Action Research and Appreciative Inquiry

Action Research is an effective tool of organizational development (OD) that is utilized in countless research studies and is an accepted technique to facilitate organizational improvement within the OD environments (Yunker, 1994, para. 3). To fully understand the implications of OD, organizational improvement, and action research, a perusal of the definition fashioned by organization developer practitioners (ODers) can clarify. The definition was created around a specific set of criteria. First, it had to be ten words or less. Second, it had to appeal to non-ODers. The following is their handiwork, “OD is the application of behavioral science to promote system effectiveness through change” (Schifo, 2004, p. 82).

The reflective practitioner of an Action Research study uses behavioral science in the form of a participatory involvement study. Stringer (2004) suggests that there are three basic phases of the action research process namely look, think, and act which are performed by a practitioner of an organization. This active member specifically investigates his or her organization and evaluates the results along the way. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) can combine Action Research’s technique and methods of facilitating organizational improvement further. Utilizing a positive, appreciative, and participatory method, AI discovers unleased potential, great opportunities, and solves problems to boot.

Utilizing interview questions prepared for a professional colleague, this document will outline the effects upon organizational improvement and how creating questions within the AI framework can assist the outcome.

 

How Approaches to Writing Interview Questions Differ Under Appreciative Inquiry

Approaches to writing interview questions can range from spontaneous to categorically systematic. Results of said questions can have differing outcomes as well. Oftentimes questions that begin with ‘why’ are framed with a personal agenda, a seeking of the ‘right’ answer. McClimans (2011) using van Fraassen’s work, postulates, “When we ask a why-question we presuppose that the topic of the question is true” (p. 522). For example, the members of the resource team state they use differentiated instruction to accommodate all students in their classroom. However, the interviewer believes there exist a disconnect to the head knowledge versus the application of said knowledge. Utilizing the AI framework for creating interview questions can eliminate or decrease the tendency to think that there is just one right answer.

The Right Answer is No More

The apparent disconnect between DI head knowledge and classroom instruction can be addressed utilizing a series of AI questions. Rather than focus on the lack of DI in the classroom, an inquiry that urges teachers to share their successes at implementing DI would be far more effective than asking why they are not being implemented. In an article entitled, Five Strategies of Appreciative Leadership, the authors imply, “knowing that questions are fateful, appreciative leaders cultivate a positive ‘Ask to Tell’ ratio, embed values in questions, and ‘flip’ negative issues into positive questions, thereby fostering new organizational and community realities” (Whitney, Bloom, & Rader, n.d., para 4). AI questions are framed in such a manner as to discover personal stories, experiences, and successes; there are no ‘right’ answers. Best practices can be celebrated by using key questions framed around the positives. An additional bonus of the AI inquiry method lends itself to deterring apathetic listening. Both the interviewer and interviewee are engaged in an active dialogue that discourages either participant from ceasing to listen. The interviewee is engaged and participatory and the interviewer similarly is engaged and participatory and ceases to wait for the right answer to be delivered; for there is no right answer. Every response is worthwhile of note because the interviewer is discovering opportunities as offered by a valued member of the study and best practices are discovered and highlighted.

Linking the Discovered Best Practices to Discovering Opportunities

It should be noted that the stories shared are not simply stories or solving of problems, but rather a searching of best practices, discovering opportunities, and identifying the “elements of the organization’s positive core” (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005, p. 11). The analysis and interviews are to generate new visions and align strengths for positive and strategic changes. Using the organization known as the Resource Lab as an example; the Special Education Director has the gift of speaking in public comfortably and is able to tap her knowledge of special education laws and ethics seamlessly. The Student Services Coordinator has an eye for detail and possesses administrative abilities. Between the two, their strengths united, they collaborate and then share with the rest of the group welcoming its input as well. This involves all multiple stakeholders, thus linking the “knowledge to the organization’s positive change agenda and priorities” (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005, p. 12).

How Persons Being Interviewed Likely Respond Differently Because of Using Appreciative Inquiry

Asking questions can assist a person or group of people to delve into the nuances of a problem, concern, or an issue. Coming up with appropriate questions involves investigating and thinking through the issue thoroughly. How the questions are formed and what the intent is can be the catalyst to opportunities or disappointments, shut-downs, or a vehicle to a non-compliance attitude. Investigating an example taken from an intervention meeting at a school depicts this well.

Problem Based Interview Sample

Problem-based group sessions and the ensuing results can be depicted using the following video session from the Capella iGuide University Website (Lapinski, Greunke, Pegg, Sirbasku, and Bendzick, n.d.). In the sample video, Tina and the school group meeting is held to identify Tina’s problems at school. Tina’s mother, the school counselor, and a few of the teachers met to discuss how they could help Tina; Tina is present at the meeting. The counselor begins with the following opening:

“Hi, everyone. Glad you could all make it to discuss the trouble Tina is having in school. I want to start out by hearing from the teachers about what problems they are having in their classes, just to get a clear picture of the scope of the issue so get this taken care of and Tina can succeed” (para 1).

The counselor continues after introductions and opening remarks are made. The teachers and Tina’s mother all report the problems seen with Tina. The counselor carefully forms her question to include the problem, her past comments indicating that they all want Tina to succeed. The counselor states, “It is Tina’s job to succeed in school. So Tina, I am wondering why you are not doing your work and do not seem to care about school” (para 6).

Immediately, Tina is put on the defensive as is seen in her tell-tale responses, “Well, when you all start to respect me, including my mom, I will do the same. All any of you can say is how awful I am” (para 10). Further, when the counselor asks her what Tina is not doing in school that she should be doing. Tina grumbles back, “And what is that? Being a cheerleader and getting straight A’s? (para 13).

The problem of egocentric thinking is evident. The group did not consider the feelings and needs of Tina; they had assumed Tina was at fault, they interpreted that data with their ideals of the perfect A, cheerleader student, and Tina came up lacking (Elder, 2004). This method of interviewing will not foster developmental opportunities for Tina because she has already shut down and will not be a participatory member of the team. One, she was not asked to be a participatory member, and two; she is not interested in becoming an active member.

Strengths-Based Approach Sample

Utilizing the same video segment from the above discussion, but with the group implementing a strengths-based approach, a positive outcome can be seen.

This time the counselor’s opening is peppered with sensitivity to universal intellectual standards,

“Hi, everyone. Glad you could all make it to discuss how to support Tina’s success today. I know there have been some challenges, but before we go any further, I am going to start out the meeting by having everyone at the table share one strength or positive thing they have noticed about Tina” (para 21).

The group begins to think critically. They analyze and evaluate the concerns with a view to improve them. They also consider Tina’s point of view and leave false assumptions outside the door (Paul & Elder, 2009). A long dialogue that encompasses all parties eventually brings Tina into the discussion as an active participate who longs to see herself succeed. The counselor ends the session with a positive AI question, “Absolutely. Tina, you are on a roll. Why do you not tell us some things that work for you in other classes that might also work in math” (para 71). There has been a flip from the negative to the positive that gains cooperation from Tina rather than a non-compliant and defensive attitude. The inclusion principle made Tina want to be a part of her success. Since she is now committed to succeeding and working with the team, positive outcomes in her education will be the natural result (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, & Rader, n.d.).

The aforementioned samples clearly depict the different responses that can be ensued during an interview group session. The responses of people being interviewed utilizing the problem-based approach reveals a defensive and wounded attitude that is likely to hinder solving a problem. On the other hand, the responses of people being interviewed utilizing the strength-based approach reveals a cooperative, participatory attitude that likely will facilitate the discovery of new and improved opportunities. The AI method of question asking can generate positive results with individuals; however, positive results can be delivered throughout an organization a well.

Open Ended Interview Questions that Address Organizational Improvement

Appreciative Inquiry seeks to find the best in people and their organizations. A component of AI is the discovery phase. Appreciative interview questions are crafted with the purpose of identifying the best of what has been and what is (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005). It entails a concerted effort to discover an organization’s positive core and connects organizational improvements by discovering opportunities that might have otherwise been missed.

A Comparison of Interview Questions

Comparing a set of problem-based interview questions with a set of appreciative strength-based questions can reveal how opportunities can be discovered and improved practices and be implemented within an organization. See Table 1.

Table 1: PB vs AI Questions Regarding Differentiated Instruction
A Problem-Based Interview An AI Conversation
Focusing on the Problem Questions Discovery Focus
  1. How does your understanding of Differentiated Instruction impact your teaching?
  2. What is your systematic approach to utilizing DI in your instruction?
  1. What do you appreciate most about Differentiated Instruction (DI)? What first drew you to investigate it? What results of DI have most encouraged you to continue using it in your classroom?
  2. I know that you work 50-60 hours a week. I can see how deep you care for every student that is referred to our SST program. Could you help me to understand Differentiated Instruction and share with me some of the positives you have witnessed as a result of using DI in your classroom?
Focusing on the Solution Questions Dream Focus
What steps can you do to increase your knowledge base about DI strategies that address classroom diversity and help your students gain access to the general education curriculum of your classroom?
How can you be an agent of change and urge other teachers to join the effort and embrace the school’s new endeavor of meeting the needs of all students, non-disabled and disabled?
I see that you are committed to create a classroom that is DI friendly. How have you grown in your use and competency of DI this past school year? What would represent a breakthrough achievement regarding the use of DI in your classroom?Imagine that all students’ needs are met because of the successful implementation of DI into every classroom. What part do you see yourself playing in this scenario?
Crimson Gate High School (CGHS); Resource Lab. For a narrative summary of the background and particulars of CGHS, see Appendix 1.

Both sets of questions offer open-ended questions; the first two questions of each set focus on the problem, the last two questions focus on a solution(s). There the similarity ends. As discovered from the high school intervention scenario, the problem-based interview is likely to not elicit organizational improvement. The teachers will revert to defensive mode. The questions, suggest the interviewer’s personal agenda is to figure out why DI is not practiced.

 

Positive Developments and AI Questions

The second set of interview questions encompass the two first phases of the AI paradigm; discovery and dream. Upon further meetings, the group will reach beyond the phases to the design and destiny stages.

From the sample interview questions, the first two phases of the AI framework are addressed; discovery and dream. The AI questions allow teachers to begin to see their strengths and realize that their strengths are a deep well of potential just waiting to be tapped (Whitney, Trosten-Bloom, & Kader). The AI paradigm sets up conditions for success and a liberating of power. Whitney and Trosten-Bloom named the conditions through which human potential is released, “the six freedoms” (cited by Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005, p. 56). The AI questions are vehicles to which the freedoms can be fashioned.

Some Freedoms that Lead to Positive Change

The first freedom is the “freedom to be known in relationship” (p. 56). Questions one and two are framed to move a member of an organization from a role to a real person. Teachers whose ideas, experiences, and success stories are valued become a contributing member of the team. No longer is the teacher simply fulfilling a role, a job, or an obligation, they can now take ownership of a concern or issue. As a result improvement is propelled.

Next, is the freedom to be heard. The third AI question facilitates true listening and hearing. Stating, “I see that you are committed…” rather than “Why aren’t you doing DI?” addresses the disconnect. Its purpose is to reveal that the teachers really do care about DI and really do want to implement it into the classroom. Helping the teacher to realize that he/she is genuinely being heard, understood, and appreciated. Their experiences and stories are deemed important. They will be more likely to offer insights and best practices in the non-threatening environment that might otherwise have been ignored or never voiced. This can capitulate and thus facilitate opportunities of discovery.

Additionally, there is the freedom to “dream in community” (p. 57). AI unleashes visionary leadership among major stakeholders. Question four can tap the teacher’s dreams, foster high performance and empower risk-taking. They now believe that their methodologies practiced in their own classroom can stimulate learning, change, and innovation in their classrooms and amongst their fellow coworkers.

Conclusion

The samples provided outlined both the negative results of problem-based questioning and the positive results of strength-based questioning. An AI model of asking questions can produce organizational improvements that effect positive change starting from the major stakeholder’s stories and experiences. Prichett (2000) postulates, “asking the appropriate questions will open doors and lead to greater overall job satisfaction and better career opportunities…. The most brilliant solutions often start with a provocative question” (para 1). Cooperrider and Whitney (2005) would confer, suggesting that the action researcher now move on to the design and destiny phases where provocative propositions and public action is declared.

 


 

References

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Lapinski, P., Greunke, J., Pegg, P., Sirbasku, G., Bendzick, K. (nd.d). Strength-based versus problem-based group sessions. Capella University Website. Retrieved from http://media.capella.edu/CourseMedia/EDD8302/StrengthvsProblemVideo/EDD8302SessionVideos_transcript.html

McClimans, L. M. (2011). The art of asking questions. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 19(4), 521-538. doi:10.1080/09672559.201k0.540022.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2009). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools (6th ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking. ISBN: 9780944583104.

Pritchett, D. M. (2000). The art of asking questions. Paralegal Today, 17(5), 93-95. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.library.capella.edu/docview/204950975?accountid=27965

Schifo, R. (2004). OD in ten words or less: Adding lightness to the definitions of organizational development. Organization Development Journal, 22(3), 74-85. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.library.capella.edu/docview/198002242

Stringer, E.T., (2014). Action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Whitney, D., Trosten-Bloom, A. & Rader, K. (2014).Five strategies of appreciative leadership. Positive Change Website. Retrieved from http://positivechange.org/five-strategies-of-appreciative-leadership/.

 

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