And Why is it a Critical Problem-Solving Model for School Leaders?

Schools are in a constant state of change. This doesn’t change the reality that many school leaders are currently experiencing a series of challenges all seeming to converge at the same time. In the midst of navigating the complexity of keeping people healthy during a lingering pandemic, school leaders are also responding to a divided community, high levels of student and staff mental health needs, and staffing shortages in all areas. Given this cavalcade of issues, traditional problem solving, which seeks to identify a problem and then take steps to solve the problem, is probably insufficient. An alternative model to traditional problem solving is Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Rather than starting from a deficit-based mindset, the Appreciative Inquiry model is an outcome-based inquiry approach that focuses on existing strengths and desired outcomes.

How Appreciative Inquiry Works

Appreciative Inquiry engages individuals, teams, or the entire organization in creating change by moving toward a shared vision for the future by engaging in strategic innovation. “At its heart, Appreciative Inquiry is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. Appreciative Inquiry is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to ‘inquire’ into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes” (Stavros, Godwin, Cooperrider, 2015)

The AI model is centered on asking questions that lead to a focus on strengths, visions, competencies, and shared beliefs. Asking positive questions leads to answers and meaningful thought patterns that produce additional positive discussion, thoughts, and vision relating to the individual or organization. By focusing on what excites them at the moment, Appreciative Inquiry can help school leaders engage in creating change by envisioning desired outcomes that are most meaningful. It then seeks to understand why these outcomes are desirable, and how they might be achieved. When there is a focus on positive affect, people are more open to alternative perspectives.

The Five-D Protocol of Appreciative Inquiry

Ultimately this process seeks to answer the essential question; “How do we empower, learn, and be responsive to the needs of the system?” In place of the conventional technique of analyzing to identify issues in order to resolve, Appreciative inquiry employs the five-D protocol, which involves facilitating the development of a positive vision within a learning community and co-creating goals and action plans to reach the desired, positive vision. The five-D model are Appreciative Inquiry questions that focus on the five key phases of Define, Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny.

1. Define

According to the five D-model, Appreciative inquiry begins with the Define phase asking, “What is the topic of inquiry? What do we want to focus on and strengthen together? What does the system want to strengthen or increase?” Because it is important to define and clarify the overall focus of the inquiry, this clarity defines the inquiry cycle’s purpose, context, and what needs to be achieved. From these questions, leaders develop the skills and knowledge related to the philosophies guiding their work and begin to build trusting supportive relationships within the culture change team.

2. Discover

In this phase, we attempt to discover and appreciate “the best of what is.” By focusing on peak times of organizational excellence from even the smallest wins, when people have experienced the system as most effective, leaders identify accomplishments and assets, and point to the evidence and rationale behind unique factors such as key processes, structures, perspectives, resources that made these high points possible. Identifying these positive stories reveals what makes the organization thrive when it is at its best.

3. Dream

The purpose of the dream phase is to identify what new possibilities await after discovery. What wishes, hopes and aspirations are there for the future? By creating a set of aspiration statements, this stage imagines what could be based on evidence from past achievements and successes.

4. Design

The design phase identifies actions that will support the new possibilities identified in the dream phase with the evidence from past achievements and successes in the discovery stage. Here participants create and commit to actions that will help make the aspiration statements from the dream stage concrete.

5. Destiny

Finally, in the last phase, we identify ways to support and sustain the action plans and implementation efforts from the design phase by establishing “what will be” and seeking to collaboratively answer what adjustments and additions could be helpful in aligning individual interactions and increasing momentum for the future. Action commitments serve as the basis for ongoing activities which include continuous dialogue and continued learning. This is an iterative process that can and should lead users back to the Discovery process of Phase one.