Tag Archives: Appreciative Inquiry

Managing Change Toolkit: Appreciative Inquiry Part 3 of 4

Kent Rhodes
Kent Rhodes

In keeping with the theme of change and complexity, it is well known that families who own and operate successful enterprises manage both of those at the same time and, it may seem, all the time. It isn’t enough to create both long and short-term strategic plans for the business: Family leaders must also balance family dynamics, family interests, family future engagement, and sometimes, family conflict. Of course, that doesn’t mean that managing the change that comes from those complexities are always quickly accomplished or immediately appreciated.

That’s where Dr. David Cooperrider’s development of an OD (Organizational Development) or change management tool called Appreciate Inquiry comes into the picture. This tool, or process, has gained a great deal of attention in recent years because it is based on the homespun notion that what we learn and know about, what truly works and “gives life”, is actually more effective and sustainable than what we learn from breakdowns, problems or pathologies. Most businesses are trained to focus on fixing the latter while taking for granted the wisdom that comes from the former.

Cooperrider’s basic philosophy in developing Appreciative Inquiry was that “organizations are heliotropic” – that is they are like a plant that leans toward the sun. He identified key assumptions about A.I. that can have significant influence on how change is experienced and managed: That every organization has at least some things that work well and that what we focus on becomes our reality.

This positive focus does not mean that problems do not exist or are to be denied or ignored but that they are purposefully just not the primary frame of reference in managing the results of large scale change. John McKnight in, Building Communities from the Inside Out, relays the story of a carpenter who lost a leg in an accident. According to McKnight, the carpenter can choose to focus on his capacity for woodworking, or on his deficiency due to his missing limb. The positive principle underlying Appreciative Inquiry says that by focusing on his capacity, the carpenter is more likely to sow the seeds for creating his desired and most productive future reality, even though it is through significant change.

Finally, according to Sue Annis Hammond, one of the key aspects of Appreciative Inquiry revolves around the idea that “if we carry parts of the past into the future, they should be what is best about the past”.  That seems to make good sense to me and is consistent with what I know about the best of the family enterprise.

For family businesses, this perspective is baked-in to the process of effective continuity planning, for example, for the next generation’s involvement in the enterprise. That process is underpinned with strong desires followed by clear plans to pass along the strengths of the organization’s most life-giving narrative and behaviors rather than it’s difficulties and potential dysfunctions.  Given these realities, family businesses are naturals to engage in Appreciative Inquiry as one of their primary change management tools.


  • David L. Cooperrider (2000), “Positive Image, Positive Action,” in Appreciative Management and Leadership.
  • Sue Annis Hammond (1998), The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 2nd ed.
  • John McKnight (1993), Building Communities from the Inside Out.

The Management of Change: Part 2 of 4

Kent Rhodes
Kent Rhodes

There seems to be so much written and discussed about change these days. From an increasing cultural acceptance of marriage equality to keeping up with the latest technology advances (that smart phone you bought last month is already outdated), change not only is a fact of life, it also challenges our thinking and sometimes our comfort level.

Even business schools are obsessed with trying to teach current and future managers about change – sometimes even with some success.  Interesting thing is, it’s not really the change itself that creates the need to talk about managing it, but the complexity that surrounds the change.

What is striking about all the hyped talk about change, is how most family businesses seem to most naturally thrive in it simply because of the complexities a multi-generational enterprise naturally bring to the table: Strategy certainly includes market considerations but in a family business will likely include a plan for how G3 will engaged in it’s implementation; Increasing shareholder value is still central, but the relationships across family branches of owners means a deeper set of goals and assumptions are likely in place.

This particular view of change and complexity is referred to, quite blandly, as organizational development.  OD, as it’s called, is a process to help organizations be more effective in everything from making profits to improving the quality of work life. “…the focus is on building the organization’s ability to assess its current functioning and to achieve its goals…in the context of the larger environment that affects them.”  – Cummings and Worley, (2001)

So, whether they realize it or not, many family businesses are naturals at OD thinking that might actually give them a “leg up” in effectively managing change and complexity.  That doesn’t mean that process will always easy, but it does mean that some of the best examples of successful OD in practice, happens to be the family enterprise.


What Question Should Family Leaders Be Asking Their Followers?

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

As the leader of a family business, how can you learn what the major concerns of your followers are? What could you ask that would help you learn what your family owners really want the future to look like? What kind of question could you ask that would elicit responses that are open, honest, non-threatening and even creative?

David Cooperrider developed a systematic way of discovery he calls Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of using the conventional method of working with organizations, which is to ask diagnostic questions, such as “What’s wrong with this business?” Cooperrider focuses on what is working well.

The term Appreciative Inquiry comes from the word appreciate meaning valuing, prizing, or honoring, and the word inquire meaning discovery, search, or systematic exploration. Cooperrider also ascertains that the people inside the organization are the ones who really understand what needs to happen for it to be at its very best. In order to learn that, he simply asks: “If you had three wishes for the organization, what would they be?” This question is useful in all organizations, but I have found it to be particularly powerful in family businesses.

Last month I made a presentation at the Inland Press Association’s Family Owners & Next Generation Leadership Conference in Chicago about different leadership models for family businesses. The Inland Press Association is comprised of approximately 1200 newspapers that reach nearly 20 million U.S. homes. Many of those newspapers have been family owned and operated for several generations, and at least one is in its 6th generation of leadership. When these newspaper owners are gathered in one room there is an incredible energy created by their passion for what they do and a synergy that is as exciting as it is supportive.

From Appreciative Inquiry I asked the nearly forty family owners present: “If you had three wishes for your family business leaders—family as well as non-family—what would they be?” Their answers were most revealing.

This group had some philosophical wishes for their leaders because most of them see journalism as a true calling. Media Ethics authority, Kenneth Harwood writes: “Journalism, as a calling, asks for a moral dimension, professional skills, and professional aims. Similar to the biblical wedding feast, many are called, but few are chosen.”  The members of the Inland Press Association feel the awesome responsibility of being part of the American press, or “the watchdog of democracy.” In this group, where journalists are held to extremely high standards, those who lead journalists must be held to even higher standards. So it is not surprising that they wished their leaders would continue to make “journalistic endeavors” explaining, “Public trust can make a significant difference in our communities if we excel.”

The group also specifically wished their leaders would be “servant-leaders” in the style of Robert K. Greenleaf, who believed leaders should serve first and then lead. They also wished for their leaders to develop strong future servant-leaders, for their leaders to have confidence in the transition from one generation to the next, and to embrace change.

The family owners said they wished their leaders would establish a clear vision for the direction of the company. The wish most often made was that their leaders would communicate more. This group wanted to hear more from their leaders as well as for their leaders to hear more from them. They wanted to be listened to, and most importantly, to be heard.

One respected and revered leader of a major newspaper family, who was attending this conference with three generations of his family present, acknowledged that he had heard how many times better communication was wished for. He promised his family members in front of the entire group that he would be more forthcoming about what was on his mind as well as his plans for the future.

Once again I witnessed the power of the simple innocuous question: “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” Whether you are a family leader or a non-family leader, whether you are in the newspaper industry or the nutrition business, it might be time to ask that question and then to really listen.