Step one: Choosing your affirmative topic

I am an appreciative inquiry enthusiast. In previous blogs i showed you why i feel this strongly about appreciative inquiry and what the basic proces of change with appreciative inquiry looks like

The 4D's if appreciative inquiry

The 5 steps of appreciative inquiry

Before you start

Today i am going to look with you at the Define phase of this proces. Before you start you need this:

Select one or more affirmative topics

Through your interviews and SWOT analysis you will have gotten an idea about when this organization thrives and shines. The best way to have a conversation about the define phase is with a workshop in a group setting. This will generate a shared understanding. It is important to start with an introduction of why change is needed, what you want to achieve (not how you want to achieve it) and why you feel this approach will help you. 

You can then move on to the define phase by looking for affirmative topics by asking the group the following questions:

  • What factors give life to the organization when it is most alive, performing well and being successfull?
  • What strengths can we build on to reach our goals?
  • What was a high point in your organization when you felt most engaged and proud of working here?
  • What do you value most about yourself, your work and your organization? (no modesty allowed)
  • What makes this organization unique? What factors contribute to this?
  • What possibilities are there to build on these strengths?

You can have three to five affirmative topics. You can recognize an affirmative topic because it will give people a curiosity and energy to find out more about the topic. They will start to ask more questions of each other and cannot wait to get started. A good affirmative topic builds on the values and strenghts in the company, while also being a stretch to reach. 

We need to discover the root causes of success

How to recognize a good affirmative topic

A good affirmative topic is positively stated. This may feel a bit forced at first, but it is important to get this right from the start. Problem statements can help you focus, but also narrow your view. Problems are usually perceived as negative and therefore (for most people) little motivation comes from them. Positive statements expand your view and can create a feeling of wanting to get there (motivation). Compare the following and try to imagine the discussions with both the problem statement and the affirmative topic:

  • 'We are losing market share because of aging products and legacy technology' versus 'How do we create a worldclass product to get ahead of our competition?'
  • 'People do not like their work here and are ill often' versus 'How do we become a place where people love to work?'

People are trained in problem thinking, so it may take some time to get used to affirmative topics. My exprience is that it helps to raise energy levels and refocus people on what matters. 

A good affirmative topic matters to all people involved and engages all of them. Everybody understands what they mean and feel that reaching/solving this topic will help the company forward. This is not just management, but all employees of all levels. 

A good affirmative topic does not presuppose a solution. It leaves open the possibility of many possible ways to the desired future. Usually you will use appreciative inquiry for problems you do not know the solution to. Which means that putting the solution in the topic may limit your possibilities for solving the problem. If you know the solution to your problem you may need to reconsider whether appreciative inquiry is the right tool for this problem.


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