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Revitalize your organization with appreciative inquiry

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By Johanne Bouchard EBS Business Columnist

Sometimes a successful business starts to feel “stale.” This can manifest in plateauing profits and growth, in the flagging of team morale, or feeling like the company culture needs revitalizing.

I’ve had the unique perspective of being an outsider brought in to help companies with this, and I know first hand that conducting an “appreciative inquiry” can lead to revitalization and increased productivity. AI is “the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential,” according to “Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry” by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.

Conducting an AI is a sensitive process, and I’ve applied a thought process to each step:

The challenges you think you need to address might not be the most important ones. I’ve often been called in to evaluate some aspect of a board or business that appears to not be working, and discover the issue is actually that the right people are in the wrong roles, or aren’t being fully leveraged. If someone isn’t meeting expectations, don’t assume they aren’t capable – start by assessing where they could best add value.

Take time to meet with people throughout the organization and poll their views about their own challenges and innate strengths, as well as what they feel is working, what needs improvement, and what’s missing. These conversations with employees at different levels of the organization will reveal new dimensions to a problem you may not be aware of. Through the discovery process of “unconditional positive questions,” according to Cooperrider and Whitney, the team will be inspired by being heard and being part of the vision of renewal.

Make time to talk to every person in the functional or operational area. If time or organization size makes in-depth, one-on-one conversations impractical, try meeting with employees for 15 minutes each by phone. Or, gather large teams for lunches and give each individual five minutes to constructively share.

These conversations will reveal things like if or when the head of the organization had last interacted with them directly, if they feel satisfied in their work, and whether they believe leadership knows of their ambitions and unique talents. Connecting with individuals throughout a large business takes time, but can boost productivity when done effectively.

Make the revitalization process feel as safe as possible. Anytime an organization is scrutinized, especially if a consultant is called in, the employees can feel vulnerable. As an outsider, I strive to establish a trusted space as quickly as possible so the individuals I’m polling feel at ease and honestly share their opinions. Employees need to feel they aren’t being judged, that their input is valuable, and that there is support for them to express their potential.

Throw out labels. It’s a shame when someone’s title becomes a label – the limiting boundary of who he or she is and what their capabilities are. When reviewing an organization, be mindful that labeling anyone can suffocate the individual and the organization’s productivity. While often unconscious, labeling can have a lasting bias effect.

Open communication is key to sustaining the momentum of great organizations and keeping their core potential vital. Reach out and ask the right questions in an appreciative manner, engaging and maximizing the talent you have. And be prepared to embrace positive change!

Johanne Bouchard, a former high-tech marketing executive, is a leadership advisor to CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs, as well as an expert in corporate board composition and dynamics. Visit to learn more or download her recently published eBooks “Board Composition” and “Board Basics.”

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