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Governance Leadership Centre: Interview with Dr David Cooperrider: What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Australian Institute of Company Directors (video 1), April 2015

Governance Leadership Centre: Interview with Dr David Cooperrider: Driving board and organisational performance
Australian Institute of Company Directors (video 2), April 2015

Dr David Cooperrider is the co-creator and creative thought leader of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – a strengths-based approach to organisational change and performance. Mr Rob Elliott FAICD, the Executive Director of the Governance Leadership Centre, speaks to Dr Cooperrider about what AI is and how it can be used to improve the performance of organisations and boards. Parts 1 and 2 of the interview can be viewed below.

The Appreciative Inquiry model

In the first part of the interview, Dr Cooperrider describes Appreciative Inquiry as a “powerful method to lift up the most positive elements of an organisation”. It helps to “unite and align strengths and to really create a culture that can create innovation”.

 

Dr Cooperrider notes that Appreciative Inquiry draws heavily on positive psychology, and comprises “a whole set of tools”, including for strategy and culture development, talent management, and to help the company become “business as an agent of world benefit”.

Dr Cooperrider refers to the words of Peter Drucker (who often is described as “the founder of modern management”):“the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant”. These words raise various questions that Appreciative Inquiry seeks to address:

Could it be that leading change and development and building cultures is all about strengths and it has nothing to do with weaknesses?

Where are the tools for leaders for the rapid elevation of strengths and assets and the positive core?

What are all the tools to create combination effects of strengths?

How do you create unions of strengths and constellations of strengths?

And, ultimately, how do we bring the best of our strengths to our clients and customers and the world.

Dr Cooperrider summarises the first part of Appreciative Inquiry as a “strength-based set of tools and approaches”.

“Strengths do more than perform – they transform”, says Dr Cooperrider. 

Appreciative Inquiry tools and approaches

In discussing the way that boards can work as a team, Dr Cooperrider notes that “instead of SWOT, we call it SOAR – Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results. It is ways to elevate the fundamental dynamic positive core of a system.

Dr Cooperrider goes on to describe the second fundamental characteristic of Appreciative Inquiry as to “think systematically in terms of configurations as a whole”. The Appreciative Inquiry Summit Meeting is useful in this context as “kind of a strategy where there is some big league opportunity facing the company and it really requires multiple views. We live today in this multi stakeholder world and it is very complex and sometimes that makes us feel defensive. But what we are seeing is a huge opportunity to change the way planning is done.

In relation to board retreats, Dr Cooperrider says “we often take part of those retreats and have the whole system in a room. We bring the customer voice into the room. We bring the lowest level employee. You know every single level.” Dr Cooperrider notes that increasing the wholeness of the configuration “helps open innovation; it helps open up the ideas and possibilities”.

At Summit Meetings the Appreciative Inquiry questions “help locate moments of peak experience and peak performance. So we want to find those positive deviations from the norm to build those into the conversations.” This may take “framing and reframing”. For example, British Airways reframed the issue of baggage loss as a desire to create “outstanding arrival experiences”.

Dr Cooperrider describes the Appreciative Inquiry Summit Meeting as “useful for team building to bring out the best in each other. It’s useful for relationships with external stakeholders which is what I am most excited about. It just created such a resonance of relationships as people dig deep into the positive core of that system and so that principle of wholeness and whole system configurations is very powerful.

How Appreciative Inquiry improves organisational and board performance

The second part of the interview begins with a discussion of Dr Cooperrider’s work with the US Navy.

 

Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, was concerned that the Navy had an overly “bureaucratic” and “very low engagement culture”.

“One of the agendas was how to take cost out of the Navy’s big budget”, said Dr David Cooperrider. Appreciative Inquiry was used to “gather input from every single level” of the organisation. The resultant “cultural shift” helped the Navy move towards a “covenant leadership” model. “Within 6 months, the Navy took $2 billion out of operations”, said Dr Cooperrider.

Dr Cooperrider also discusses the example of Walmart, and how a board retreat in the Amazon Rainforest helped them reframe their business objectives towards becoming “100% powered by renewable energy” and “zero waste”.

These objectives were “very much directed and inspired by the Board”, said Dr Cooperrider. “Industry leading stars are approaching social and global issues”, he said, “as huge business opportunities to open up blue ocean markets.

All waste can become wealth with the right innovation”, says Dr Cooperrider. “Any company that’s not turning social and global issues into business opportunities is missing the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of their stakeholders”, says Dr Cooperrider.

This isn’t the way we’re used to thinking about social responsibility”, says Dr Cooperrider.

Social responsibility is no longer a side line issue or cannot be seen as merely an “appendage to core strategy”.

Boards and companies need to think in terms of their “primary purpose” in order to see how “long term positioning” is fundamentally connected with “purpose maximisation.”

When boards start looking at long term impact possibilities”, says Dr Cooperrider, “social and global issues can be turned into business opportunities”.