The good and the ugly of Appreciative Inquiry.


Our Edwardstown Project is in an interesting/challenging/exciting space presently.  Having educated and inspired the members of the church to embrace an asset based approach to their community engagement we have inquired-of and got-to-know the local community using techniques like World Cafe and asking good questions around an election day BBQ.

The Church congregation have postured themselves in a position of curiosity towards their local community in a process that is most commonly called Appreciative Inquiry.  Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is about locating the energy for change within a community by asking questions of it that search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them.  Questions are never neutral and social systems move in the direction of the questions they most persistently and passionately discuss.

Because it focuses on best past successes and current strengths, AI is generally a process that promotes positive change.  It does, however, have a potentially destructive side also.  By asking a lot of positively generative questions (such as we have done at Edwardstown) we create a lot of expectation and energy.  At some point this anticipation peaks.  At this point we run two major risks:

RISK ONE: Setting up false expectations/ not properly managing exceptions.  I have seen AI prove rather destructive in a Church when the leaders asked a lot of questions of the congregation but were then accused of only acting on those things that most appealed to them.  I would venture that these leaders did not articulate well enough the process at the start and so the congregation members wrongly understood that whatever suggestions they gave would be immediately acted on by those leaders. This is a butchering of AI which is designed to engage participants, in leadership of whatever comes from the process.   It would seem to me that these leaders were treating their congregation like consultants rather than participants.

RISK TWO: Not acting/ not acting quickly enough.  Not doing anything with the information once gathered, or moving too slowly once the anticipation peaks, can also be destructive.  You have set up a lot of promise in engaging with this process but people will soon lose interest if they are not empowered to do anything with this energy.

A destructive AI process will also hinder future attempts.  People will become cynical:

“we have done this before and nothing changed last time!”

The anticipation at Edwardstown has peaked and we are empowering those most passionate to engage in a flurry of pilot programs.  These programs are:

  1. Free you get far more creativity if there is no budget
  2. Short from one night to a few weeks
  3. To be well evaluated.  We have ave a very clear and simple system of evaluation.  No matter how successful these pilots are they will finish.  Once finished they will be evaluated and if anything more is to come from them it will be different from the initial pilot because of this evaluation.

We know that most of these programs will fail or will need serious re-visioning but by only committing to the short term we are giving people permission to lead, to try and to fail and for that failure to be a positive thing with a lot of safety nets and encouragement.  I am both excited and nervous in equal measure.



Have you had a positive or negative experience with Appreciative Inquiry?
Please share it with me in the comment box below.


Another great article on Appreciate Inquiry HERE


About joanna hubbard

Joanna is an Ordained Minister of Religion with experience and training in Community Development and Not-For-Profit management in Australia and who has consulted with Churches and Charities both in Australia and internationally. Together with her husband, Joanna was a part of establishing the world's first charity app on iOS which overcame Apple's policies and allowed for all future charity apps. Joanna was a nominee for Emerging Leader in the Public/Not-for-Profit in the NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards 2013-14 and is featured in their Register of Agenda-Setting Women.
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One Response to The good and the ugly of Appreciative Inquiry.

  1. drew1066 says:

    Reblogged this on Wisdom Coaching and commented:
    This is a fascinating application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), to a church community. She touches on several crucial elements of AI. AI focuses our attention on what the AI creators called the “positive core” of the organization. This comes from powerful questioning to understand past wins; what worked well; inspiring stories; historical milestones, etc.

    She points out that the ugly underbelly of such an approach is that high expectations result. There can be frustration if ideas are not acted upon immediately.

    I imagine that a step that wasn’t shared in this blog but likely happened at the church is giving congregants the opportunity to weigh in on which ideas would best move the church forward toward its agreed-upon future. Those are the times I break out my trusted adhesive dots and let participants vote with their dots.

    The author mentioned that these ideas must have congregant champions to bear fruit. They had many pilot projects based on these ideas and a comprehensive evaluation process.

    All of the AI concepts here can be applied to an appreciative coaching model. Instead of focusing on a department or team’s shortcomings, what they are doing wrong, the problems they are having – focus more on what is working well for them and what they have been successful at in the past. Use this energy to build consensus for a shared vision of the department and the action steps to create it. Empower the employees themselves to implement these ideas and evaluate their success.

    And as I have discussed previously, the same approach can be used to transform the usually destructive annual performance review. Any manager knows that bringing up the problems an employee is having only creates defensiveness on the part of the employee and a resistance to change. Instead, use the employee’s own positive contributions to build upon for success in the future.

    Of course, this approach requires far more attention and intention – as well as the manager’s time and mental brain power. Successful companies understand that it makes no sense to focus on a once-a-year discussion of an employee’s performance. It must be built into the culture of the organization, where praise and recognition is freely and authentically given every day. Impromptu hallway conversations and meetings happen to bring the manager up to speed on projects and resources the employee may need to be successful. More formal performance review – or better yet, performance coaching – sessions are scheduled monthly or quarterly.

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