Declining profits and product quality. Failed cost reduction efforts. Strained relationships among employees and increasing pressure from competitors. Gina Hinrichs, an internal process consultant at John Deere, recognized plenty of problems in the company’s combine harvester manufacturing department.
Partnering with Jim Ludema, a professor at Benedictine University, Hinrichs organized a five-day summit for the entire department. The summit’s focus was explicit: Participants sought to improve their collective performance. Yet, Hinrichs and Ludema didn’t begin by identifying any of the department’s glaring challenges.
Instead, they asked the 200 employees in attendance how the department currently excelled and how the team could expand these existing strengths. As the summit progressed, the team engaged in a series of exercises designed to identify, celebrate, and enlarge the team’s successes.
The results of this summit proved astounding, not least of all to employee participants. Some longtime team members expressed they felt hopeful about the department’s future for the first time in decades. One group discussion produced an idea that eventually led to $3 million in savings across the department. More importantly, the team carried forward a spirit of collaborative possibility, where frustration and mistrust had previously reigned.
For many managers, Hinrichs and Ludema’s approach might seem counterintuitive: With so many issues impacting the bottom line, a problem-solving approach would seem warranted. But for John Deere and so many organizations that have employed similar methods, a transformative change demanded more than the elimination of obstacles. Rather, improvement stemmed from appreciating and empowering what the team did right.
Expanding Excellence: An Appreciative Approach to Growth
In their work for John Deere, Hinrichs and Ludema utilized an approach called Appreciative Inquiry. This methodology was first developed by David Cooperrider, a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Business, and his professor, Suresh Srivastva.
In 1980, a 24-year-old Cooperrider convinced the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic to let him conduct an organizational analysis, exploring the roots of the medical facility’s excellence. With the help of Srivastva, Cooperrider set out to understand every aspect of the clinic from a decidedly positive perspective, emphasizing successes rather than outstanding issues.
During that inquiry, Cooperrider and Srivastva encountered a singular opportunity: the Omni Hotel. The clinic had purchased the local establishment to lodge patients’ families, keeping much of the staff in place. Yet, guests often complained about the hotel’s service, and team members regularly argued with each other. Surely, the Omni had no place in Cooperrider’s appreciative endeavor: It was a rare stain on the Cleveland Clinic’s sterling reputation.
But Cooperrider did not shy away from the Omni. Nor did he focus on problems that needed fixing or recommend management changes. Instead, he took the Omni staff on a trip.
He brought the Omni team to a highly regarded five-star hotel in Chicago, urging them to notice only what the establishment did well. By the end of their stay, team members had recorded an exhaustive list of the other hotel’s strengths and successes.
Upon returning to the Omni, the staff was so thoroughly inspired and filled with constructive ideas that they rapidly transformed the hotel’s operations. Without a single change in personnel or management structure, the hotel completed a stunning turnaround, earning plaudits from guests and Cleveland Clinic leadership.
Cooperrider went on to summarize this experience and many others at the Cleveland Clinic in his doctoral thesis. The term “Appreciative Inquiry” first appeared in that dissertation – and would guide Cooperrider and Srivastva’s work for decades to come.
Throughout the 1980s, Cooperrider and Srivastva explored how collaborative, positive approaches could propel organizational improvement. As business leaders and charitable organizations embraced and applied their ideas in subsequent years, the duo continually refined Appreciative Inquiry’s core principles.
Additionally, Cooperrider and Srivastva adapted their approach to reflect a wider array of organizational needs, with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Soon other scholars built on the foundation they had established, furthering Appreciative Inquiry’s impact.
At a fundamental level, Appreciative Inquiry asserts that each organization possesses a positive core – a mix of attitudes, practices, and past successes that reflect its true potential. When a team appreciates these assets embedded in its culture, new possibilities for growth become apparent.
In this sense, Appreciative Inquiry shares its conceptual roots with another exciting research area with great promise for individuals and organizations alike: positive psychology. Generally speaking, positive psychology concerns how people and communities achieve and sustain mental well-being. In this pursuit, scholars emphasize practices that individuals and groups find effective, rather than barriers to experiencing happiness.
In fact, the founders of positive psychology explicitly contrasted their inquiry with the pathology-centric tradition of psychological research. Whereas many scientists investigate mental illness or cognitive challenges, positive psychology asks us to consider human strengths and potential instead.
Put aside problems, this discipline suggests, and seek to expand what is right in our lives. Similarly, Appreciative Inquiry demands that we identify and encourage an organization’s best aspects.
In recognizing where an organization excels, an appreciative approach reveals opportunities to enhance existing aptitudes. Importantly, this process is deeply egalitarian and collaborative, incorporating the perspectives of executives and entry-level employees alike. The result is a vision for change both practical and profoundly hopeful: Goals emerge from team members’ shared experiences and aspirations.
As businesses worldwide confront a looming talent shortage, this capacity to recognize strengths across company ranks is especially important. When organizations can’t simply hire experts to supply solutions, they must look to their own teams for talent and insights. Whether that means identifying promising employees for “re-skilling” or just taking smart suggestions from current staff, Appreciative Inquiry taps into the potential of your existing team.
Most importantly, the Appreciative Inquiry perspective differs explicitly from problem-solving approaches, which emphasize issues to be corrected. By definition, problem-solving is a restorative endeavor: Once a company addresses specific obstacles, equilibrium returns.
Conversely, Appreciative Inquiry aims for transformative change. In addition to alleviating pain points, Appreciative Inquiry can unlock possibilities that an organization never previously considered.
Indeed, in one meta-analysis of 20 organizations that undertook the Appreciative Inquiry process, more than a third experienced changes that researchers described as “transformational.” When we are focused entirely on addressing issues, by contrast, there’s decidedly less room for game-changing insights and aspirations.
Over decades of work with respected organizations, our team has witnessed the advantages of Appreciative Inquiry firsthand. Appreciative Inquiry is one of the methodologies we employ to assess organizational opportunities and create positive change, helping our clients identify and expand their own potential.
Frequently, we find that organizations come to see themselves differently after taking an appreciative approach. Armed with a new and positive perspective, our clients embrace more ambitious goals than they ever thought possible – and achieve them.
This success relates to Appreciative Inquiry’s dual emphasis: The process is both conceptual and tangible. Although it begins with open exploration, Appreciative Inquiry can yield concrete plans to accomplish real improvements.
Moreover, undertaking the appreciative process is often a powerful change in its own right, shifting sentiments within and between participants. These effects are why many experts refer to Appreciative Inquiry as a form of “action research”: The proceedings surface information and produce positive results simultaneously. Often, the “action” manifests immediately in an organization’s culture. Once a collaborative basis for change is established, it can substantially improve employees’ daily experiences.
In this sense, Appreciative Inquiry aligns precisely with Brandtrust’s values. We truly believe people want their work to make a difference, to serve a higher purpose, and that they can become powerful forces for positive change. We strive to reveal human truth but also to empower our clients to take decisive action. When a company discovers the positive core that drives its brand, it can demonstrate its best characteristics in entirely new ways.
Uncovering Your Brand’s Positive Core
How should companies engage in Appreciative Inquiry, defining their positive core in the process? At Brandtrust, we utilize a structured approach, guiding our clients toward a collective appreciation of their teams’ essential strengths. Our process then foregrounds our clients’ aspirations, helping them uncover opportunities for organizational transformation. Over the course of this experience, a shift occurs in the team’s internal dynamics. As new hope replaces entrenched attitudes, new ways of working together become clear.
By moving through each step of this trajectory, participants leave the problem-solving perspective behind and come to embrace what they do well. After appreciating its capabilities and characteristics, the team envisions new ways to express its positive core.
While we’re proud of the organizational changes that this process has made possible for our clients, Appreciative Inquiry can be practiced in a less structured manner as well. If you’re hoping to uncover your brand’s positive core, you can begin with open and honest reflection. You just need to know where to look.
When working with clients and collaborators, our team often discusses the “three As” of brands at their best. Great brands are authentic in their character, aligned with customers, and aspirational in their mission. They have a distinct personality and promise to join customers on a journey toward a better future.
When brands identify how they are authentic, aligned, and aspirational, they are discovering their positive core. But where should you look to discover these characteristics within your organization?
Below, we’ll share three areas of focus that brands can consider as they practice Appreciative Inquiry. By reflecting on these aspects of their business, companies can come to understand what they do best.
With each area of emphasis, we’ll share a related case example from one of our valued clients. By presenting Appreciative Inquiry in action, we hope to show its potential for your organization as well.
Area of Appreciation No. 1: Brand Heritage and Culture
Think about the “why” at the heart of your brand’s origins. Which ideas, inspirations, and ambitions caused your company to be? Put another way, where does your company come from?
These questions pertain to the heritage of your brand, which is often an ideal place to begin your appreciative journey. By looking at the history embedded in your company, you can reacquaint yourself with its success. By appreciating where things began – and how far you’ve come since then – you can begin to see the strengths that define your brand.
The present manifestation of that heritage is your company culture, which reflects all the growth and achievement you’ve enjoyed thus far. Which attitudes and aptitudes keep your company running? There may be parts of your company culture so essential that you take them for granted. Appreciative Inquiry lets you pause and feel the appropriate gratitude.
When you take the time to reflect on your brand’s heritage and culture, you may see more areas in which they can be expressed. Alternatively, you may gain a new sense of pride in your work. Either way, you’re on the right track.
Case Study: Appreciation in Action
In one particularly powerful Appreciative Inquiry study, our team partnered with Team World Vision, a nonprofit that provides clean water to people in need around the world. To do so, they encourage volunteers to run races of various lengths, raising money as they go.
As we moved through the Appreciative Inquiry process with TWV, an inspiring array of strengths emerged: The organization was both rigorously professional and revolutionary, pairing passion and expertise. More importantly, TWV team members told us, their work provided hope to both runners and beneficiaries. By choosing to run, individuals could transform their lives, just as clean water would change the lives of those in need.
Accordingly, TWV discovered hope as an essential element of its positive core. With passionate professionals at the helm, their team helped volunteers realize their boldest ambitions. In other words, the organization was built to make the miraculous happen, pairing realism and optimism.
Area of Appreciation No. 2: Customer Needs and Perceptions
When customers turn to your brand, how do you meet their needs and desires? We don’t just mean the literal goods or services you provide, but the emotional needs you satisfy as well.
Perhaps your brand helps customers reaffirm some positive aspect of themselves, such as their intelligence, common sense, or moral character. You give them confidence in their own competence, or help them demonstrate that they have great taste.
By appreciating all the things you do for the people you serve, you’re revealing the very best of your brand – and the ways you bring your positive core to life. And that appreciation can lead to inspiration because you’ll see new ways to serve your customers.
Similarly, take a moment to ponder your customers’ perceptions of your brand. When they view your business in a positive light, which values and characteristics do they see? By appreciating their perspective, you can continue to build on what you mean to them.
Case Study: Appreciation in Action
TWV came to appreciate the relationships it made possible: Runners bonded with fellow volunteers through training together. A sense of belonging ensued, and a beautiful community formed among those preparing to race.
But what if TWV could extend this piece of the brand’s positive core to the fundraising experience as well? With a more communal approach to that element of the process, the organization could further align itself with the needs of its volunteers.
In response to this insight, the charity’s leadership completely restructured the fundraising component of their programs. To deepen the sense of community among participants, TWV provided support and guidance regarding fundraising so that runners never felt isolated at any stage of their endeavor. With new initiatives such as team fundraising sessions and coaching, the organization applied one of its strengths in an entirely new way.
Area of Appreciation No. 3: Shared Aspirations for the Future
Customers buy into your brand because you make a difference: Your product or service helps them move toward a preferred future. No matter which industry you’re in, your value proposition involves improving upon the present.
Similarly, your team’s morale depends on a sense of shared mission. Charitable organizations are often particularly strong in this regard, but this collective aspiration doesn’t have to be altruistic.
For example, your team could envision a new standard of fair pricing and excellent service, where customers come back because they are treated well. That aspiration could certainly unite your team, and customers can share in it as well. When your brand is at its best, it’s moving toward that ideal.
In your Appreciative Inquiry, pay attention to the preferred future your brand is aiming for. Whatever aspirations your brand embraces, they’ll figure prominently in your positive core.
Case Study: Appreciation in Action
Through appreciating their past successes, the staff at TWV came to realize that they provided transformative experiences to participants. When a volunteer agreed to run a marathon for charity, he accepted an invitation to change his life for the better. But what if they could empower runners beyond a single race, keeping them engaged in the noble mission?
The team committed to extending and deepening connections with runners, developing relationships that would extend well past the single race. By building the infrastructure for long-term relationships, TWV continued to work with volunteers toward a shared vision. That preferred future entailed continued fitness, belonging to a community, and bringing clean water to thousands of more people in need.
Additionally, they determined to replicate the success they’d enjoyed in Chicago, where a strong network of brand ambassadors helped build a real community around TWV’s mission. If the team could provide a similar support structure elsewhere, they could expect similar growth in other cities.
Building on Brand Success: Getting Started
We hope our discussion has revealed the advantages and opportunities of an appreciative approach, demonstrating that positive collaboration can be powerfully constructive. With an earnest commitment to this process, organizations of all types can discover sources of untapped potential within themselves.
Thankfully, however, experimenting with an appreciative perspective won’t require a massive shift in the way you do business. By making a few modest adjustments in the way you approach your work, you can begin to experience the benefits of an appreciative approach firsthand. Once you give it a shot, your colleagues may come on board as well – setting the stage for a larger cultural evolution within your organization.
Here are three simple, tangible suggestions for focusing on your company’s positive core as you go about your day. Put these into practice, and you may find that Appreciative Inquiry comes more easily than you expected.
- Frame questions positively: Whether you’re reviewing your own performance or assessing the work of a larger team together, bring some positivity to the post-mortem. Take the time to ask what went right, who did well, and what was learned. By leaning into these subjects, you can identify the success you’d like to build on.
- Bring aspiration to the conversation: As we go about our busy workdays, it can be tough to pull back and see the big picture. Moving from meeting to meeting, we forget about the broader goals at the core of our work. Which preferred future are you moving toward as a team and with your customers? In every discussion, before your team gets into any details, take the time to articulate your broader aspirations. Simply keeping these ideas in mind can go a long way to disrupting the status quo.
- Stop emphasizing issues: We get it: Every workplace has its challenges, and we all need a chance to vent at times. But commiserating with colleagues can have negative effects in the long run, distracting you from the success all around you. The next time you find yourself tempted to complain, test your capacity for appreciation instead. Think of one thing your team did well recently. Then think of another area where that success could possibly be replicated. After a while, you might find that you’re more effective and less frustrated throughout your day.
If you have success with these simple tips and want to take the appreciative approach even further, our team is here to help. We’ve guided dozens of organizations through the Appreciative Inquiry process, tailoring our services to the particular needs of our clients. Frequently, we complement Appreciative Inquiry with other methodologies applied from the social sciences. The result is a multifaceted view of an organization’s human truth – and a clear and aspirational path toward improvement.
To learn more about our approach, explore our services and past work.