopes do you have for the department?

They shared themes in triads and created images and provocative propositions for their dream. In doing their design, they decided to work as a whole group to determine the key actions to create their more collaborative future. This group is now using those key actions to realize their goal of being a department at its best.

In both these examples, a new project team and an ongoing department, the appreciative inquiry generated energy through discovering best experiences, values, and wishes; building on those to co-create their visions for the future; and collaboratively designing actions to make the future a reality.

To explore more ways to use appreciative inquiry to facilitate positive change, read:

  • Cockell, J. & McArthur-Blair, J. (2012). Appreciative Inquiry in Higher Education: A Transformative Force. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D., & Stavos, J. (2003). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, the first in a series of AI workbooks for leaders of change. Bedford Heights, Ohio: Lakeshore Communications Inc.

Reprinted from “Using Appreciative Inquiry to Facilitate Positive Change” in Academic Leader 30.4(2014)3,6 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.