place over several days and includes employees from all
over the company. Some businesses invite customers and
vendors as well. By bringing people together at every
level, from the shop foor to CEO, leaders get a more complete picture of the company.
“Each person from the organization has a unique piece
of the puzzle, and it’s not until you bring them together
and try to ft them all together into a coherent whole that
you really get your best results,” says Ludema, who also
does consulting work.
The summits have four phases during which participants are asked to address a range of questions:
ā ā Discovery. What are the organization’s strengths?
What attracted you initially to the company? Can you
describe a time when you felt proud of what you were
doing? What allowed that moment to occur? What do
you value most about the employer that you want to
ā ā Dream. What are the possibilities? What is changing?
What’s the best future you can imagine?
ā ā Design. How can you make these ideas happen?
ā ā Destiny. How do you implement and sustain the
In addition to generating ideas, the summit discussions build relationships and trust among employees and
“Once you have that kind of cohesiveness, that team
efort, you produce better results,” Ludema says. Research
has shown that the highest-performing teams are those in
which all of the members are working to understand and
help each other, he notes.
The appreciative inquiry summit is also a great way
to identify those with leadership potential. When a
lower-level employee makes noticeable contributions
to the discussions or a planning meeting, more-senior
participants may decide to provide her with more
opportunities for professional growth, Ludema says.
John Heiser, president and chief operating ofcer of Mag-netrol International Inc., based in Aurora, Ill., frst used
appreciative inquiry three years ago to determine the best
way to expand the manufacturing business globally. He
found it to be so valuable that the company has used the
process on several more occasions.
“If we start with the premise that maybe we don’t have
all the answers at the executive level, if we can embrace
that, it’s amazing what comes out,” Heiser says.
For example, an idea that arose in one summit has
evolved from a sketch on a fip chart into a prototype of a
Sometimes the process can take an unexpected turn.
In a summit focused on innovation, for example, Heiser
was surprised to hear more ideas for improving internal
communications than products. The discussion prompted
changes in overly rigid, complicated time-of and tardi-
ness policies for hourly workers. Some of the procedures
had been in place so long that no one knew why they were
implemented in the frst place, says Kim Shafer, HR
director and general counsel. She’s training supervisors
to approach situations with fexibility as a demonstration
“You have to be open to what you hear” in the summit,
Shafer advises. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.
But that’s part of the beauty of it because they’re thinking
of things that you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of.”
The appreciative inquiry process is becoming ingrained
in the company’s culture and in how employees approach
problem-solving, he says. It’s not only a method for align-
ing the organization—up, down and across. It motivates,
inspires and engages employees. “I think they do see that
we value what they say,” he says.
The approach also works well for strategic planning.
Jacqueline Stavros, a management professor at Lawrence
Technological University in Southfeld, Mich., who also
does consulting work, leverages appreciative inquiry to
help companies through that process.
Traditionally, company leaders have used a SWOT
(strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)
analysis. Stavros developed an alternative she calls SOAR
(strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results).
“SOAR leverages the strengths and opportunities and
is very action-oriented, where SWOT is very analysis-
oriented,” she says. “SOAR is very possibility-focused:
‘What could be?’ You’re having a conversation with
people, so there are innovations and breakthroughs. And
there’s engagement at all levels.”
Stavros is a co-author of The Thin Book of SOAR:
Building Strengths-Based Strategy (Thin Book Pub-
lishing, 2009) and Conversations Worth Having: Using
Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful
Engagement (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, May 2018).
Although some leaders might be reluctant to invite
their employees to participate in planning the organization’s future, often everyone comes away feeling
energized, inspired and more knowledgeable about the
organization, Ludema notes.
“What the senior leaders discover is that the employees want exactly the same thing that they do,” he says.
“Everybody in that organization wants to beat the competition, wants to be at the forefront of the industry and
wants to have meaning in their work. That’s what leaders
want as well.”
Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor at HR Magazine.