Teaching Thinking through Adapted Appreciative Inquiry

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any period of time, you know that using questions¬† is something we regularly advocate for, in order to change people’s thinking and thereby change their behavior on the job.

But what if your learners have no preconceived notions on a topic to begin with?

What if we don’t want to change their thinking, we simply want to e x p a n d their thinking? That’s when Appreciative Inquiry¬† can be an excellent tool for teaching thinking skills.

Appreciative Inquiry, in its purest sense, is used as a change management /problem solving tool. Rather than gathering people (managers, workers, etc.) together and asking “What’s going wrong, and how do we fix it?” Appreciative Inquiry instead asks, “What are our strengths? What are we great at? How can we maximize that and build on it to achieve excellence?”

Appreciative inquiry has been around since the late 1980’s but hasn’t been “in the news” much in the last decade or so. Perhaps it’s time to revitalize the approach, with a different spin – let’s use it to teach thinking. The way we envision using the technique is through possibility summits which help newer or younger associates within a company to help set the course for the future. Too often, when individuals have been with a company 20, 30 or 40 years, they are set in their ways. Why change? Things are working great. But organizations that rest on their laurels are organizations that will ultimately fail.

Younger associates may have great ideas but no knowledge of how to advocate for them or execute them. Appreciative Inquiry can help individuals and organizations to thrive. Here’s how….

Adapted Appreciative Inquiry Process

Allow the “younger generation,” if you will, to help envision the future and empower them to create it by utilizing an adapted Appreciative Inquiry Process:

First, craft questions that help to open up future lines of inquiry, such as “What is your vision (not expectation) for our company in five years?” “What do customers love about us?” “What are our strengths in __________ area or department?”

Questions should be crafted to get at opportunities, competencies, and business ecosystems (such as working in conjunction with suppliers, competitors or customers). A more inspirational or free-flowing question might be: “It’s 2025 and Fortune Magazine has just named us the most _______ company in America. How did we get there?”

Next, assign people who are newer in the organization to interview those with more tenure – using the questions created in the first step. This accomplishes two things:

a – It devoids the idea that those at the top of the organization know best and opens up channels of conversation

b – It helps to develop relationships between people who might not normally interact in their day-to-day roles (for example, the CEO of the company being interviewed by someone in the shipping department), and the results of that can be amazing, not only for inspiration but for goodwill and long-term relationships.

Third, those who have conducted the interviews report back on what they’ve learned, and themes (strengths) and actions items are culled from the results.

Finally, the action items are prioritized (what can be done most quickly, what can be done most affordably, what will get us to our ultimate vision for the future, etc.) and assigned. Ideally, multi-tenure teams will be assigned to work on the action items, which helps to establish mentorship even if the company doesn’t have a formal mentoring program.

Note: You may choose to focus these steps on a theme in order to keep the process more manageable. The theme might be #1 in Customer Satisfaction and the steps would then focus on that vision for the future. For instance: What is possible, in our billing department, to ensure we are #1 in Customer Satisfaction?

Benefits of Appreciative Inquiry Integrated with a Curriculum

When this type of activity is integrated with a Teaching Thinking curriculum, it exposes those enrolled in the curriculum to new ways of thinking that they simply would not come up with on their own. It also exposes them to real-world experience and capabilities, rather than contrived activities with expected outcomes. Finally, it unites the organization because everyone has a hand in the creation of the future (there are elements of social constructionism in this type of learning activity).

Combining vision and experience enables an organization to reach new heights.