“Organizational learning” is the most direct way for a nonprofit organization to improve its effectiveness. We wanted to learn more, so we asked Anne Peyton of Yellow Brick Road Consulting to tell us about one of it’s key components: Appreciative Inquiry.
Vermont nonprofits can grow tremendously by developing a culture of organizational learning. How do we cultivate a learning organization by asking questions?
Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” has a wonderful overview of organizational learning disabilities – exposing some of the myths about ‘how we’ve always done things around here’ in organizational life. More an examination of culture than simply asking questions, inquiry is a means of improving ‘us’ as an organization. A culture of learning opens up an organization’s decision making DNA. Sharing what we’ve learned means exposing our trials and failures so we all learn–and that’s risky.
It has to come from “the top”: those most vulnerable to exposure have to lead the way by asking for feedback and acting in constructive, visible ways. For example, opening up performance reviews to a dialogue asks for a higher level of partnership and trust rather than a supervisor/supervisee relationship.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a particular strengths-based approach to asking questions to solve problems. As one person noted, it’s taking a problem, looking at what’s working elsewhere and taking that ‘what’s working’ learning to approach the problem from the back side.
What is AI exactly?
AI is a discipline of asking focused questions to discover what’s working well in a system or a process in order to understand why’s it’s working so well. Then you can apply the ‘what’s working’ to another area that needs help. There’s a belief (a principle) that within every system, something works well – it might be a small process such as how we’ve agreed to make coffee and make sure the coffee pot is cleaned out daily. The ‘inquiry’ is ‘how come that works?’
Here’s what Wikipedia says: Appreciative Inquiry (sometimes shortened to “AI”) is primarily an organizational development <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organizational_development> method which focuses on increasing what an organization does well rather than on eliminating what it does badly. Through an inquiry which appreciates the positive and engages all levels of an organization (and often its customers and suppliers) it seeks to renew, develop and build on this. Its proponents view it as being applicable to organizations facing rapid change or growth. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appreciative_inquiry#cite_note-0> David Cooperrider is generally credited with coining the term ‘Appreciative Inquiry’.
Here’s another example of a larger scale: If a budget process works extremely well in one department, what is it about their process – decision-making, accountability, visibility, whatever. – that works well? With that knowledge, unpack those factors to get to the essence of why the process works well – then apply that learning to another area or process that isn’t working as well. Decide what you want to do to improve it, apply those factors, and then implement your design to deliver the results you want.
When a group becomes facile in AI inquiry, it’s a group process of ‘what do we want?’ more than a top-down or bottom-up decision making process.
AI can become a way of organizational life. I’ve used AI in planning for a large medical center, for a small therapeutic riding program, and just about everything in between. AI Summits are whole-scale planning processes over two or three days that go through the Discover (what works), Dream (what could it look like), Design (what to do to implement changes), Deliver (make those changes). AI also becomes a way of looking at the world that is like a light switch – instead of ‘whoa! is this problem…the more I look for problems the more I find them and then some…’ you have an inquiring mind about ‘wow, what would that look like or mean or what if that were possible?’ You gain practice in suspending your judgment in order to be open to new ideas and new ways of working.
Simply asking questions initiates a change in your environment–and it works in all kinds of settings.
Inquiry is appreciative – it assumes that something in the system works well.
The inquiry should lead to information and knowledge that is applicable – it’s not abstract, it’s grounded in something that’s real and practical.
Inquiry should be provocative – what is learned through inquiry takes on becomes the standard for your operations and opens your colleagues to change.
Inquiry is collaborative – there is an inseparable relationship between the process of inquiry and its content.
How can a nonprofit leader get started and learn how to do it?
Wow – there’s so much. The AI Commons at Case – www.appreciativeinquiry.case.edu is one place to start.
There’s a ‘thin book’ of AI – that gives a quick summary of the book, a good introduction.