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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. Like rapids in a river, change is a natural and necessary part of growing your business. As the world changes, leaders and businesses must change too. No company would brag about its status quo and sameness compared to when it began. But, change imposed is often change opposed. Being able to make change work is one of those leadership skills that are more important now than ever. Here is a four-step positive, strength-based approach to leading change that can bring new life to your team and business.

Do 70% of all organizational change initiatives really fail?

A common perception is that most changes in the workplace fail. Mckinsey and Company 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 or mostly successful.

No matter your perception of change, the reality of a fast-moving economy and complex business environment makes the "change problem" increasingly difficult. Change is complex, whether broad or incremental.

Like running a successful marathon, the work begins well before the first steps of the race and before the visible aspects of a change take place. Kotter, in his book Leading Change, suggested that these initial steps are required to set the stage and loosen up the system. If organizations move too quickly or out of order, they get into trouble, leading to faulty decisions and wasted efforts.

A positive strengths-based approach to change

Too often, change processes begin with what is wrong. While it is imperative to fix problems, if you never spend time talking with others about what is possible, you miss the opportunity to engage in work that is inspiring and connects to purpose.

A constant focus on what is wrong not only diverts attention from what can be but is draining. Consider a scenario where one employee is always asking about what is wrong and needs to be fixed. Another is asking about the best of what is possible. Both conversations can lead to improvements, but focusing on what is wrong leaves misses the potential of what is possible.

What if instead of beginning with the problem, a change initiative reframes the problems as a possibility? For example, reducing employee turnover or customer complaints is replaced with increasing retention of your best employees and creating an exceptional customer experience.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to change management that fosters positive transformation. It can be used in one-to-one coaching sessions, with teams to create strategic plans, or in companywide large-scale change initiatives.

The fundamental assumptions of the Appreciate Inquiry process are that:

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

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

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

  • Questions create influence

  • Words shape worlds

Like other change management processes, this process starts with identifying the right team of core stakeholders to identify the focal point.

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

Appreciative Inquiry Step #1: Discovery

Once the focal point for the change initiative is identified, it begins with finding the best of what is already within the business. Traditional change management processes often begin by asking people to think about and discuss gaps and weaknesses. While this approach has been used successfully, it is not without risks. Asking what is wrong can put people on the defensive, create resistance and a lack of buy-in, and sometimes hinder rather than encourage change.

One of my favorite appreciative questions to use at this step 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)

Appreciative Inquiry Step #2: Dream

After interviews are conducted, and the feedback is analyzed from the discovery step, the team phrases the vision and images of the dream into aspiration statements. The dream (or vision) step is about collaborating on the best of what can be. The outcomes from the discovery step are shared, and members of the change team co-create aspirational statements about the ideal future.

Appreciative Inquiry Step #3: Design

The design step is about establishing creative strategies that will move from what is to what can be. Actionable organizational design elements are identified, key internal ad external relationships are identified, and action-oriented design statements are created.

Appreciative Inquiry Step #4: Destiny

In the destiny phase, goals and action steps are reviewed to ensure the changes are incorporated into everyday life. The last step is about executing the design strategies with excellence and revising them as needed. It is about concluding the process and the beginning of an ongoing appreciative learning culture.

How is Appreciative Inquiry different from other popular change management approaches?

Traditional organizational transformation or problem-solving techniques often ask people to think about and discuss gaps, weaknesses, and problems in the current system or organization. While these approaches have been used successfully in many settings, they are not without risks.

Problem-solving techniques can put people on the defensive, create resistance and a lack of buy-in, and sometimes hinder rather than encourage change. In contrast, AI focuses on the positive and looks to build on strengths to shape the future. Like other organizational transformation approaches, AI begins with framing the issue(s) and data collection. However, unlike most other methods, AI provides a mechanism through which problems can be framed, and data can be collected in an appreciative rather than a critical manner. While it is helpful to learn from mistakes, learning from and carrying forward victories and best practices is equally beneficial.


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.


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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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