Appreciative Inquiry - 9 steps to conduct a powerful positive planning session

Appreciative Inquiry - 9 steps to conduct a powerful positive planning session

Appreciative Inquiry positive planning sessions are my Go To session for getting out of the weeds, setting a new direction and coming up with goals and strategies.

They are a joy to run, a joy to be in and this is because they focus on the good. They focus on what’s going well. They park the problems for another time. They are a meeting I love running – and you know I’m not a fan of meetings.

I may be over playing this a little, but the appreciative inquiry session really can get you and your team motivated.

It’s a session that is entirely focused around what IS working.

  • What IS awesome right now?
  • What is going well?

In other words, it’s about looking at what you’re doing well and what you should keep doing.

The power lies in the fact that you’re focusing on positive ideas, which re-enforce and provide feedback that you are succeeding. They bring out the good that is happening and they shine a light on the work that is positive – as well as giving people a chance to truly amplify this great work.

In this article I will explain how to run an appreciative inquiry based on many years of conducting these.

From Wikipedia:

Some researchers believe that excessive focus on dysfunctions can actually cause them to become worse or fail to become better. By contrast, AI argues, when all members of an organization are motivated to understand and value the most favourable features of its culture, it can make rapid improvements.

With appreciative inquiry you’re looking to bring out the best in people and their work. It’s about looking at the best in your organisation and the best processes. It’s about acknowledging and appreciating value.

The goal is to ask positive questions to galvanise people around what is working.

It’s to construct stronger ties with people doing good work.

Here’s how I run them.

Step 1 – Invite the right people

Send an invite to only the people needed in the meeting. The more people you have, the harder the meeting will be as there are more voices, ideas and communication connections.

Don’t invite people who don’t need to be part of the appreciative inquiry.

I book at least two hours for these sessions. Three is better.

I make it very clear in the invite what the intent and structure of the meeting (more on this later).

I make it clear it’s only about positivity and appreciation. Make sure you book somewhere suitable for the session. These sessions are interactive, so a good wall/white board will help and a decent space for collaboration will improve the meeting. Remote meetings can work also – try something like Mural to use during the meeting. They are better face to face but remote can still yield great results.

Step 2 – Plan Ahead

Plan ahead and make sure you have the right kit and everything ready to start the meeting on time.

Ensure you have sticky-notes and pens and a decent wall/whiteboard. Ensure there is sufficient space in the room. This is not a meeting for sitting down, so provide plenty of space for people to mingle. For online sessions plan a decent mural of other workspace ready.

Food and drinks helps.

Tell people to come prepared to the meeting with positive observations, ideas and thoughts. It will run better if people prepare for it. This is also a way of getting quieter people contributing. If everyone comes prepared with one or two ideas of what is going well in their work, then everyone gets a voice. It limits the loud and dominant types – and creates a chance for everyone to contribute (one of the core aspects of Psychological Safety).

Step 3 – Create A Safe Place

At the start of the meeting I do something to create a safe place for people to share ideas. I usually do one of the Perdue Creativity tests to get people warmed up, to highlight how creativity can be daunting and to provide a lot of laughs.

You want people to feel comfortable sharing so go for those warmup games or activities.

Step 4 – Start with Discovery

You’re trying to discover what is currently going well.

  • What is working?
  • What is excellent about your chosen area of discussion?
  • What makes working there so awesome?

I run this part of the session by asking people to write their ideas down on sticky notes, then bring them to the board one person at a time.

For example, I use appreciative inquiry meetings to set goals, direction and strategies. As such, use this as a frame.

What is going well? What are we excelling on this year? What are we really crushing against our goals, measures and plans?

As each person has come prepared, I then ask them to stick their positive observations on the wall. As they do so, I ask them to read them out to the room. Each person gets their moment.

We group similar topics together as we work through this process – it’s always powerful to see how people see success.

Every person has to contribute, even the quiet ones, otherwise I wouldn’t have invited them. One of the core meeting rules is everyone gets to contribute.

We go through the ideas and discuss them. This can take some time, but it’s worth doing.

There will always be some duplicates/similar ideas. There are often some very insightful observations also.

Step 5 – Dream

Move on to dreaming.

This is where I ask people to start listing how much better we could be. A chance for them to look at the positive aspects raised and amplify them. We may also cover things not going well but in a positive fashion here.

Anything negative, or a gripe, or some form of complaining, goes into a parking lot for another meeting.

Here are some sample questions I ask to get them going.

  • If we won an award for best team within the company, what would our team, systems and process look like?
  • What could we do to amplify or improve what is already working?
  • How can we get even better?
  • If we had no limitations at all what would our future look like?
  • What kind of future would mean we would be unstoppable?

Again, group similar ideas together and give everyone a voice. Sticky notes works well for quieter members of the team who struggle to be vocal.

Go through them all and pick out some of the highlights. Go through them in detail and find which ones resonate with the group.

Which ones are they most excited about?

Narrow down the ideas to one or two. This shortlist should have three core things.

  • Benefit to the customers – we’re in business to add value to customers. Without customers we won’t have a business. Everything we do should, in some way, have benefit to the business and be aligned to our business goals.
  • Business benefit – when we think about what it takes to run a business, or commercial awareness as I call it, we must understand that costs, profit, loss etc are all very real. As such, we should benefit the customer but not at the detriment of the business. There are plenty of good ideas that would cost too much, or create problems elsewhere. We have a duty to use the company money wisely – as such, have this in your mind here.
  • Team Benefit – our purpose is always for our customers, but we must also build a company that enriches the lives of all who work in it. We must retain our good staff and treat people like people – as such, we should not have business and customer value that will break our team.

Aim big though.

Don’t just pick ideas that are easy to achieve. Push yourself and the team. Choose one or two easy ones, and one or two stretch ideas.

Getting better is hard.

Step 6 – Design The Future

Now it’s time to start working through the ideas from this appreciative inquiry in the next stage – the design stage. An appreciative inquiry discovers what is working and asks people to think big. But, it’s not just about imagination. We now must be creative. We have to consider how to bring to life the very imaginative ideas we’ve come up with.

The design stage is where we put in place steps to make the best ideas a reality.

This is where we deep dive into the shortlisted ideas. We discuss the details.

  • What would it take to deliver it?
  • If we’re doing this work what else has to drop?
  • What would be the outcome of doing this work?
  • Can we measure it?
  • How will we know when we finish?
  • Who benefits from this work?
  • Do we have all the people we need to achieve this?
  • Do we have the skills?
  • Does this resonate with the business goals?

I don’t get into specifics of the plan, but we want some high level answers to these types of questions. We dig deep enough to be able to visualise what it would take to deliver our imagined ideas.

We discuss how this work would make us feel and act if we achieved it. We break the idea down. We explore some of the consequences and talk about what may not work.

Even though we discuss what would not work – it’s not negative. It’s critical thinking – there’s a difference.

Step 7 – Plan

Now we need to put in place a plan.

This is the deploy stage. The stage where the rubber meets the road so to speak.

We’re looking to get some next steps. Appreciative inquiry sessions aren’t just for dreaming – they’re aimed to provide a plan for change – a positive change.

We’re looking to put in place these things:

  • Who is leading this work (and it should not be the manager, unless it is a management initiative).
  • Who is on the team.
  • Who is doing what.
  • When is the next milestone? (Not too far out – a week at most)
  • What reporting mechanisms are we using?

The deploy stage is all about putting things into motion and building a team around it.

Consider though, that there still won’t be a huge amount of detail around the plan. So the next milestone is usually to flesh out the plan and come back together to align around it.

You may also have two or three initiatives in play now. Don’t start too many. Ensure everyone is part of an initiative. If you only have space, energy and attention for one initiative – then so be it. Don’t try to take on too many. Completing one initiative is better than starting 4 and not completing any of them.

I generally aim for one big massive initiative and a couple of smaller quick wins.

Step 8 – Ensure Clear Outcomes

Close the appreciative inquiry meeting and set up the next steps. Reiterate back to the group what we’re doing, why and by when. Fix the next meeting cadence and make sure people are clear on what role they play and what activities they need to do. Field any questions. Keep positive. Clear communication is essential here.

Step 9 – Follow Up

Follow up with good communications, regular meetings and iterative planning. This is now an active piece of work for you and the team. It now has to compete with other prioritise and work. It now needs progressing, leading, delivering and reporting.

Ensure your team are talking to each other and reporting progress.

  • Are they stuck with anything?
  • How is the plan going?
  • What actions are happening?

In my experience every time I run an appreciative inquiry the team are energised and focused. But, as with all new initiatives, that energy and attention can wane over time as other pressures mount and the initial energy is lost. It’s on you and the team to keep momentum on this.

An appreciative inquiry is a wonderfully brilliant positive planning session because people are talking about what works. If it’s working and we make it better, we always see rapid improvements in that area of work. We should, of course, look at what is not working and solve problems. But keep those discussions for other meetings.

The positivity from appreciative inquiry session is infectious and they are a joy to run. Appreciative inquiry sessions are a great way of engaging more with your team and they can bring about big change. But only if you build that plan and action it.

The biggest improvements I’ve ever seen made were off the back of an appreciative inquiry.

The hardest part of these meetings is avoiding talking about problems or challenges. Many people default to negative talk; who can blame them when most meetings are negative by default.

You need to provide a forum for open discussions though in a variety of settings – not everything should be an appreciative inquiry. It is important to address problems and challenges to understand them. So running only appreciative inquiry planning sessions is not a good business strategy. It’s important to get a balance but don’t forget to double down on what works.

Let me know if you see success with appreciative inquiry meetings.