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Cultivating a New Approach—Appreciative Inquiry 
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The Class Assignment

Each MBA group selected a company and facilitated an Appreciative Inquiry Change Intervention. The teams then wrote a paper describing the process, results and insights gained.

The Class Deliverable

As the economy continues its downward spiral, U.S. corporations must change in order to survive. Executives who lead organizational transformation effectively will begin to harvest bright, innovative ideas, poising their companies for future growth.

However, conventional wisdom about change is deeply rooted in the basic assumption that organizing is a problem to be solved. Almost every change methodology is based on the premise that the person or organization is somehow broken or deficient and needs to be fixed. Identifying and fixing problems has, therefore, become the overwhelming way to achieve change.

Yet, this approach creates a number of unhelpful effects:

  • People get defensive when it is implied that they are deficient which leads to resistance to change.
  • Change requires energy, and focusing on problems is proven by research to reduce energy and motivation.
  • When problems are highlighted the human reaction is to place responsibility for them with others. This has a destructive effect on the trust and relationships required to achieve change.

With so much at stake, leaders in enterprises—both large and small—should take heed and perhaps till up their old stagnant modes of organizational change and lay new ground to the fresh, positive approach—Appreciative Inquiry.

The underlying assumption to Appreciative Inquiry is that an organization is a “solution to be embraced,” rather than a “problem to be solved.” The phrases are shown in the diagram below. It starts with selecting a topic: Affirmative topic choice. What follows are Discovery (appreciating and valuing), Dream (envisioning), Design (co-constructing the future) and Destiny (learning, empowering and improvising to sustain the future.)

Further, comparing problem solving and Appreciative Inquiry side by side clearly illustrates their differences:

 Problem Solving 

 Appreciative Inquiry

Identify Problem  Appreciate “What is”
Conduct Root Cause Analysis Imagine “What Might Be”
Brainstorm Solutions and Analyze  Determine “What Should Be”
Develop Action Plans Create “What Will Be”
Metaphor: Organizations are Problems to be Solved  Metaphor: Organizations are a Solution/Mystery to be embraced

Organizations that use Appreciative Inquiry versus problem solving can reap powerful benefits:

  • Empowers and gives people the confidence to take risks
  • Makes work a more enjoyable experience
  • Promotes loyalty and productivity
  • Improves communication, trust, understanding and relationships
  • Creates motivation and energy amongst the people who are changing

What The Project Entailed
Understanding its value, Dr. Bury cultivated Appreciative Inquiry in his classroom, asking his students to sow its seed in companies throughout Northeast Ohio.

Therefore, the Konnect4 team selected Thomas Towers Worldwide (TTW)* at The Center for Retirement Services (CRS) for its Appreciative Inquiry intervention. We called the intervention the AI Summit. The TTW division is a third-party administrator (TPA) for employer sponsored pension plans. TTW has been a TPA for 75 years with its primary customer base being health care employers in southeast Ohio. The pension plans they service have approximately 80,000 individual participants.

Employee pension plans are complicated, but in general, can be classified in two categories— Defined Contribution (DC) and Defined Benefit (DB).

The DC plans are the retirement plans where both the employer and employees make contributions.  Upon retirement or termination of the participant, the dollar value of the account belongs to the employee.  Examples of DC plans are 401(k), 403(b), and profit sharing.

DB plans are typically 100% funded by the sponsoring employer.  DB plans provide a participant with a fixed monthly benefit upon retirement.  The DB funding status of the Big 3 auto manufacturers has been in the news as congress contemplates a bailout package.  In class, Dr. Kelly has discussed how the funding and burden of maintaining LTV’s DB pension plan was a major cause for their failure and bankruptcy.

Many DB plans are being terminated by the sponsoring employers because they are expensive to administer, are 100% funded by the employer, and are subject to actuary assumptions that cause funding to vary widely from year to year.  With the stock market being down over 30% in 2008, the funding status of DB plans will be the subject of business news over the next few months as organizations prepare their yearend financial statements and calculate the funding required for their plan to be in compliance with government regulations.

DB-pension work is nearly 100% of TTW’s TPA services.  Over the last several years, TTW has lost clients due to consolidation in the health care industry and plan terminations by the sponsoring employers.  In addition, TTW spends minimal time to obtain new clients and has experienced high staff turnover and low employee morale.

Konnect4 selected TTW for the AI Summit because we believe TTW has committed and talented individuals who can benefit from organizational change.  We think the AI Summit will help the TTW department understand “What Can Be.”  Konnect4’s goal is to work with the TTW staff to develop a plan for positive culture change that will boost employee morale and strengthen the customer service they provide to the 80,000 individual participants.

The Process

  • Konnect4 held an informal meet and greet to make TTW employees feel at ease and less intimated by the project.
  • In order to save time and “Discover and Dream,” we developed a 20-question survey for TTW employees.
  • However, when TTW management reviewed the survey they identified the five overarching areas in which they believed the company performed well and asked that we only ask questions pertaining to the following:
    • Training
    • Information flow
    • Process flow
    • Customer Service and Interaction
    • Resources/Equipment
  • Per TTW’s topic choice and recommendation, we condensed the 20-question survey down to nine. (See Survey, Exhibit #1.)
  • Konnect4 administered the survey to employees and received 70% participation.
  • Survey participants were encouraged to share their ideas with another individual within TTW (two people sharing and discovering together).
  • Once all the surveys were completed, we pored over the results to identify the common responses.
  • Konnect4 developed the strategy for the Appreciative Inquiry interview and created some follow-up questions in case there was extra time for dialogue.
  • Konnect4 designed a PowerPoint presentation to support and facilitate the inquiry. 
    (See PowerPoint Presentation, Exhibit #2.)
  • Konnect4 conducted the interview with TTW employees, reviewing the common survey results, wrote Provocative Propositions and discussed Destiny, how to empower, learn and adjust/improvise. (See Provocative Propositions/Master Wish List, Exhibit #3.)
  • Konnect4 gathered the data of the processes and wrote a paper describing the department’s execution of what the data suggested. (See The Ideal-Type Theme—Vision, Exhibit #4.)
  • Konnect4 provided TTW a copy of the vision so that they could develop it arriving at a group consensus of operating according to their greatest potential. (See Revised Vision, Exhibit #5.)
  • Approximately one week later, we facilitated a dialogue on the revised vision and “What will be” at TTW. (See Action Plans, Exhibit #6.)

Attendees worked together at the AI Summit to identify the things they valued most about being, or working with, benefit specialists and the positive contribution benefit specialists make to participants' futures. Some of the key points included their role in:

  • Understanding that they provide an important service to their customers
  • Devoting time to learning more so they keep their expertise current
  • Providing quality pension calculations
  • Working—first and foremost—as a team. “Together” they provide quality pension services to a diverse, complex customer base

Issues for process flow and resources were also raised and a wealth of material was gathered, shared and prioritized by the group.  

The use of methods developed from Appreciative Inquiry was considered to be very effective in this evaluation.  Attendees with very different perspectives on this subject worked enthusiastically together, generated important information which complemented material gathered in other ways and created a very enjoyable working experience. 

Team Assessment

  • The assignment highlighted the benefits of Appreciative Inquiry and the unhelpful effects of problem solving.

 Appreciative Inquiry Benefits

 Problem Solving Unhelpful Effects

Empowers and gives people the
confidence to take risks
People get defensive when it is implied that they are deficient and this increases their resistance to change.
Makes work a more enjoyable experience and promotes loyalty and productivity Change requires energy, and focusing on problems is proven by research to reduce energy and motivation.
Improves communication, trust understanding and relationships When problems are highlighted the human reaction is to place responsibility for them with others.
Creates motivation and energy amongst the people who are changing  This has a destructive effect on the trust and relationships required to achieve change.

  • TTW saw a lot of the positive in what they do versus their problems. And because we were recognizing their achievements rather than trying to fix their problems employees were happy and positive versus defensive and resistant.
  • The positive nature of Appreciative Inquiry enabled an open minded dialogue to Discover, Dream, Design and Destiny.
  • TTW recognized that their customers include participants as well as clients.
  • TTW employees literally “lit up” when we asked for testimonials:
    • Carl eagerly told us his experience with the “transition lady.” Even though her pension was $15,000 less than she expected, she was still very happy with Carl’s impeccable customer service.
    • Michael told us he received customer kudos when he quickly and accurately responded to an attorney’s questions in a snail mail letter.
    • Andrew proudly told us that the participants from onsite visits still remember him from six years ago asking, “How’s that little boy, Andrew doing? Is he ever coming back?”

Individual Assessment


After reading The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry and The Fifth Discipline this semester, it is easy for me to draw a parallel between the theory of Appreciative Inquiry and Senge’s philosophy—the learning organization. Quite simply, each of the five disciplines of the learning organization (systems thinking, shared vision, team learning, mental models and personal mastery) has a corresponding set of beliefs, assumptions and practices within Appreciative Inquiry.

Knowing this, one might have expected Konnect4 to use similar strategic approaches to complete Professor Kelly’s group project (Systems Thinking) and Dr. Bury’s learning opportunity (Appreciative Inquiry).  However, Konnect4 executed the two assignments very differently, using problem-solving “instinct” for one and a set of “touchy-feely” rules and guidelines for the other.

Problem Solving—Systems Thinking

 Appreciative Inquiry

Identify Problem Appreciate “What is”
Conduct Root Cause Analysis Imagine “What Might Be”
Brainstorm Solutions and Analyze  Determine “What Should Be”
Develop Action Plans Create “What Will Be”
Metaphor: Organizations are problems to be solved Metaphor: Organizations are a solution/mystery to be embraced

I must admit that I am definitely more comfortable in the problem-solving zone and that the Appreciative Inquiry assignment was a difficult concept for me to grasp. Yes, I understand and agree with the simple “psychology” behind Appreciative Inquiry, which is in a nutshell to:

  • Tell a group that they are deficient, and they will become defensive, demoralized and perform poorly.
  • Tell a group what they do well, and they will become more motivated and perform better.

I believe that my difficulties stem from the fact that Corporate America is so accustomed to change methodology based on the premise that the person or organization is somehow broken or deficient and needs to be fixed.  I fear that I—too—have conformed into a problem solver!

But I’m not the only one. During our interviews with TTW, I noticed that we—as a group— would start strong—positive and dreamy—just as Appreciative Inquiry requires, but suddenly found ourselves heading toward the “problem-solving zone.” We’d then have to “self correct” and reframe our discussions.

Appreciative Inquiry was also—I believe—a little more difficult for our clients (TTW). As when we would change the dialogue to be more Appreciative Inquiry focused, they—at first—struggled a bit for their words.

However, once the two group projects were complete I saw, firsthand, the difference in attitude. Kelly’s project—problem solving—produced defensive attitudes. I believe the employees felt threaten as we were there to “fix their broken systems and selves.” I also believe that they will be resistant to our ideas once we present them to senior management. 

On the other hand, Bury’s assignment—Appreciative Inquiry—created positive energy. You could literally feel it. The employees knew that we recognized what they did well, which not only motivated them but also helped provide an open minded, candid dialogue with free flowing ideas!

I enjoyed participating and facilitating my first Appreciative Inquiry.  In addition to our class this fall, I had studied Appreciative Inquiry with David Cooperrider in the Fall of 2004 at Case Western Reserve University.  To finally be able to put the concepts into practice was exciting for me.

I found the individuals to be very open and energetic during the AI Summit we held.  They had a relatively diverse background and all were very knowledgeable about the company and the roles they each play. 

From Carl the “Neophyte” who had very little experience to Michael who was also new but had years of experience.  Kathy who had only been with the company 7 months was impressive and had a lot of great ideas.  I would not be surprised if they don’t all end up reporting to her one day. 

It is amazing how when people are stimulated in the proper azimuth respond in that same directional fashion.  It reminded me of looking at myself in the mirror or how people responded in the “Smile Experiment” that we conducted earlier in the semester.  Being the facilitator and seeing the positive reactions gave me a great sense of pleasure and accomplishment. 

I truly feel that this group is energized and that they will take positive actions to create their own destiny.  I believe that when I go back there in a couple of years I will see a different group.

My individual assessment of the learning experience provided me the opportunity to experience and practice the technique of Appreciative Inquiry in an actual work environment.  As we prepared to conduct the learning experience, the AI Summit, I believe that there were various issues and discussions that Melvin had to work through in order to prepare the parties involved.  I believe the behind-the-scene legwork is the toughest part.  Since I have had the opportunity to conduct various ISO 9001:2000 Surveillance Audits, I understand that there is always an element of uncertainty and the fear of the unknown when being interviewed / audited.  Our initial interviews with Sarah and Greg were very informative and provided me a better understanding of the process and function that TTW provides with respect to the pension benefit calculations.  After our initial interview, it was intuitively obvious that both of these staff members have a very thorough knowledge of how the TTW department works and the staff that is there to help support the effort.
As we moved through the Appreciative Inquiry learning experience, it became quite evident that there are many “good things” that happen in TTW.  There are also areas that could help improve the process flow of material and data through the department. Since we had four sets of “new eyes” that bring a wide range of business experience, our group was able to develop a series of questions that generated very good inquiry.
As we moved through the phases of the AI Summit, I could sense that we were getting the staff of TTW to see the good things that were happening around them and also begin to see what “could be.”  The suggestions that came out of our dialogue were very encouraging.  As the group moves forward, I believe that it is in the best interest of TTW Management to review the suggestions and begin to implement the action plan.  This is an opportunity to improve the systems within TTW for better communication, turnaround time on calculations, and most importantly, provide management the opportunity to bring in additional clients / customers. 
I believe the goal is to work smarter and not harder.  As management, we need to provide our employees with the tools they need to do their tasks.  As TTW management, can we look at the department today and say they have the tools they need?  Can we provide the extra printers at each work station?  What will an upgrade to the telephone system cost?  Is it feasible to electronically scan the data to allow individuals that are offsite to process calculations?  What will the future be?
In closing, I found the AI Summit very interesting and intriguing.  The service that is being provided is so very important to so many people.  The end customer’s rely on the staff at TTW to provide them with their “futures.”  These futures have been toiled over for many years and I can see that the staff takes their tasks very seriously. 

Since my employer is CRS, I started the Appreciative Inquiry project with biases and perceptions toward the TTW department.  I believe my personal biases and perceptions enhanced my learning.

Prior to Appreciative Inquiry, I concluded the TTW associates had negative attitudes and low employee morale.  The atmosphere and positive energy Appreciative Inquiry creates changed my feelings about the TTW department and its associates.  Through Appreciative Inquiry, I learned TTW associates want to contribute to the success of the department and want to offer ideas and suggestions to make lasting cultural improvements.  Konnect4 provided an opportunity for the associates to communicate and created a positive reinforcing environment.  The associates I viewed with negative attitudes and low morale developed their plan and did the work.

My familiarity with TTW prior to the AI Summit enabled me to observe the power of Appreciative Inquiry.  My teammates saw the process at work too, but they did not have the perspective of knowing how the department worked before the AI Summit.

Observing changing attitudes and witnessing the Appreciative Inquiry process at work is powerful learning, but my most worthwhile learning was what Dr. Kelly refers to as - “people make it real”.  Our research indicated individuals will embrace Appreciative Inquiry and find solutions.  I found this to be true, but our research did not address individual personalities or obstacles and road blocks people may bring to the experience.

The learning as the Konnect4 team navigated through corporate dynamics/politics and individuals who wanted no part of the project is priceless.  As individuals introduced new challenges, the Konnect4 team addressed their concerns with positive responses and questions.  The Konnect4 team had to work without a checklist and apply the Appreciative Inquiry theory in a practical setting with real individuals and real personalities.  The differences between the individuals and our interactions with them made the experience real.

Our COO observed the benefits of the AI Summit too. He wants the TTW team to continue the project.  He believes the Appreciative Inquiry approach can have long lasting positive change in our entire organization.  I believe TTW is just the beginning for Appreciative Inquiry intervention at CRS.

* In order to provide the company and individuals of the organization confidentiality, fictitious names have been used.
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