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1. The Context

2. Organisations and Organising

3. Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

4. Research

5. Appreciative Consulation - A Heuristic Model

6.Concluding Remarks

Appreciative Consultation: The Consulting Perspective - Reclaiming Our Imaginative Competence: Appreciating People's Contributions to Organising

Liz Mellish and Brigid Limerick

In this paper we address the issue of discontinuous organisational change through asking the question of consultants as to whether they are professionally preparing themselves for the changing needs of their clients in a world of discontinuous change. We suggest that a way to do this may be through the Co-operative Model of Appreciative Consulting. The paper then develops our argument as to why such a change in approach may be necessary, discusses the principles underpinning appreciative consulting, outlines the Co-operative model and concludes by starting the process of developing the model in the Australian context through presenting personal case studies on the use of appreciative consulting.

1. The Context

Increasingly in the 1990s, consultants are feeling the need to somehow bring together, integrate, in a way interpret, their clients experience of organisational change. There is an expectation that the consultant will bring the latest trend or a new way of knowing to what they are going through and provide a pathway towards the future. Commonly, the consultant is required to respond to specific briefs which the client feels represents the ‘issues of the moment’. These briefs, over time, may reflect a cumulation of the clients strategic change needs, a specific intervention to address an operational dilemma or an ‘injection’ of professional development to motivate staff who are confused, fatigued, cynical, overloaded or simply needing a fresh perspective. The consultant sets about gathering ideas, and designing a process, typically for a one or two day intervention, to assist the client group achieve their required outcomes.

Over the past few years clients briefs have become more focussed on interrelated components of organisational change such as leadership, team development, power redistribution, collaborative competencies, communication strategies, time management, information management, client service, performance management and motivation. The ‘snapshot’ approach no longer suffices. Clients expect the consultant to deliver intellectual competence (knowing their issues and providing frameworks to deal with them), logical competencies (offering a project management approach to systematically pursuing the change management agenda at hand) and processual competence (facilitating the client group towards group decisions about practical approaches to resolving differences and ‘moving ahead’. Clear examples of the changing demands to meet changing organisational demands can be seen in requests in two areas: the demand for women-only management courses (Limerick, Heywood and Ehrich, 1995) and professional doctorate programs (Limerick, Daws and Clark, 1996).

In short, clients have ridden the roller coaster of the last ten years, the decade of disorder, experiencing a wide variety of ‘solutions’ to their problems. These change management initiatives have included, since 1986, Customer is King (Albrecht, 1989) Environmentalism, Quality Circles, Self-directed Teams, Benchmarking, Workforce Diversity, Learning Organisations (Senge, 1990), TQM, re-engineering (Birchall and Lyons, 1995), Speed as Competitive Advantage, Globalism, Open-book Management, Virtual Organisations (Hames, 1995; Limerick, 1993; Quinn, 1992) to name a few. In government, the principles of entrepreneurial government and political philosophies of ‘reinventing government’ (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992) have driven a relentless reform agenda towards smaller, cheaper, more commercial and business like government. So, as a consultant, where does one go with all this? One option is to become a specialist at certain organisational ‘treatment’ technologies such as quality assurance, performance management, business diagnostics, process re-engineering, market and customer research, activity based costing etc. Alternatively, a consultants’ response may be to collaborate with other providers, forming a consortium, to address the client's needs with a multiskilled consultancy team. Whilst some negotiation of the client brief may be undertaken, the consultants are ultimately limited by their own specialist competence or their ability to access a collaborative and complimentary consulting expertise. Given the nature of consulting, there is a constant pressure to articulate and get client agreement to a project specification which forms the basis of the consulting contract upon which basis the consultant will be paid for their services. Time is money in consulting, so each ‘assignment’ needs to be scoped and costed. Ultimately this way of working reinforces the problem diagnostic and treatment mindset that the consultant brings to the interaction and, indeed, what the client expects and is accountable for ‘signing off’.
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The trend towards more contractual work environments and the outsourcing/buying in of specialist expertise is eroding the traditional notion of organisation. It is no longer relevant to see organisation as a ‘problem to be solved’, indeed ‘organisation’ is difficult to define as in some cases contractual employees make up 70% of the structure compared to the core group accountable for co-ordination and direction setting. The lines between consultant and client are increasingly blurred as these roles shift depending on the nature of the interaction often emerging as strategic partner, operative, informal advisor, customer representative, broker, spokesperson and so on.

2. Organisations and Organising

There is no doubt that technology is providing people and organisations with unprecedented choices as to forms of organising in what, today, is a global market place. Limerick (1994) posits two organisational paradigms for consideration: 

Corporate paradigm  Post Corporate paradigm
reification  social constructively 
tightly integrated hierarchies  horizontal coupling 
within factory walls  lifestream compatibility and support 
management concerns  participant concerns
constrained agency  responsive agency 
male stream concepts gender compatibility and embracing difference
the good corporate citizen collaborative individualism
the high performing organisation the socially sustainable organisation

Limerick (1995) argues that within these two paradigm five working situations are observable; traditional corporation, neocorporate bureaucracy, post corporate organisation, small business and self employment. Where as there is a plethora of literature regarding consulting approaches, technologies and techniques to support traditional corporate structures operating in the corporate paradigm, the field is less cluttered with approaches, technologies and techniques that work in the neocorporate bureaucracy and few, if any, exist to serve the post corporate organisation. The trend of graduates from business schools to seek employment in small and medium sized enterprises and self employment is growing as dissatisfaction with differences in rhetoric and reality in neocorporate bureaucracies forces people to ‘outer’ both psychologically and physically. Taskforces such as the Karpin (1995) report bring to our attention ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigms of management as reflected below, however the critical issue of managing the transition between paradigms receives less attention. Top of Page

Old paradigm New paradigm
organisation discipline  organisation learning 
vicious circles  virtuous circles 
inflexible organisation  flexible organisation
management administrators  management leaders 
distorted communication  open communication 
hierarchy markets 
product development driven by strategic business units product development driven by core competencies
strategic learning occurs at the apex of the organisation  strategic learning capacities are widespread
assumptions that most employees are untrustworthy assumption that most employees are trustworthy
most employees are disempowered  most employees are empowered
local knowledge of all employees must be disciplined by managerial local knowledge of all employees is critical to success and creativity
prerogative creates its own prerogative

The question arises as to how consultants

reframe their concepts and practice to assist their clients in transition

engage in messy, complex consultancy assignments regarding organisational change where, in most instances, the outcome is ambiguous and unpredictable and yet the client holds on to an expectation that the consultant will provide certainty in a chaotic world

usefully appreciate and impact the clients experience of the change from one form of organisation to another

In light of the increasingly high expectations that clients have of consultants coupled with the fluidity of emergent forms of organisation, a dramatic shift is required in consultancy practice. Consultants (and their clients) have to go behind the way they think, and acknowledge and question their assumptive models of organisation. Questions to be asked may include:

Is organising a problem to be solved or a mystery to be embraced? Why are we all still here?

How does what we inquire about impact where we put our effort?

What are our provocative proposals for the year?

As leaders in our communities, how do we define what is possible? How do we make it happen?

What works for us and how can we do more of it?

These, and other, questions, we choose to ask define how we make decisions, identify our priorities and cope with obstacles. As consultants, we need to stand back from our remedies, technologies, quick fixes and appreciate the multiple realities of our clients worlds. We need to appreciate and understand their world in order to usefully attempt to interact with their realities of organisational change so as, together, to work towards sustainable adjustments in strategy and operational practice.

Both consultants and clients operate in the chaotic and impermanent world of organisational life. How we choose to define power and possibility is infinitely reframable. How we manage meaning and interpret ideas is increasingly significant as access to information is widespread and the range of ‘interested parties’ continues to grow. Together we construct what’s possible, we transmit values, we create group building language and we extend visions of what’s possible. Most of us ‘follow the light’ - we receive inspiration and are energised by fresh perspectives we feel we can accommodate, new ideas which help us make sense of what we’re trying to do. In the process of organisational change, this ‘helioptropic affect’ occurs when we are able to appreciate and celebrate our capacities, our success stories, our strengths, the positive aspects of our work that reinforce us and legitimise our effort.Top of Page

Assuming the driving notion that organisational effort follows the line of inquiry, both leaders and consultants have the capacity to influence organisational effort in a positive or negative manner. Appreciative consultation represents an approach to organisational change which has the capacity to capture what organisational participants are doing well, what they feel proud about, what is important to them and how they can continue to perform best. The assumption here is that organisations are social systems defined by the way their participants think, feel and perform together. The dynamics of imagination, inquiry and discourse define what’s possible in organisational direction as do the dynamics of hope, motivation and energy impact what’s achieved in organisational output.
 Affirmative Topic Choice
The group was encouraged to apply an interview protocol with a partner to inquire about and discover stories about their ‘most impactful’ moments/experiences in organising. Key values were derived from these stories, and ‘life giving forces’ identified from the values. The process attempted to uncover for each participant ‘the best of what is/has been’. These stories were then recounted by each partner to a larger group of 6 people.

During the second stage, participants worked in the larger groups to identify key topic areas in common. Once these topic areas were identified participants were encouraged to dream of ‘what might be’ if organising was underpinned by these topics. We were encouraged to formulate provocative propositions around each of the topic areas and to envision results of our endeavours in terms of strategic and social intent. Each group member then applied their agreed interview protocol (provocative propositions) on members from other groups and reported back the findings to the core group. A rich data base of stories was accumulated and an appreciation of individuals areas of expertise and organisational circumstances emerged.

Preliminary aspects of the design phase were undertaken as group members further refined topics and proposals in search of ‘what should be’ in the ideal organisation. The process involved co-constructing through dialogue and shared meaning what possibilities existed to translate ‘what might be’ into practice. Reference was made to the implications of proposals such as ‘people will be supported and encouraged to take risks’ for ways of organising such as shared values, strategy, structure, systems, staff, skills and style.

The group moved to review approaches to sustain the preferred future of ‘what will be’ in our notional organisation.

Ultimately, the model provided the group with a social architecture within which we could explore, uncover, share and reframe personal and organisational issues. The process of inquiry, with its emphasis on appreciative inquiry, providing new insights into possibilities and ways of organising that grew out of individual contributions.
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3. Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry as an approach to organisational consultation is informed by four key principles:

1. Appreciation: The consultant views organising as a mystery to be embraced and appreciates the narrative and dialogue that frames participants’ experiences. Shared meanings evolve through the process of story telling in such a way as to move beyond functional, geographical and even national boundaries. Diversity is acknowledged and celebrated as multiple realities emerge to stimulate thinking, ideas and ways of being. Compelling topic themes which the group is genuinely curious about may be identified as the core factors which inspire and ‘give life’ to the process of organising.

2. Application: The purpose of the inquiry is to discover what works and to do more of it so as to generate energy and organising capacity which emerges from the group itself as opposed to an ‘external solution’. The process of inventing the future emerges from applied appreciation of ‘what counts’.

3. Provocation: Provocative questions are crafted and asked so as to stimulate possibilities regarding ‘what if?’ and ‘maybe?’. Group members are willing to experiment as their own unique contributions have been appreciated. The zero-sum notion of change is transcended and provocative proposals emerge from multiple quarters without the debilitating feeling of ‘giving something up’ or the neutering effect of compromising.

4. Collaboration: Organising requires the collaborative input of multiple stakeholders. Once unique contributions are appreciated, stories unfold, interdependencies become clearer and a compelling way forward emerges, individuals are willing and able to operate in a collaborative environment which is both personally and collectively meaningful.

4. Research

A diverse body of research in the organisational behaviour field lends compelling weight to appreciative inquiry as a powerful approach to facilitating sustainable organisational change efforts. The findings from six familiar change studies will be briefly overviewed to support the affirmative outcomes of positive thinking.

1. The Placebo Effect - lessons learnt from the experimental and the control groups in this famous study indicated that the internal expectations of the group given the ‘sugar coated pill’ facilitated their improvement to the same or greater extent than the group given the ‘real medicine’. If people expect to succeed, within themselves, they are likely to do so.

2. The Pygmalian Effect - if a supervisor expects their employees to succeed and manages the environment in such a way, it is likely that their work unit will perform to these expectations just as Eliza Doolittle became the lady in George Bernhard Shaw’s famous play.

3. Positive Effect - countless studies have revealed the impact of the ‘halo effect’ on selection decisions and on teaching practice. One positive attribute which a candidate or a student may have, influences the relationship in a generally positive manner, often to the extent that weaknesses are ignored.

4. Imbalanced Dialogue - motivational studies, observations and experience indicate that to the extent that people think two positive thoughts for every one negative thought, they will achieve their goals.

5. Rise and Fall of Cultures - the power of the human spirit to transcend seemingly insurmountable obstacles was illustrated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Band Aid phenomenon and Nelson Mandela’s leadership in South Africa. In each case individuals collaborating brought about fundamental change and forever redefined what was possible and acceptable in global terms.

6. Affirmative Capability - the process of appreciating and acknowledging individual and group capability and effort generates confidence which in turn, reinforces and sustains further positive demonstrations of performanceTop of Page

Extensions of the 4-D Model to the Australian context

4.1 Description of case studies

Over the last 6 months, aspects of the Appreciative Inquiry approach have been applied in a variety of client contexts including strategic change plans for a university faculty and a community health organisation, setting up self managing and customer focussed team structures in two large government bureaucracies, professional development for early childhood educational consultants and women in educational management, and in two organisational review projects.

4.2 Key learnings from this experience: Reactions, reflections of the process in use

Based on reflections of the utility of the model in process, participants feedback and anecdotal evidence to date, we have modified the model in a number of ways to better suit the Australian context.

Firstly, the model has been positioned with clients as a way of integrating and making meaningful the plethora of organisational change initiatives and challenges that preoccupy them daily. Together, we have used the approach to ‘ground’ ourselves, take stock and reflect on why we’re pursuing so called ‘organisational imperatives’. This has been very useful as a way of tying things together in an overreaching context and linking multiple initiatives to the larger outcome sought. Clients at different levels of their structures appear to experience appreciative inquiry differently; senior executives appear relieved, middle managers benefit from the cross functional communication opportunities, and operational people see the process as a way of being heard.

Secondly, clients have been encouraged to explore, in some cases rediscover, why they started off doing what they’re doing and why they continue to do it with particular emphasis on what they feel passionate about and why. The idea here is to get a sense of ‘goodwill’ in the group so that they give each other the benefit of the doubt and are prepared to openly disclose what’s important to them. The key issue I have found here is that we appear to have lost the art of sharing stories. I have found it particularly important to assist groups develop their appreciative questioning skills, sometimes struggling myself for ways of framing questions to illuminate rather than stifle. There has also been a tendency to embarrassment and self deprecation in responses to questions such as ‘what has been your most impactful moment in your career to date?’. We constantly reframe questions more along the lines of ‘When have you felt most confident, most worthwhile? Why? What were you doing? Who else was involved? What difference did your actions make?’ The processes of identifying stories to share, sharing the stories and the affirmative effect of having one’s stories replayed to a larger group has prompted a number of my clients to seriously question their roles in their employing organisations. In some cases, the appreciative inquiry process has contributed to radical decisions to change personal and organisational circumstances! I'm not sure that this is a beneficial outcome for the client organisation or whether, if reported more comprehensively would generate a repositioning of the organisation to better meet the value driven needs of individual members.Top of Page

Thirdly, in some circumstances, the word ‘develop’ has been coupled with ‘dream’ for stage 2 of the 4D model as some clients have difficulty coping with expressions such as the ‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ of organising, let alone dreaming the future! In contrast, I have also received feedback suggesting that the language used in appreciative inquiry is so different to the usual strategic planning, benchmarking, problem solving and action planning language that it changes participants mindsets and is more inclusive of life issues as opposed to the narrow perspective of organisational or work issues.

Fourthly, it has been found that the links between each of the phases is critical, difficult and complex to facilitate. Moving from initial story sharing to topic definition, moving from topic definition to crafting provocative proposals, exploring provocative proposals and broadening the dialogue, moving from fine tuned proposals to design parameters, keeping a collaborative and reflective energy across a wide group and making tough decisions about implementing some proposals and dropping others. There is no doubt that if time and resources permit, the initial discover phase can lay the foundation for affirmed collaborative competencies and shared understandings and indeed, cultural change, which is necessary to achieve the design phase changes. If the discover phase is rushed and incomplete, a trap awaits as the rest of the process is perceived as politicised or ‘pie in the sky’.

There is a dilemma then, as the consultant may be perceived to be encouraging a ‘talkfest’ as opposed to producing tangible results for the client. What is attractive to the client is the prospect of the appreciative inquiry process being a high impact low cost organisational change intervention as client participants can snowball the inquiry process after developing the interview protocol with the consultant. Of fundamental use to the client is the process and output of the Discovery phase as a common perspective and profound appreciation of what’s important, what people enjoy about the organisation, is shared. Based on this simultaneously unifying and diversely appreciative platform, participants can move with confidence to identifying compelling topics/themes to underpin the Dream phase of what would be ideal. Stimulating the use of imagination and developing provocative propositions is exciting and fun whilst being grounded in participants’ experience of what works. The group is able to go ‘out on a limb’ to imagine ‘best case scenarios’ in this future search process and, in the process, identify provocative and energising proposals. In today’s climate of cynicism and fatigue, this process is powerful, creative and energising. The key is to ‘give voice and space’ for multiple realities experienced by participants at all levels of the organisation. In my experience the process is generative with participants passionately ‘owning’ their output and propositions at this stage.

Moving from Dream to Design requires the consultant to have a sound working knowledge of organisational arrangements so as to lead the group in consideration of the implications of their provocative proposals for design and intent of organisational strategy, structure, systems and culture. Often, common sense impacts at this point, where participants query the relevance of traditional practice and propose more meaningful ways of organising ( e.g.. self managing teams, revised collaborative performance indicators, flexible work practices, shared accountabilities, closer customer contact processes, specific skill building programs etc.) to achieve THEIR dream. The interdependencies between group members and their clients are highlighted and frequently the group resolves to use appreciative inquiry to explore and discover their client priorities thus extending the process across and out of the organisation. With respect to the Destiny phase, I have found that groups’ willingly commit to and endorse how their performance will be assessed, how their accomplishments will be measured as their input and contribution has been appreciated. There is no need to exorcise commitments to the ubiquitous ‘action plan’ at the end of the process as the appreciative process has evolved and participants have been heard and influenced the direction. They own the output and have been party to the decisions made. My experience to date has been that groups ‘can’t wait’ to get on with it. This sort of energy, focus and widely distributed commitment is priceless in today’s organisations!

Fifthly, the appreciative inquiry process has added a valuable dimension to the manner in which focus group processes have been designed and to the manner in which focus group participants have responded to, shared and interacted with each other and the consultant on two ‘program review’ projects recently completed. The underlying assumption in a traditional review is to identify shortfalls and implement corrective action. Using appreciative inquiry, the emphasis shifts to establishing what works, and strategies which would further enhance program performance. The participants, reportedly, are more inclined to offer strategies and be less defensive about proposed changes and new approaches as they ‘own’ the data of the appreciative inquiry process as opposed to having a ‘best practice model’ thrust upon them. This was particularly relevant in a cross cultural valuation completed with aboriginal participants in a higher education setting. The appreciative inquiry approach to recognising multiple realities and unearthing stories about what works has also been useful in employee consultation groups positively exploring the issue of diversity as a business strategy.Top of Page

5. Appreciative Consultation - an Heuristic Model

5.1 Key themes that have emerged

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Appreciative Inquiry has been the ability of the process to reconnect people to their organisations. The process provides a framework for managing and reinforcing the interplay between novelty, continuity and transition in organisational change. As opposed to feeling the daunting and depressing need to leap from one way of being to a new way of doing things (usually discarding all that went before in the process) every time clients see a consultant, appreciative inquiry helps to value and celebrate what people bring to organisations and from this strong basis, make the adjustments they believe are necessary. Continuity is precious in tumultuous and uncertain times. Responsible consultants assist clients identify and continue what they do well, discontinue what no longer serves their purpose and develop new approaches to meet new needs. In these times of discontinuous change, it is vital to acknowledge continuities and transitions, the psychological adjustments people need to make to accommodate changes. Appreciative inquiry provides a framework for promoting continuity dialogue in terms of founding stories, innovations, turning points, proud achievements, best practices, empowering traditions, intergenerational wisdom, moments of courage/integrity, things to pass along etc. The power of appreciating continuity in times of novelty and transition is illustrated by the benefits to individuals and organisations reflected below.

Functions for the individual  Functions for the organisation
Social connectedness Strengthen commitment 
Moral guidance  Organisational learning 
Pride, Hope and Joy  Facilitate interpretation and decision making 
Confidence to act  Decentralised control 
Personal welfare  Customised change 
 Maintenance of self esteem Maintenance of mission 
 Long term thinking Long term thinking 
 Networking Inter organisational collaboration 

5.2 A useful model

The ABC’s of Appreciative Inquiry

A - Appreciative understanding of your organisation (from past to present)

B - Benchmarked understanding of other organisations (exemplary models to learn from); and

C - Creative construction of the future (sometimes called the Future Search Conference)

Our approach to designing and facilitating organisational change and planning processes generally has three steps:

Step 1 Organisational balancing act

The concept of balancing the triad of novelty, continuity and transition is introduced. It is important to be able to use specific, relevant organisational examples here so that the group appreciates that the consultant appreciates their circumstances.

Step 2 Emergent forms of organisation

Encouraging the group to think about where they’ve been, where they are and where they might be going from an organisational perspective provides a framework for appreciating the variety of organisation forms in which they have worked and are likely to work in the future. Once again, specific stories with which the group can identify are useful here to give poignancy and impact to the presentation. The consultant needs to be conscious that everyone experiences organisations at least three levels; individual, group and organisational.

Step 3 Appreciative consultation

The principles of Appreciative Inquiry are introduced. An overview of the 4D cycle of appreciative consultation is provided and the process commences with paired interviews, followed by small group interaction, followed by large group consultation, followed by self selected small group focus, large group sharing etc. through each of the 4D’s.

The outcome achieved is that over 1 or 2 days, groups ranging in size from 6 to 80 can effectively map their strategic intent and operational contributions for a period of their choice. Once again, the low cost high impact potential of appreciative consultation cannot be overemphasised. The heuristic model used in the Australian context looks something like this:Top of Page

Step 1 Balancing the triad: novelty, continuity and transition

Step 2 Emergent forms of organisation 

Environment 70s  80s  90s  2000 
Strategy  specialist 
co-ordinated  responsive 
customer focussed 
Structure  functional hierarchy  matrix divisionalised 
Pro’s  clarity 
linear careers
closer to customer 
local autonomy
service agreements
community focus
economies of scale
Con’s rigid 
costly duplication 

Step 3 Appreciative consultation: process
Appreciative Consultation: Process
6. Concluding remarks

Appreciative consultation is a philosophy. Once one starts to use the approach and associated processes, it impacts every aspect of consultation work. As a matter of course, the consultant’s line of inquiry becomes positive (what has worked in the past? what is working now? what would and could work in the future? How can we make best use of the talent and resources available? What are our success stories? When have we been most proud? etc.). With respect to facilitative expertise, the consultant consciously guides the group to explore what’s best? what’s possible, how we can make it happen? Groups derive a sense of good will and energy from the approach which empowers them to do the best with what they’ve got. Executives begin to appreciate the contribution their people can make, managers can get on with what they do best, co-ordinating the efforts of others and staff get a stake in the future. Appreciative consultation presents as a process which has the capacity to build collaborative and affirmative competencies within and between organisations. It is exactly these collaborative and affirmative competencies that will facilitate the personal and organisational transitions currently required to sustain people and organisations in the next millennium. Finally, appreciative consultation provides the HR consultant with an opportunity to demonstrate their key competencies: business knowledge, HR state of the art, change and process, and credibility (Ulrich, 1996)


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Liz Mellish is a Brisbane based management consultant. She is also the Federal President of the Institute of Management Consultants.

Dr Brigid Limerick is an Associate Professor and Head of the School of Cultural and Policy Studies,Top of Page Queensland University of Technology

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Last Updated 04/05/01