Exploradio: Created in Cleveland, Appreciative Inquiry Has Transformed the World of Management

Nov 11, 2019

Cleveland’s greatest export may not be world-class healthcare, auto parts, or even LeBron James, it might be a management philosophy.

Appreciative Inquiry was invented at Case Western Reserve University three decades ago and has become a transformative tool for companies and organizations around the world.

The process was used recently to help create a new vision for Cleveland.

In this week’s Exploradio, we look into the science of positive planning.

At the recent Cleveland Rising Summit, 600 people gathered to hammer out a vision for the city ten years from now using the Appreciative Inquiry method.

Alyssa Giannirakis was one of them. “To me," she says, "seeing Cleveland in 2030 is that more people are living a quality of life that many in this room are living.”

Inclusion, equity, and fragmentation are challenges, but instead of dwelling on current problems, Giannirakis was asked to describe the ideal future.

"It's a community," she says,"where everyone is thriving and has access to fresh food and healthcare. That’s what my big, bold Cleveland is.”

Focusing on the positive is at the foundation of Appreciative Inquiry, according to David Cooperrider.

The 2019 CLE Rising Summit used the Appreciative Inquiry method to develop a new, 10-year economic plan for the city.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

He came up with the technique in the 1980’s as a graduate student at Case Western’s Weatherhead School of Management, where he now teaches.

He says the term began as a footnote to his thesis examining the strong points of Cleveland Clinic's management culture. 

“I took that word from my wife’s art history books," Cooperrider said. "The arts are involved in appreciation, which means valuing.”

Aligning strengths
Cooperrider realized that the best way to help an organization flourish is to encourage everyone in the planning process to focus on strengths.

“Every time you ask questions of the true, the good, the better, the possible, what gives life," he said. "Every time you ask those questions the system becomes better, it grows in the direction of those questions.”

Part of Cooperrider’s inspiration comes from management pioneer Peter Drucker whom he met in 2003.

One of Druckers’ maxims serves as a mantra for Cooperrider. “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a systems’ weaknesses irrelevant,” Cooperrider recited.

Our default mode in leadership is often to focus attention on what’s not working, which Cooperrider says can create a contagion where we see everything as problem-ridden, including ourselves.

But when we study our strengths, our moments of greatest joy in our job, our dreams," according to Cooperrider. “It brings out our better angels.”

The 4-D's of A.I.
Case professor Ron Fry is co-creator of Appreciative Inquiry, or A.I. for short, and he co-facilitated the Cleveland Rising Summit.

“If people start with problems," Fry said. "There’s a limitation to the possibilities that they can imagine.”

He says a good example is the work his team did with the U.S. Navy, which had asked the Case team to help them figure out a new way to problem solve within the top-down military structure.

Ron Fry teaches at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and is a co-creator of the Appreciative Inquiry method.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Fry says the Navy wasn't interested in using Appreciative Inquiry to change the command and control management tradition, "they were looking at issues where they were honestly stuck.”

They were stuck with retention of recruits, and keeping reserves in the fold, he says.

In a first of its kind process, Fry and Cooperrider began by soliciting input across the command, from seaman to admiral.

Then Fry says the most important step of the process was, “getting all the voices together at once, in a room, and working together, starting with strengths.”

Appreciative Inquiry requires everyone involved in an organization to pitch in with ideas and hash out possibilities.

Next step is dreaming its future, “and then having those people roll up their sleeves and really work together to design a three month target, [or] a six month target.”

He says the four D process of Appreciative Inquiry -  discovery, dream, design, and deploy  -  delivered $2 billion in savings to the Navy and a new approach to innovation.

Beyond businesses
The Case team was invited to the United Nations in 2004 to help launch the UN Global Compact which found a role for corporations in promoting human rights.

The technique was used to guide the merger of local trucking firms Roadway and Yellow, and led transformative change at dozens of other businesses, including Parker Hannifin and Lubrizol.

Cindy Stull, a partner at Dealer Tire and former HR director at Roadway Express, joined the Appreciative Inquiry team during its work with the US Navy. She shared the 4-D process with participants of the 2019 CLE Rising Summit.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

Appreciative Inquiry is now taught in business schools around the world.

Ten years ago David Cooperrider helped launch Cleveland’s sustainability plan, and annual summits continue to work toward a ‘green city on a blue lake.’

But Cooperrider is hoping for more from the Cleveland Rising effort.

According to Cooperrider, “we can begin to envision a next stage of democracy.”

What that might look like was on display at the summit, as citizens poured their hearts into a better vision for their city, Cleveland, a proving ground for the power of positivity.