The Situation

The Approach

The 4-D Model

The Result of the Process

Facilitator's Reflections



A Case Study of Appreciative Inquiry in an Australian University

This paper has been published in Hammond, S. & Royal C. (eds) (1998) Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Practical Press Inc. Plano TX. To order a copy of the Fieldbook, click here

Author: Liz E Mellish, Certified Management Consultant (1998)

Abstract: This is a practical account of appreciative inquiry applied to strategic planning to facilitate a large scale amalgamation in a university context. The 4D model framed three workshops in which the majority of people affected by the change participated. The process was inclusive, consultative, generative and energising. The outcome was a blueprint for a new Faculty which was endorsed by the Vice Chancellor and an agreed transition plan which enjoys widespread academic, staff and union support. The appreciative inquiry process provided unique opportunities to manage transitions in strategy, structure and culture simultaneously.

The Situation

A newly appointed Planning Dean had the task of developing one new Faculty from four existing departments; Mathematics and Computing, Information Systems, Communication and Media Studies and Health Informatics. These existing departments were aligned to two different faculties; The Faculty of Engineering and Physics and the Faculty of Business. Within the existing departments there were a plethora of distinct discipline groupings including applied computing, systems analysis and design, multimedia, mathematics, communication and media studies, journalism, cultural studies and so on. The rationale for creating one new Faculty was to provide students with a world class blend of subject matter, teaching expertise and research opportunities (e.g. a new Multimedia Studies degree). A further need existed to reduce duplication and capture synergies between the existing departments (e.g. Mathematics and Computing and Information Systems). The overarching idea was to put together the "technological" and the "human" aspects of communication in an innovative and complimentary way.

The Planning Dean recognised the opportunity to transform strategy, structure and culture simultaneously. The scope of the change involved 160 academic and general staff who represented multiple sub cultures and passionate views about the future of their particular areas.
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The Approach

The Planning Dean had been exposed to Appreciative Inquiry on a recent Women in Leadership Program and saw the potential of the process to provide an inclusive and generative approach to developing the new Faculty. She was committed to building the new Faculty on the "best of" what existed, she wanted a consultative process so as to provide voice and space for all participants and she wanted a deliverable at the end: a new Faculty Blueprint, to which everyone was committed.

A three stage process over six weeks was planned based on the 4-D Model of Appreciative Inquiry. In stage one everyone was invited to a two day celebration which covered the Discover and Dream phases. Self selected, representative concept teams were formed to pursue Discovery questions, emergent topics and provocative proposals with those unable to attend. Two weeks later, participants returned for a two day workshop which addressed the Design phase. Finally, two weeks later a one day workshop addressed the Deliver phase.

The 4-D Model

A group of ninety academics and general staff participated in the process. The Planning Dean shared her commitment to an inclusive and consultative process for managing the transition to the new Faculty. She outlined the principles of Appreciative Inquiry as follows:

1. appreciate (yourself and other people),
2. apply (our knowledge of what works best),
3. provoke (our imaginations about what's ideal) and
4. collaborate (share, affirm and co-ordinate our efforts).

She proceeded to provide an overview of the 4-D Model and stressed the following desired outputs of the process:
a compelling vision for the new faculty
provocative propositions regarding function and form of the new faculty
an agreed transition plan towards the new faculty
an agreed set of strategic performance indicators to deliver on the new faculty

Participants proceeded to interview each other, in mixed pairs, using the sample interview protocol provided. The appreciative questions were specifically designed to focus on personal highpoints, co-operative relationships, types of communication, hopes for the future, values and positive images.
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Phase 1: DISCOVERY: Appreciating the best of "what is"
Paired interviews
1. Reflect on your time with this university
What have been the high points for you? Select one high point, a time when you felt most alive, most happy; a time when you felt you were making a difference and doing creative, useful, meaningful work. What was it about you that felt good, who else was involved, what were you doing, what did you feel you achieved?
Describe the STORY around the moment
2. Co-operative relationships
Identify a scenario which you feel demonstrates the positive aspects of working together, co-operating to get something done. What was the scenario? Who was involved? why did it work? what were you doing? what were other people doing?
3. Types of communication
What different types of communication occur across the Faculty? What do you value most about effective communication? When does this happen for you? Who and what is involved in the best types of communication? Why is effective communication good for you and the Faculty?
4. Hopes for the future
What does the new Faculty of Informatics and Communication have the capacity to become? How could working together make a difference? What do you see as priorities? What part could you play in making these priorities happen?
5. What do you VALUE most about:
the people that work with you (colleagues, students, partners)
the university
6. What are your positive IMAGES of the future function and form of the Faculty of Informatics and Communication?
3 wishes?

Note: Spark the appreciative imagination of the other. Learn from each other. Share key stories that unearth values. Follow what you are sincerely curious about.

People were asked to pair up with someone they didn't know and didn't work with so as to discover cross discipline stories. These were retold in small groups of 8 people who reported back on emergent, compelling topics.

Ten topics emerged in the large group plenary session. These were:
positive working relationships
small effective teams: partnering between academics and general staff
opportunity focussed
respect, appreciation, trust and integrity
control own futures
shared information
transparent financial accountability
supportive environment for teaching/learning/research
co-operative management style
incentive driven teamwork

In order to facilitate the process of developing provocative propositions which were to frame the social and strategic intent of the new faculty, these topics were grouped into five themes; Leadership and Management, Communication, Marketing, Teaching and Learning and Research.
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The transitional process between Discover and Dream was facilitated by individuals self selecting, based on interest and expertise, where best they would contribute to developing provocative propositions. Five mixed groups were formed. Using the detailed topic data, relevant to their theme, each group developed a compelling provocative proposition which would be used to frame the new Faculty. The five provocative propositions reported back, discussed and endorsed by the whole group were:

Leadership and Management
Our management style will be participatory, open and result oriented. There will be a climate of innovation, flexibility, individual growth and mutual respect.
Communication/Culture and Fun
We will foster a culture of open communication, mutual trust, respect for difference, inclusiveness, and personal empowerment through the use of a variety of appropriate and timely communication strategies within a multicampus university.
Learning must be a Valued Fundamental Activity:
We will actively foster learning through innovative, flexible, collaborative professional and effective approaches in a supportive and appropriate resourced environment.
By March, 1998 we will have identified specialized research directions that capitalizes on the unique discipline mix in our Faculty.

By December, 1998 we will have a general faculty research output above the university average, and will have established at least 2 (two) research groups with a potential for external funding.

To embrace the challenge of marketing the unique identity of the Faculty as an attraction in its own right.

These provocative propositions, grounded as they were in the group's collective positive organisational experiences, reflected the "ideal" shape and practice of the new faculty. There was a shared sense of excitement that the group was in a position to impact the manner in which they organised and the future direction of the emergent faculty. A need was expressed to rise above the five provocative propositions and to dream a vision statement that would represent the new faculty. This suggestion was considered important by the group who felt that an overarching statement of intent could best be used for "external consumption" (e.g. students, industry, other faculties) whilst the provocative propositions were to guide their internal organising dynamics. The large group divided randomly into four groups who proceeded to brainstorm ideal statements which would capture and define the "spirit" of the new Faculty.

The vision that emerged was:

"People and Technology: Communicating in the 21st Century"

Followed by the mission statement:

"To promote and inspire knowledge and learning by linking people and information using the best of:
information technology
contemporary communication and
mathematical and decision systems"

In the final hours of the first two day workshop, the group worked out how best to include their colleagues in the process. A "concept team" was formed around each of the five provocative propositions. The composition of these teams purposefully included academic, administrative, multiple disciplinary, multi campus representatives. There task was to interview their colleagues on the topics, provocative propositions and proposed vision statement prior to the send workshop. A small transition monitoring group was also formed to explore and report on any other issues relating to how people felt about the transition towards the new Faculty. A co-ordinating Faculty Advisory Committee was established comprising the Planning Dean and the Chairs of each of the concept teams.
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A group of approximately 60 people reconvened for the second workshop. They reported on additional data from their appreciative consultations with colleagues. The focus of the workshop was on the design implications of the agreed provocative propositions i.e. how best to organise the new faculty in terms of its core business, teaching and learning and research and its co-ordinating functions of management, marketing and communication.

The concept teams focussed on their own provocative propositions and developed a list of key operational impact issues. They continued work on these operational impacts by developing a project plan for each provocative proposition including scheduled tasks, accountabilities, resource implications and a timeline. Each concept team reported their implementation proposal to the large group in a lively plenary session. The proposals were refined to maximise synergies across the teams, and to generate collective commitment and excitement around the creation of the new faculty.

The concept teams progressed the application of their revised project plans and proceeded to map a detailed transition plan towards the new faculty. Observable changes in modus operandi were evident in terms of how the concept teams approached their tasks. For example, the Leadership and Management concept team facilitated an appreciative dialogue with the large group on the range of options which existed for structural change and development of new decision making forums. After everyone's active participation in the process, a format for broader consultation with colleagues unable to attend the workshop was developed and endorsed by the group.

The excellent output from the second workshop was based on and constantly linked to the topics and provocative propositions from the first workshop. There was exceptional commitment, goodwill, tolerance and willingness to explore the operational impacts of the Discover and the Dream phase outputs.

It was impressive to realise how much work was voluntarily undertaken between the second and third workshop as each of the concept teams consulted with colleagues and established what would work best in their implementation plans.
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The third workshop was focussed on "tying it all together", making some key decisions and agreeing upon strategic performance indicators that everyone was happy to use as measures of their collective achievement in successfully developing the new Faculty.

The leadership and management concept team presented provocative options for the function and form of the new faculty based on their additional extensive, collegial consultations. It was finally agreed that the new Faculty would have three theme-based schools; Decision Sciences, Contemporary Communication and Technology , with a team of administrative support staff overlaying the school structure. The schools would have permeable walls and staff would be able to move between schools for teaching, community service and research purposes.

The final process involved clarifying appropriate and meaningful Faculty performance indicators. These emerged directly from the provocative propositions (or statements of social and strategic intent) in the first workshop. Examples of performance indicators include:

Teaching and learning

Finalise proposal for rationalised units - Faculty Education Committee (March 1998), Academic Board (June 1998)
Finalise proposal for new courses - Faculty Education Committee (March 1998), Academic Board (June 1998)

Leadership and management

Have management structures in place with widespread and active support by December 1997

The Result of the Process

The Appreciative Inquiry approach to moving a large group of people with multiple agendas towards a collective view of the future and their contribution to that future resulted in a number of positive outputs:

The Faculty of Informatics and Communication Faculty Restructure Blueprint was produced and endorsed by the Vice Chancellor

The strategic performance indicators are understood and will be used by the group to affirm their own progress

The detailed transition plans are collectively understood, widely supported and happening on a daily basis.

The Planning Dean has sustainable support for an extremely challenging 18 months ahead.

With respect to the appreciative process and the 4-D Model, some examples of feedback from participants include:

"Very positive, I valued the "staged" timing of the workshops as there was time to reflect"

"I considered the time investment worthwhile and felt, for the first time in any change we've been through, that there was collective ownership of the outcome"

"The bonding of the new faculty team was significant and the process signalled an understanding of the culture and style of the groups coming together"
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Facilitator's reflections

The 4-D Model and the appreciative inquiry process provides client organisations with a practical tool and a positive approach to facilitating large-scale change. Whilst the facilitator continually adapts and invents strategies to move the group, the energy and collective goodwill of the group becomes self-sustaining.

The key "value adding" skills that the facilitator brings to the appreciative planning process include:
acute listening
positive care
an insatiable curiosity and
the ability to spontaneously reframe questions which bring the "best" out of everyone.

Flexible and Pragmatic Process Management

My experience is that clients require ongoing reassurance that the process is leading somewhere. In this respect the 4-D model supported by carefully designed worksheets, is a helpful guide and a confidence building tool to organise large group input and interaction with a view to delivering a meaningful ìproductî at the end. In terms of pace and space for dialogue in the process, I have found that time spent storytelling at the front end of the process will be directly reflected in the quality of, and commitment to, the deliverableís at the back end of the process. The manner in which topics emerge from small group story reflections and how these are subsequently translated into provocative propositions is a challenge. One lesson to be aware of at this stage relates to the facilitatorís ìstewardshipî of the process. In my case I am conscious of attempting to creatively ensure that contextual factors such as ìstrategic givensî are integrated into the development of provocative propositions. Examples of ìstrategic givensî may be the budgetary allocation available or a key playerís perspective, which will influence the planning outcome. Working through the 4-D model is an iterative process: the group may commence exploration of the design process, which, in turn, raises further questions about their propositions and their capacity to deliver. The 4-D model and appreciative inquiry enables the group to create a new language for planning through appreciating the interrelated components of the process.

A final skill that the facilitator requires is a perceptive and anticipatory knowledge of the contextual issues faced by the client so as to be able to usefully direct energies towards an outcome within which all parties can see themselves operating productively.

Acute Listening: This skill is probably implicit in all sound facilitative processes, however; I have experienced a shift in what I listen for! Cooperrider, a leading exponent of appreciative inquiry into organisational life, has applied the notion of an appreciative eye to business (Hammond, 1996: 6). To the appreciative eye, organisations are expressions of beauty and spirit. I am experiencing the development of an ìappreciative earî. Listening for how people create possibilities, listening for their stories and examples of their best experiences and ideas in organisations. Reflecting on these and using them to fuel the appreciative inquiry process in terms of the best of what is and the best of what can be is the key to facilitative process. I have found that the energy I commit to listening and reframing with the appreciative ear is considerable. As a facilitator, my ears are tuned to positive experiences, how things can work best and how unexpected synergies have been achieved. Pleasant exhaustion at the end of a day of appreciative inquiry is a positive indicator for me that my appreciative ear has been exercised.

Positive Care: I believe that the best facilitatorís acknowledge the context of their life experience, their assumptions and their commitment to assisting their client achieve the best possible outcome from the process. Based on the initial brief by the client, the facilitator makes choices about content and process delivery to achieve an outcome. The values that underpin my approach include ìmaking it easyî, facilitating the best out the client and his/her staff. The end result of the process is almost always unknown ñ one should never contrive an appreciative inquiry process ñ hence the stories, topics, propositions, organising methods and deliverables emerge in process. At each step of the way, the facilitator exposes his/her interest and values in terms of the nuances, emphases, and ways of reporting and reflective summarising techniques used. I am more conscious than ever now of the ongoing need to exercise the appreciative philosophy and positive care in every facilitation expression.
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An Insatiable Curiosity:
I have always enjoyed discovering the ways in which people and organisations ìget it togetherî both at the strategic and operational level. Appreciative inquiry, with its emphasis on exploring what works in organisations provides everyone on the process with opportunities to reflect on those best parts of the past that they want to carry forward as they imagine an ideal future. The process provides space in organisational life to share stories which otherwise remain untold; for people impacted, but frequently overlooked by planning and decision making processes, to contribute. In my view the facilitator needs to demonstrate a genuine interest, a wonder if you will, in the day to day proceedings of organisational life. To some extent this may be an informed naivety; for me in occurs in expressions of amazement, delight and affirming acknowledgment of the creative ways in which people organise and dream of being organised. In addition, because everyoneís story counts, the process validates multiple ways of being which is precisely the dynamism so clearly needed in many organisations today.

Ability to spontaneously reframe questions in an attempt to get the best out of everybody: Wedded to the assumption that organisational effort follows the line of inquiry, the manner in which questions are used at every stage of the process has assumed paramount importance. The collaborative design of the initial interview protocol, which underpins the discovery phase, works best when tailored to the context of the organisation, peopleís experiences and hopes for the future. The questions surrounding the generation of topics need to be framed in terms of the best categories, the most representative groupings, the deepest passions, the most valued components etc. The questions which push the boundaries of imagination for generating provocative propositions relate to being ìbold enoughî, interrupting oneís thinking, illustrating pride in a product or service, affirming commitment to core business or a daring redefinition of core business. Questions relating to design of new and innovative ways of organising relate to who is best at what, who is most interested in what, who has expertise in what and how. Practically, can it all be made to happen in an agreed timeframe, given the resources available? Finally, questions about delivery are designed to link intent to outcomes. How will we know we have achieved the intent of our provocative propositions? How does it all fit together? Is there a stream of passion and logic through the process and the product that we have developed? Who is going to benefit and how best can we communicate these achievements?

While the positive thrust of the inquiry described above appears straight forward, the dynamics of every group are naturally different. Holding on to the belief that the process is meaningful, worthwhile and productive involves the facilitator in multiple spontaneous reframing, inputting and provocative inquiry processes.

The appreciative inquiry principles of appreciation, application, provocation and collaboration apply as much to the facilitator as they do to the group. The facilitator models, in many respects, the journey, which is undertaken with the group. It is very useful for the facilitator to engage in mini processes of the 4-D cycles of appreciative inquiry into his/her own facilitative approach in order to accumulate and keep developing best interventions, process techniques and questions to enhance their own professional practice.


Appreciative consultation is a "way of being" in our management consultancy practice. The theory and approach has enabled us to participate with our clients in the positive social construction of their organisational worlds. We are surprised and delighted at the multiple applications of Appreciative Inquiry in corporate, government and higher education institutions. We have found that using the approach involves a true commitment to people and processes in change and this commitment can be shared and can deliver outcomes to clients which exceed traditional planning and evaluation methods.

In conclusion, Appreciative Inquiry offers management consultants and their clients a low cost high impact change process which deals with culture, strategy and structure simultaneously.


Hammond, S. (1996) The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing Company, Plano, TX (972 378 0523)

Mellish, L. and Limerick, B. (1997) Appreciative consultation: Reclaiming our imaginative competence: Paper presented at the 1997 Australian Human Resources Institute National Conference: The Journey to Business Partner Brisbane

Limerick, D., Cunnington B, and Crowther F. (1997) Managing the New Organisation Management: Management Strategies for the Post Corporate Era Sydney WoodslaneTop of Page Publishing