Appreciative Inquiry

June 28, 2020

It’s just as important to recognize what’s going well as what could be better.

True to its name, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry is about a simple, yet powerful idea: even when many things aren’t going well1, it helps to ask what is or has, for two reasons. First, if we do need to make a change, it helps to know what not to change so we don’t find ourselves even worse off. And second, recognizing our present and historical strengths can guide us in how to make the change we need to make.

What we focus on becomes our reality. If we emphasize what is wrong or what is missing, we tend to see everything through that filter or frame.

Lest one think The Thin Book is about focusing on what’s good and forgetting about what’s not, it is fundamentally a book about making change. But it’s about looking to what’s helped us or others make change in the past to guide us in the present. Consider someone nervous about transitioning to a new leadership role in work or life. Rather than consider all the ways they don’t want to mess up, Appreciative Inquiry asks:

Tell me about a time when: You saw someone You yourself practiced Or you were influenced by good leadership? What happened? What are some of the key things you remember about this experience? How did this person’s leadership affect the community/team/company in a positive way? How did it affect you? In order to affect the future in a positive way, what trait, ability, skill, characteristic do you want a leader to have?

I’ve applied this as a parent more times than I can count. When my toddler leaves crumbs on the floor or spills her milk, it’s tempting to tell her “Honey, please don’t do that.” But that doesn’t tell her what to do, and of course I remember well how ineffective my own parents chastisements were. Instead, I try to encourage her when she doesn’t make a mess or cleans one up. “Honey, there are no crumbs on the floor, it’s so helpful how you ate over your plate!” Not only does this reinforce the specific behaviors I want to continue, but I’m sure it makes her feel better (and me too).

In the same spirit, I sat down with my friend Max (who first recommended The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry) to talk about “highlighting what’s working,” the chapter from his book Do Better Work about appreciative inquiry. I shared one of my favorite rituals at work: the shout-out. That’s where someone gets in front of the company, either in person or lately over our company chat, and shares something great a colleague did. While there’s no strict formula to follow, it helps to highlight three things:

  1. What they did.
  2. How they did it.
  3. Why it matters.

For example, “I was on a technical support call with Jane and she went out of her way to help the customer. She’d done some research beforehand into their API and was able to provide specific instructions for them to integrate with our system, saving us all time and likely influencing their upcoming renewal in a positive way.”

The “what” comes easily, but leave out the “how” and those listening (including the person being praised) won’t know what to keep doing. Plus, “so-and-so did a great job” can sound hollow when you don’t bother to fill in the details. But the “why” is most important of all. Appreciation like this is usually prompted by someone putting in extra effort, so stressing why it mattered lets them and everyone else know that effort was worthwhile. And in a group setting, it’s a way to reinforce shared values.

I haven’t always worked on teams that encouraged this kind of public praise, but now I can’t imagine wanting to work somewhere without it.

  1. I’m reminded of the observation from systems thinking that most systems most of the time are operating in some kind of failure mode.