Project Management

Using Appreciative Inquiry in Project Management

By | 5 min read | Published

This overlooked method of conflict resolution builds engagement and spurs innovation.

As a project manager, maybe you’ve been there before—a meeting is called to resolve a problem or project in your business, only to devolve into finger-pointing, excuses, and ultimately delays. The effects spill over into the work, and may simmer under the surface for a long time until someone quits or is fired. The problem, perhaps temporarily patched, then repeats itself with new employees.

What if all this could be avoided?

As today’s work environment relies more on remote/hybrid teams than previous approaches, the lingering effects of anger and misunderstanding in a work setting can do a lot of damage.

Virtual meetings also can make it tougher to determine who is on board with an idea, or if some are resistant. Since there’s no substitute for looking around the room and seeing a furrowed brow or thoughtful nod, getting team members to speak up can be more difficult in a virtual setting.

As new methods of project management continue to emerge, let’s take a look at a style that, while typically not used in project management settings, has a long and impressive history of success—appreciative inquiry.

What is appreciative inquiry?

Appreciative inquiry came out of the work of a graduate student at the Weatherhead School of Management (Case Western Reserve University) in the 1980s. David Cooperider[1], working on an organizational behavior project with the Cleveland Clinic, found that despite dissatisfaction and problems in the organization, there was also a great deal of untapped positive energy underneath the surface.

His appreciative inquiry model formalized a means of accessing what is best in an organization and using it as a force for change, innovation, and productivity. Since its formulation, appreciative inquiry has been used in a wide variety of organizational settings to discover the “positive core” of the organization and build on it for success.

Project teams can use appreciative inquiry to form project teams, limit storming[2], boost productivity, and avoid or transcend conflict.

Applying appreciative inquiry to project management

If anything calls for creative ways to engage with teams, it’s the remote/hybrid team environment.

Meetings have always been an unpredictable way to get anything done—especially when a project team is faced with unforeseen schedule complications, a key team member’s unavailability, or client complaints—tempers, patience, and feelings can all be sorely tested.

The built-in alienation of working remotely or at a distance can further complicate these issues.

First, recognize that our usual recourse—problem solving—represents a mechanistic response to a “broken” situation. It seeks a fix that will return the system to working order. But it doesn’t usually create a new way of doing things, and may actually inhibit the development of innovative solutions by focusing preferentially on business as usual.

Although solving problems requires accurate data, in the application of that data the subjective views of team members or leaders can warp the outcome. And at the “problem identification” stage, there is ample opportunity for finger-pointing and blame, along with all their toxic effects.

A breakdown of a typical problem solving cycle in project management (Source).

In deciding where to focus our energies, today’s complex and uncertain environments call for a higher-order creativity—one that sidesteps problem-solving and goes straight to engagement and innovation.

Ready to try something different? Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how appreciative inquiry meshes with project team needs:

A diagram of appreciative inquiry applied to project management (Source).

What is the four Ds model, and how can you apply it to your team?

This four Ds model asks us to begin by discovering what is working well, rather than by pinpointing what is broken.

In project management practice, it might go like this:

  • Discover the best of what is: Identify where a company or project’s processes work perfectly.
  • Dream what might be: Envision processes that would work perfectly all the time or be ideal for the challenges that you face.
  • Design what should be: Define and prioritize the elements of perfect processes or outcomes.
  • Deliver what will be: Create an outcome based on what will be and participate in the creation/delivery of that design—the actual work of the project.

Naturally, between the dream and the delivery, practical considerations may temper our idealism.

Appreciative inquiry can be used at each status meeting or especially when replanning or during crises. It keeps teams’ focus on the positive and builds morale and relationships.

Here’s an introductory exercise to familiarize a group with appreciative inquiry in practice:

  1. Form breakout groups of five to seven participants.
  2. Ask participants to recall the best team experience they have ever been a part of.
  3. Each participant describes their experience while the rest of the group is encouraged to ask questions.
  4. The facilitator encourages participants to explore what made this a peak experience.
  5. After all members have shared, the facilitator asks the group to list and develop a consensus on the attributes of highly effective teams.
  6. Finally, the facilitator asks: “How is this team/organization/group like the best team you’ve ever experienced?”

Next time your organization is faced with a problem, instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, try asking: “What’s right? What works? How can we do more of it?”

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1. What is Appreciative Inquiry?, David Cooperrider

2. The Five Stages of Team Development, Lumen Learning

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About the Author

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin - Guest Contributor

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin - Guest Contributor

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin is editor-in-chief of PM Solutions Research, the content generation center of PM Solutions, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. A frequent presenter and blogger on project management research topics, she is the author or editor of over 20 project management books, including two that have received the PMI Literature Award. In 2007, she received a Distinguished Contribution Award from PMI.

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