OCI #7: Asking Generative Questions
Organizational Change + Appreciative Inquiry (Part 1)
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to transformational change that focuses on engaging whole systems to build on their strengths to create and move toward a positive image of the future1. This post is the first of a series that focuses on “unbundled” applications of AI—taking a core element or principle and thinking about how it might be applied in a wide range of change settings. I’ll write more about “comprehensive” applications of AI at some point.
The Importance of Questions
One of the foundational elements of AI is an emphasis on questions. The simultaneity principle asserts that inquiry is an intervention—the moment we ask a question, we begin to create change. Take a moment and reflect on this. Have you ever had someone say “Can we talk?” What starts to change inside you at that moment as you hear that simple question? Start looking around and noticing the questions that you and other people ask, and see how they begin to put things in motion even before any kind of an answer emerges.
Now let’s combine this insight with a second AI principle, the constructionist principle, which asserts that words create worlds—that the language we use shapes our social reality. Think for a moment about how deeply this is true. The names we give to things shape how we see them2. Two different stories about the same event—what happened and why—can lead to two very interpretations of the situation. Can you think of a time when the way someone worded something influenced the way you thought about it, or when you have consciously chosen language to shape others’ perspective on an issue?
These two principles suggest that our choice of questions can have a profound impact on the nature of how change unfolds in our organizations, our working groups, our communities, and our lives. Compare “What keeps you up at night?” to “What gets you up in the morning?” Imagine what might begin to shift if you ask “Tell me about what an ideal day looks like for you?” rather than “What makes you most frustrated?”
What Brings Life?
We begin to create what I think of as “energetic lift” when we ask provocative, insightful, questions that engage people in thinking deeply about the things they care most about. I think of generative questions as those that inquire into the “positive core” of a system, focusing on and drawing attention to what brings life and meaning to that system and the people in it. This isn’t as simple as just asking questions that focus on “the positive” rather than “the negative”—the things that touch our souls often have both light and dark in them3.
There are no “one-size-fits-all” generative questions. They need to be crafted. Each is unique to the time and place and people you are working with. (Having said that, one I often use in the coaching process is “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”) Can you think of a question someone has asked you that opened new doors of possibility? What current situations in your life and work might benefit from an artfully designed question or two?
Creating Good Questions
Here are some thoughts on creating generative questions:
Clarify what you are trying to accomplish. Are you facilitating a group in developing a shared sense of purpose? Helping an organization envision new products and services? Supporting an individual through a challenging transition? See if you can articulate an “affirmative topic”—one that articulates what the person, group, or organization wants to grow or develop.
Let go of knowing the answer. You can’t simultaneously ask a generative question and know what the “right” answer is. Be genuinely curious about what’s available to be learned and explored.
Assume strength. Begin with the assumption that what you are exploring already exists in some form within the person, group, or organization, and that your job is to uncover it and learn how it might be supported, encouraged, and expanded.
Consider a lead-in. People sometimes feel awkward about focusing on strengths—it can feel artificial and strange. A lead-in to your question, in the form of a sentence or two that helps people see the connection between the topic and their desires for positive things such as pride, connection, and growth. Here’s an example: “Effective teams can be a place where people experience high levels of performance and well-being. With that in mind, I’d like to learn more about…”
Select a time focus. Questions can focus on the past, present, or future. Past-oriented questions can help people connect with previous experiences as a way of generating energy to move forward. Present-oriented questions can help ground people in the resources and strengths that are available to them. Future-oriented questions can allow people to dream of possibilities and envision a path to achieving them. (You are not limited to one question! You can design this as an interview or discussion process that includes multiple elements.)
Ask for details and stories. When people engage their whole brains and bodies in the process—engaging thoughts and emotions; describing how things felt, looked, smelled, tasted; spinning a narrative of people, places, and events—they can more readily generate positive possibilities and draw useful meaning from their experiences. You are not limited to asking about the individual’s own thoughts and experiences—imagining and describing other voices and viewpoints can be a rich source of insight and perspective.
Seek resonance and power. Keep playing with your words and thoughts until you have a sense that the question(s) will touch something deep in the person or people you are working with. One way to know you’re getting there is when you start feeling excitement and curiosity rising within yourself about hearing the answers.
Organizational Change Applications
How might you apply these ideas in the context of organizational change? Here are some examples of topics that can serve as foundations for generative questions in organizational change initiatives. You’re probably already using some of these; take a moment and reflect on possibilities and ideas that have emerged when you have applied powerful questions in real life. Now consider other ways you might incorporate generative questions into your work. This is just a small sample of possibilities—you are only limited by your imagination.
Intent Clarity: “Stories from the future” are a great tool for helping a group or individual imagine what’s possible. Letters from customers or employees, headlines from magazine articles, or pictures/images/collages/sculptures of the future can all be energizing and insightful.
Sponsor Development: Asking leaders to tell “best change” stories from their past experience that include elements such as “what,” “why,” “who,” and “how” can help them tap into common threads of strength and a sense of efficacy to build on.
Participant Transition: Exploring the network of strengths and resources individuals see around them as they move through the transition process can help them move forward with greater energy and confidence.
Status Reporting: Exploring examples of what’s going well, success stories, and instances of “positive deviance” in a change initiative, and digging beneath them to understand the root causes of success, can be both informative and energizing in building momentum for change.
Think about other places where you might intervene with a generative question to create “lift” in the process of change.
Here are a few resources on crafting positive questions:
The Encyclopedia of Positive Questions is a great resource for questions, sample interview guides, and other information on the topic.
I hope this article has given you some ideas for your own organizational change practice. I’ve found that exploring uplifting questions in my personal life and work has been extremely valuable as well.
How might generative questions play a larger part in your own presence and impact in the world?
Here are some foundational sources of information on Appreciative Inquiry: Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology.com
This article by Gervase Bushe, one of my favorite thinkers in this space, has a good description of the concept of generativity and its importance.
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