Positive organisational culture

Positive Organisations and Positive Strategic thinking

The following process is ideally used in strategic planning. However, the ideas can be adapted for use in team meetings, project management, individual coaching and change management.

Let’s start with the obvious. Would you rather have a problem or a solution? As I.T. experts like to remind us, if you start by putting garbage into a computer you get garbage out. The answers matter, but only if we start with the right questions.

But what are the right questions? Questions are never neutral. They are either problem focused or solution focused. This distinction is vital because organisations that focus their attention on their problems continue having those problems. We can all think of organisations that talk the talk about addressing bullying or reducing staff turnover, only to have the same issues year after year.

In contrast, organisations that work on building respectful relationships or improving staff retention get just that; -better relationships and better staff retention. Same wish list, but different questions.

Unfortunately change happens slowly. The old paradigm of ‘overcoming weaknesses’ is played out every day in most workplaces. We instinctively focus attention on the things that “need fixing” thus ensuring more of the same.

Appreciative Inquiry “Human systems grow toward what they persistently ask questions about.” -David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney

Appreciative Inquiry is a paradigm shift in strategic management. It is an approach to creating change based on the simple observation that human beings make progress towards whatever goals they focus on.

HarneAAppreciative Inquiry begins with this observation by identifying a desired goal then framing deliberately positive questions around the goal. Then, as people respond to positive questions they share stories of past successes and remember what has been possible previously. As they bring these positive experiences to the discussion it becomes possible to plan future actions, i.e., informed by the past positive experiences.

Appreciative Inquiry principles are usually customised to each individual situation however most follow a step by step process called the 4-D model. So how does it work a real world setting?




Imagine you are convening a strategic planning day.

Stage 1. Define Start by gaining clarity. What are we wanting to achieve as a group? However, more than having just another discussion about what needs fixing, lead a discussion about what we want more of.

For example, staff may identify the goal of reducing customer complaints. But using an Appreciative Inquiry approach you reframe this goal as the desire for more happy customers. If staff identify the goal of reducing staff turnover, this goal is reframed as the desire for higher job satisfaction.

At the end of this stage you will have identified one or more clear, affirmative objectives.

Stage 2. Discovery In the discovery stage the goal is to identify the strengths that already exist in the current situation.  For example, assuming we continue with the above example of wanting more satisfied customers, you could lead a discussion asking people…

  • “When are our customers currently most happy with us?”
  • “What have you found has made our customers happy in the past?”
  • “What is so unique about those situations? What factors are in play?”
  • “What elements are common in examples of positive customer feedback?”
  • “How can we expand and grow those factors…?”

These positive questions will encourage an exploration of the actions that have proved successful up to now. It will reveal the current strengths of your staff and acknowledge when they are at their best, which in turn motivates people to replicate those actions with more intent.

If people remain stuck on the negatives ask them about the exceptions to the rule, however rare those exceptions may be. Ask them…

  • “What’s different about the situations when the problem isn’t happening? “
  • “If our progress has been up and down, what have been the ups?”

Stage 3. Dream Having been inspired by exploring successes to date, ask people to visualize an ideal future.  Craft questions to encourage an ideal and ambitious vision. 


For example, ask people...

  • “Imagine a future where satisfied customers are the new normal. What would that look like?”
  • “Imagine a world where customers are better connected to our services”.
  • “What if more people posted good news stories about us on social media?”
  • “Imagine our competitors envying our reputation for service excellence”.
  • “What’s happening in such a scenario that makes it possible?  What has changed?”

The strength of Appreciative Inquiry is that, in addition to being a pleasing vision, it is grounded in real, lived experience. It’s been done, if only sometimes. So how do we grow the active ingredients? How can we make it happen more often?

Phase 4 Design Just as builders work from an architectural plan, we need a plan of action setting out who needs to do what. Remember we still have one foot still in the current reality (stage 2) and the other foot in the desired future (stage 3). So the next step is to build a bridge between the two worlds. How make the transition happen?

In this stage, you can continue to work as a large group, or you can have people break into smaller groups. Either way the task is to build consensus through respectfully sharing ideas, hopes and values.

Ask these questions…
  • “What concrete actions would help us achieve the goals from stage 3?”
  • “What do we need to get happening now to start progress towards our vision?”
  • “What would need to change – from what to what?”
  • “Who needs to be involved, what will their roles be?”

At the end of this stage there is a sense of ‘locking it in.’ You should be able to say…"Yes, this is the vision of what we want to achieve, and this is how we will make it happen”.

Since all parties have been included in the process they are more invested in making it happen.  Your role now is to assign tasks, and guide and empower people to implement the changes they themselves have identified and contributed to. 

Further reading Cooperrider, D.L., Whitney, D. & Stavros, J.M. (2008) Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (2nd ed.) Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom Publishing. Deveau, B.J. (2015) SWOT: Time to Drop the Negatives and SOAR. University of Prince Edward Island. Kessler, E.H. (ed.) (2013). Encyclopaedia of Management Theory, Sage Publications. Lewis, S., Passmore, J. & Cantore, S. (2008) The Appreciative Inquiry Approach to Change Management. London, UK: Kogan Paul. Mohr, B. J. & J. M. Watkins (2002). The Essentials of Appreciative Inquiry: A Roadmap for Creating Positive Futures.  MA: Pegasus Communications. Whitney, D. & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2010) The Power of Appreciative Inquiry (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. Brian J Deveau (2015) SWOT: Time to Drop the Negatives and SOAR. University of Prince Edward Island.