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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

Making Change Work: A Strengths-Based Approach

More than a few things have recently changed, and one thing that experts can agree on is that the world and workplace will remain turbulent in the future. We all will likely need to make some changes soon. Making change work is one of those life skills that are more important now than ever. This article introduces a positive, strength-based approach to change management (Appreciative Inquiry) that can bring new life to change initiatives.

"When you are through changing, you are through" Bruce Barton

The Change Management Reality

Many people share a paradigm that most changes in the workplace fail. Although there have been quotes and percentages used in support of this perception there is currently no supporting empirical evidence for this point of view. Mark Hughes of the University of Brighton published his research in The Journal of Change Management: Do 70 percent of all organizational change initiatives really fail? and found no supporting evidence. In 2009 McKinsey surveyed over 1,500 executives on their perceptions of change and concluded that most changes fail because only a third of the executives in the study indicated that changes were completely/mostly successful. Using a sports analogy, thinking that most changes fail because they are not a complete success would be similar to thinking that not scoring every chance you get in a game is a failure.

Change is like a marathon race. When I ran my first marathon, I started planning in January for the race that was nine months later. I read books about marathons, talked with people who ran marathons, followed a comprehensive training plan, and ran with a veteran marathon runner on the day of the race. While not easy, successful change is possible.

The Change Management Process

Too often, change processes begin with what is wrong. While it is imperative to fix problems, if we never spend time talking with others about what is possible, we miss the opportunity to engage in work that is inspiring and realize our dreams. A constant focus on what is wrong not only diverts attention from what can be but is draining. Consider a scenario where one person is always asking about what needs to be fixed. Another is asking about the best of what is possible. Both conversations can lead to improvements but always focusing on what is wrong leaves us short of achieving the full potential of what is possible.

What if we begin change initiatives reframing problems such as employee turnover and customer complaints with possibilities such as retaining talent and creating exceptional customer service?

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to change management that fosters positive transformation. AI can be used in one-to-one coaching situations, with teams to develop strategic plans, and in companywide large-scale change initiatives. A few basic assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry are:

  • Individuals, teams, and organizations move in the direction discussed

  • In every person, team, or organization, something is good and works

  • Questions create influence

  • People are more confident to make changes building on the best of the past

  • Words shape worlds

The Appreciative Inquiry change management approach is described as a four "D" change management process:

  1. Discovery – finding the best of what is

  2. Dream – collaborating on the best of what can be

  3. Design – establishing creative strategies to move from what is to what can be

  4. Destiny – executing the design strategies with excellence and revising as needed

Like other change management processes, AI starts with identifying a team of core stakeholders. However, before you can move to discovery, you need to use the stakeholder team to determine the change management process's focal point. The focal point is framed positively, such as embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Once the focal point is appropriately crafted, then appreciative questions are used to reveal the current state's best. One of my favorite appreciative questions is:

What would you wish for if you had three wishes to improve your organization's health and vitality dramatically? (and no, you cannot wish for more wishes)

After interviews are conducted, and the feedback is analyzed, the team phrases the vision and images of the dream into aspiration statements. In the design phase, themes developed from the discovery and dream stages result in action-oriented steps toward the aspirational statements. In the destiny phase, goals and action steps are reviewed to ensure the changes are incorporated into everyday life.

Are you interested in learning more about Appreciative Inquiry, or could you use some individual, team, or organizational help making change work? Use this link to connect with one of our experienced change management experts: Contact Us


Cooperrider, D. & Whitney, D. (1999). Appreciative inquiry: Collaborating for change. Berrett-Kohler Publishing.

Rosenzweig, J. & Van Tiem, D. (2007) An appreciative view of human performance technology. Performance Improvement.

Tasler, N. (2017). Stop using the excuse “organizational change is hard”. Harvard Business Review.


The Five Best Resources

We have assembled a collection of our top five personal favorite books from thought leaders on the topics of change management, coaching, culture, innovation and creativity, leadership style, servant leadership, and strategic planning. We earn a commission if you click a link and go on to make a purchase; it does not cost you extra. Thanks for your support!

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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