Using appreciative inquiry to focus on positives, transform workplace culture

Organizational approach yields impressive results at hospital, not-for-profit
By Zachary Pedersen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/14/2012

Appreciative inquiry: In July, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) held a panel discussion on appreciative inquiry (AI) — focusing on what an organization does well rather than where it falls short. Kathy Sabo, senior vice-president at the Toronto Western Hospital, and Joyce Gordon, CEO of Parkinson Society Canada, discussed how they used AI to transform their corporate cultures.

Look to other tools (Strategic Capability)

Allow for greater thinking (Leadership in Action)

Say 5 positive things for every negative comment (Organizational Effectiveness)

The workplace culture at Toronto Western Hospital is not the same as it was when Kathy Sabo, senior vice-president, joined more than one decade ago — and that’s a good thing.

The hospital, which employs nearly 3,000, merged with two other Toronto-area hospitals in 1999, creating the University Health Network (UHN). The merger led to shared services and cost savings, but left some staff feeling neglected — even years after the fact.

“Hospitals that merge have different mantras and different cultures,” said Sabo, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in July. “When I first started, there were a lot of bruised staff.”

Through her work as the hospital’s UHN executive lead, Sabo was introduced to appreciative inquiry (AI), an organizational approach that focuses on what an organization does well rather than where it falls short.

Using AI in change management is common but Sabo’s team took it one step further and embedded it in daily work at the hospital, according to David MacCoy, partner at Toronto-based consulting firm First Leadership.

MacCoy worked with Sabo and her team to develop the Positive Learning program, which Sabo says changed the hospital’s culture.

Positive Learning is a multi-day training program that gives leaders at the hospital an opportunity to learn about communication techniques, relationship-building and planning strategies.

It was conceived as a facilitator-led program but now the staff teach each other.

This is the strength of the program, said Sabo, because individuals develop an appreciation of how processes within the hospital are related.

“If you really want to find meaning in what’s going on, get the executive to teach,” said MacCoy.

Now, AI has become the backbone for many of the decisions made at the hospital.

“We felt it was very important to put appreciative inquiry right in our philosophy statement,” Sabo said. “We are a community of leaders dedicated to excellence in care for patients and innovated health services. In the spirit of appreciative inquiry, we carry out our work every day with integrity, courage and enthusiasm.”

Sabo called the work done by her and her team a journey because the development of the program led to personal insight and vulnerability.

“If you really want to see change, it takes time,” said Sabo. “It takes work to do that and a commitment from your team.”

Getting people to commit not easy

When Joyce Gordon became president and CEO of Parkinson Society Canada in 2001, a Toronto-based not-for-profit, she quickly realized it’s not always easy getting people to commit to change.

“When I first came in, (the society) had a representative board (of directors) and what happened was the region that could yell the loudest — literally — was heard,” said Gordon, who was also a speaker at the SCNetwork event.

There was a negative core in the managerial structure at the society, which staffs 90 people, according to Gordon, who made it her goal to make things more positive.

Gordon enlisted the help of Ray Gordezky, partner at Toronto-based transformational change consulting firm Threshold Associates.

“They created a set of values, which is really important if you’re going to change an organization. You have to know how you’re going to be successful,” said Gordezky, speaking at the SCNetwork event.

Gordon and a team of 20 volunteers from across the country conducted AI interviews with doctors, researchers, society staff and Parkinson’s disease sufferers.

AI uses forward-thinking questions to foster positive relationships and build on the potential of an individual or organization.

When Gordon’s team was done, they had 200 responses providing guidance as to how the organization could better serve the community.

The main question participants were asked was, “What do you want to see from the Parkinson Society five years from now?” said Gordon.

As a result, the group realized it lacked a sustainable long-term vision, something which was impeding its ability to be successful.

The society needed recognized credibility regarding the research and services it provided, along with sustainable funding over time and effective measurement of its accomplishments, said Gordezky. Only 20 per cent of Canadians knew about Parkinson Society Canada prior to the organization’s appreciative inquiry summit in 2001, he said.

When using AI for change management, a summit involving all contributing participants can help focus direction, said Gordezky.

The society now has metrics to prove AI has benefited the organization.

“As a result of working together, our revenue has increased by 12.8 per cent over the past couple of years. Last year, in particular, we saw a 5.4 per cent increase,” said Gordon, adding most other not-for-profits have not experienced this kind of growth given the current economic climate.

It’s important to remember change takes time and for it to truly be effective, everyone needs to be on board so there is a sense of accountability, said Gordon.

“Growing the pie is more important than who gets what slice,” she said. “And that kind of resonated with people in terms of what they’re thinking and what we ended up with.”

Change isn’t always easy for people or an organization, but AI gives a fresh perspective on how to go about implementing it, said Gordon.

“It’s important to recognize that what we normally call resistance is an indication that we’ve neglected attention to something,” said Gordezky. “When people start complaining, it’s our job not to listen so much to the exact content of the complaint but what’s underneath it.”

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

Look to other tools (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a set of tools or approaches based on a specific philosophy. Like every tool, it doesn’t work well in every situation. Those who advocate AI can demonstrate its value — it opens up thinking beyond problem-solving, tapping into passion, energy and broader ideas and perspectives. It also contributes to creating freedom by not accepting an apparent reality as the only reality.

While AI has been particularly helpful in terms of coaching, engagement and culture change, it would be naive to think it is the only tool required to develop strategies and that it couldn’t be used in combination with other tools. By focusing on positive perspectives and reframing, its use creates a danger that risks and threats may not be identified.

Advocates of AI need to acknowledge the contributions other tools can make to strategy development and think in terms of creating points of integration — especially incorporating analytical tools.

Some other widely used tools that could complement AI include PEST (political, economic, social and technological) analysis and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

PEST analysis: This is a tool that uses quantitative and qualitative information to describe the external environment around an organization. It makes no judgments, other than to identify something of potential relevance to the organization. PEST is analytical but is not a problem-solving approach. Its role is to broaden thinking and refocus perspectives from inward to outward. This more holistic approach provides important input into the strategy process.

SWOT analysis: This draws from an internal perspective but also incorporates a judgment on how PEST components might impact an organization. It does not prioritize or dictate a particular response. In the course of participating in the SWOT analysis, participants often find items are duplicated — weaknesses and threats often reappear under the opportunities quadrant. Strengths and weaknesses at the organizational level are not personal and while participants may defend their views or turf, it is not the same as critiquing an individual’s performance or coaching. Organizational strengths and weaknesses are usually not behavioural (though they may be cultural) and can be substantiated or easily put into context. Looking at strengths alone is not sufficient.

Moving from analysis to choice: Once the analytical components are in place, an employer will have the foundation it needs to start thinking about its future. There are a number of strategy frameworks or approaches that can be helpful, such as Blue Ocean Strategy, Stewardship, Purple Cow, Good to Great and Balanced Scorecard. None of these tools precludes integration with AI techniques and approaches. Some of them, such as Blue Ocean and Purple Cow, challenge the strategy formulators to think outside of the box into new and different futures.

AI proponents need to add to their tool kit and identify AI integration points in strategy development. Strategy development and execution requires a full tool box.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Allow for greater thinking (Leadership in Action)

By Trish Maguire

As workplaces speed up, it seems some leaders have forgotten that we mortals enjoy a unique capacity in being able to create what we want and where we want to be, instead of conforming to existing conditions.

We have the ability to think about the past and visualize the future. This means we can develop intelligent actions, and even initiate change — no other beings can do that.

If thinking is the catalyst for action, I wonder how the common mantra “You can only manage what you can measure” has become management’s primary approach to managing systems and people. Take a moment to ask yourself, “What challenges have been resolved within your organization by using measurements?”

If leaders are seeking accountability, teamwork, collaboration, creativity and engagement, which measurements have cultivated these behaviours and which reinforce them? If leaders want more innovative solutions, creative ideas and higher performance, perhaps it’s time to slow down and allow for greater thinking.

One way to do this is to incorporate appreciative inquiry (AI) into a leadership tool kit. The AI model is an art and practice of asking unconditional, positive questions. By using this interactive process of inquiry, you can discover best experiences that, in turn, become the groundwork for visualizing forward-thinking solutions and lasting change. The resulting processes, structures and objectives that are developed enable a visualized future to be accomplished because it is grounded in the experiences of the people involved.

Parkinson Society Canada and Toronto Western Hospital used AI to transform their organizations. They demonstrate how AI serves as a collaborative, strength-based approach to both personal and organizational development. Both attest to how AI brings about change that fully engages everyone.

Imagine what might be possible if leaders fully engaged everyone and used their collective strengths to achieve a shared vision of the future? It could take your organization from the bottom of the ranking charts to the top.

The significant difference between AI — or other organizational development models — is it doesn’t focus on the intensive analysis of problems or shortfalls. It expands the examination and celebration of the good and assists in building more of the same, resulting in less negativity, blaming and judgmental attitudes.

AI essentially can stimulate solutions and foster a culture of excellence. Real-time applications where AI can be effectively applied include: mission statement and vision development; strategic planning; organizational/system redesign; process and service enhancement; improvement initiatives; leadership development; and employee engagement feedback.

When Martin Luther King Jr. shouted “I have a dream” he created a movement. What would have happened if he had said “I have a strategic plan”?

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at

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Say 5 positive things for every negative comment (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Dave Crisp

A colleague emailed me after the recent Strategic Capability Network event to ask why a session on appreciative inquiry (AI) was billed as “strengths-based.”

He wanted to know if that wasn’t a Marcus Buckingham term referring to “personal strengths” more than an organization effectiveness method.

While replying, a passing comment by one of the presenters clicked into place for me — people need to understand the importance of saying five positive things for every negative.

The fact is many recommendations for improving performance in many types of situations and endeavours are based on this very simple principle, which we really should understand as one of the most fundamental to govern human behaviour. Be positive about five times as much as negative and, wherever possible, lead with the positives.

This pretty much summarizes AI. Instead of beginning with problems to solve, begin with strengths — what we do well, what we can build on and how we can apply our strengths to solve the present opportunity. Yes, another way of saying, “Focus on the positives” is to see problems as opportunities. Don’t see barriers, see possibilities.

Haven’t we heard all of this before? Of course. Because it’s true we get better results approaching things this way. We always have the choice to do it but we very often start from the negative.

Why? We don’t honestly know, though theories suggest our ancestors stayed alive by being the most wary of dangers rather than the most willing to rush into unknown situations.

The same principle predicts when employees will perform better (with mostly positive recognition), when performance appraisals will be more effective, when marriages will last longer and even when we ourselves will be happier.

Among the best advice by marriage experts is to try to see your partner through rose-coloured glasses most of the time. Researchers believe one of the most powerful “get happy” exercises is to wake up each day and mentally call up three or four things you’re grateful for in your life before you start focusing on what’s wrong.

Just doing this makes for stronger relationships and happier individuals for extended periods of time, a buffer against depression and dissension.

Facing our problems

Of course, someone in the session raised a couple of questions that often come up in these situations: “Are you suggesting we ignore the realities of… ? How can we ever solve the problems if we don’t face them squarely?”

True, in my own theory of better leadership, I emphasize finding balance between being positive and being honest. Although I hasten to point out that being “honest” doesn’t always mean “brutally negative” — it can also mean being honest about what’s working.

I show my model of leadership with a tilt toward the positive, a nod toward starting with your strengths with belief you can overcome what you need to in order to move toward the opportunities. In retrospect, I haven’t emphasized this nearly enough.

The fact is it isn’t necessary to make much effort to ensure problems are looked at. We live our lives with problems in mind most of the time. Our natural tendencies to automatically look for what needs to be improved guarantees, in most cases, this information will be easily at hand.

We have to work on starting with and multiplying the positives, the strengths that will help us solve the problems.

That, more than any other single principle, is what all of the presenters focused on — start every meeting by looking at a few things that have been going well, a couple of recent successes we should take time to be grateful for at our organizations.

And then start to talk about how we can build on those to achieve even greater goals and overcome our problems.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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