Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith


The Dream stage of Appreciative Inquiry provides a scalable format for involving any number of employees (and perhaps other stakeholders) in the visioning process. To avoid the creative block problems that often come with starting with a completely blank slate, it is important to undertake the discovery stage first. This will prime participants to have more vivid and imaginative ideas for the future, and makes the future vision more credible, since it is grounded in the participants’ solid reference experiences. The Dream stage therefore offers a highly effective way of involving all your staff in building a new vision for the organisation and/or their part of it.

When employees have participated in constructing the vision, and in coming up with ideas to make it happen, you don’t have to ‘sell’ the change to them or get their ‘buy-in’, because they already own the desired future.

The power of the Dream phase is that it encourages people to use the creative side of their brains, which seems to enable them to come up with ideas and solutions which they might not have considered in a more formal setting. It also enables people from various levels within an organisation or community to communicate with one another on an equal basis.

During the Dream stage, participants are invited to envisage an ideal future, in which the organisation is organised around its strengths and aspirations, and in which the exceptional experiences and life-giving energies uncovered in the Discovery phase have become the norm rather than the exception.

At this stage, you should encourage people to set their imagination free – and not to worry about what may or may not be possible in the ‘real’ world.

The aim is to come up with innovative, new ideas, based on the rich data unearthed during the Discovery phase, to enable people to move forward in ways which they had not previously thought of.

You can encourage participants to use creative media, music and/or the spoken and written word to convey their messages.

In some cases, a compelling visual image may be enough to encapsulate the dream. However, groups often prefer to add one or more brief messages, which can act as purpose statements or sum up their strategic vision. In Appreciative Inquiry these are known as ‘provocative propositions’.

It is at this stage in most Appreciative Inquiries that delegates become really ‘fired up’ and enthusiastic. Ideas start to flow and even the least creative people find ways of getting their key messages across.

Questions to get people dreaming

Below are just some of the questions that can start people dreaming.

  • How would our organisation be if all our wishes came true?
  • What is the world calling us to become?
  • What are those things about us that, no matter how much we change, we want to continue in our new and different future?
  • Imagine it’s five years in the future and we have just won ‘best employer’ status. How does that feel? What positive things are we doing differently that enabled us to become the best employer in our industry? What is it like to work here?
  • Imagine that while you’re asleep tonight a miracle happens and all our problems are solved. Those peak experiences we were talking about become the norm rather than the exception. When you wake up, what will tell you that this miracle has happened? How will the outside world know this miracle has happened – how will things be different?

A possible protocol

This is designed for a group of four to ten people.

  1. Ask some questions like those above to get people thinking about the future as if it was already happening.
  2. Encourage individuals to take a few minutes to reflect silently on what the future could be like.
  3. Get them to share their visions in one-to-one conversations.
  4. Share the visions round the table as a group.
  5. Distribute art materials at this point (any sooner may put some people off) and get the group to construct some kind of artwork to depict their Dream. It could be a collage, a ‘living sculpture’, a playlet, a musical work (if instruments are available), a poem or just a presentation.
  6. Translate your images into a powerful, positive, evocatively-worded statement to describe the future as if it’s already true: a ‘possibility statement’ or ‘provocative proposition’.

If this is part of a larger exercise

  • Either each group can then present their vision, collectively or via a nominated spokesperson, to the rest of the room (or to the facilitator if you are working with a small team)
  • Or you can combine the visions into a larger mural, collage, enactment, document or online wiki (if you are working with dispersed teams).

With a large number of people of more than about eight tables, having each table present their vision to the whole room risks losing momentum. Instead, you could have two people from each table stay on as ‘exhibit guides’, while their colleagues visit other tables. The ‘exhibit guides’ present and explain their vision to the visitors.