By Jolene Knapp, Senior Partner at Ideas for Action, LLC.

By celebrating what’s right with the world, we find the energy to fix what’s wrong. Can we really do that at work? Yes!  Whether you are talking with colleagues and students, orienting volunteers, or setting strategic direction with a board, an appreciative mindset can be transformative. With a basic understanding of a few principles, you can easily find practical ways to put this concept to use. The result is that people will create visions of possibility, and share in the refreshing knowledge that there are many paths to success. There’s more than one right answer!

Celebrating what’s right is the cornerstone of a powerful conversational framework called Appreciative Advising, which I practiced last month with 189 higher education professionals during an institute at Florida Atlantic University. It stems from Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an organizational development theory that  “provides a positive rather than a problem-based lens on the organization, focusing members’ attention on what is possible rather than what is wrong.”

Appreciative Advising

[appreciative conversation] features six phases:

  • Create a welcoming environment – Disarm
  • Ask positive open-ended questions to reveal interests and strengths, and listen to understand – Discover
  • Help formulate a vision; build on previous successes and reframe obstacles as opportunities – Dream
  • Help design concrete, incremental and achievable goals – Design
  • Motivate and energize to help deliver results – Deliver
  • Help set new goals, keep raising the bar – Don’t Settle

A basic tenet of Appreciative Advising mirrors a value I hold dearly: Let’s all proceed with the presumption of goodwill. It’s a great example of translating AI into a practical framework for a specific profession–in this case, academic advising. It’s effective because it is simple and flexible, not rocket science, with steps that can be implemented immediately in a variety of conversational settings.

Here are a few possibilities.

  1. Performance reviews become Performance Development:  What if, instead, supervisors and staff members had frequent and regular conversations about goals, alignment, and how things are going?  Borrow from Appreciative Advising with questions like:
  • How can I help you achieve your goals? What resources do you need?
  • Since our last conversation, what steps have you/your team taken and how is it working? If it is not working, what are some other options for achieving your goals?
  • What project would you initiate if you knew you would not fail?
  • If salary and finances were irrelevant, what job would you most want to do here?
  1. New roles: Imagine you’re starting a new job or have been promoted to a leadership position. No matter your experience, education, or longevity, the context has changed and there is much to learn from your new perspective. Launch a listening tour with individuals and small groups. Ask open-ended questions, probe for what’s working well. Don’t ignore problems, but do begin to frame them differently. This is a discovery process; you are gathering data and learning about “what is” with an open mind.
  1. future campusMake room for “what if” conversations: “What if” is one of the most powerful questions imaginable. This is the time to dream. For a moment, pretend there are no obstacles like time, money, politics, or naysayers. Many years ago, a “what if?” conversation, while I was waiting in a buffet line with two fellow association CEOs, led to an unprecedented and highly successful joint annual conference among three major higher education associations. In fact, workshops, sessions, and speakers (in . . .yes . . . Honolulu) were centered around the what if theme of “Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds”. A decade later, members are still talking about it.

As described earlier, AI–when applied to organizations–provides a positive lens on the organization, focusing members’ attention on what is possible. It includes four of the phases of Appreciative Advising: Discover, Dream, Design, and Deliver. Similarly, it generates excitement and passion.

My colleagues and I apply an appreciative mindset to our consulting and coaching work in higher education and associations. Two organizational examples of AI reflect the elements of co-creation and of Design Thinking–a collaborative, and empathetic way to define problems and design solutions.  

  1. Strategic planning: Effective planning is inclusive and collaborative. While working with a 50-year old academic program recently, we included students, administrators, alumni, employers of graduates, and community stakeholders in a pre-planning discovery survey. What’s working well? Is our mission still relevant? What does it mean to you? Share a vivid description and preferred future of what this program will celebrate during its 60-year anniversary. What would be the single, most important, big goal for this program to accomplish in the next ten years if there were no obstacles to success? The barrage of responses to the survey was proof of the community’s desire to have a voice. The planning retreat involved similar representation; for the first time in the program’s history, planning extended beyond the faculty. What kind of difference do you think that made with ownership of their vision and strategic priorities?
  1. Strategic Planning at Wayne State University

    Strategic Planning at Wayne State University

    Revamping a Program: Design Thinking is great tool to use when you’re creating or revamping a program or process. Its series of questions–What is? What if? What wows? What works? resemble the phases of AI. The process begins with developing deep empathy for the customer [user, student, member]. This first step is typically done through immersion, observation, and focus groups. Be the student who attends a class or the member who tries to volunteer for a committee. Watch the behavior of exhibitors and members at a trade show. Schedule structured conversations with all the stakeholders you can think of–current students or members, recruits, employers, accountants. Then, and only then, re-define the problem statement and begin imagining solutions–collaboratively. The best design comes from applying different lenses to a problem and welcoming a variety of perspectives.

Appreciative InquiryStrategic PlanningDesign Thinking
DiscoverDataWhat is?
DreamVisionWhat if?
DesignStrategic PrioritiesWhat wows?
Deliver (and don’t settle)Action and AssessmentWhat works?


Acting from an appreciative mindset comes naturally to some people; others may need to work at it a little harder. With some structure and practice, there are countless ways to apply it. The results are priceless.

Join the conversation by sharing your ideas and practices in the comments section below.

To find out more about how an appreciative mindset can help you with strategy, facilitation, planning, projects, change, leadership, contact Jolene at Jolene is a Senior Partner with Ideas for Action, LLC. Photo credits: Jolene Knapp and Deborah Nystrom

Jolene Knapp photoThe author: Jolene Knapp is a Senior Partner at Ideas for Action, LLC.—a consulting practice driven by a passion to empower the potential of people and organizations. She is nationally known as a leader in association and non-profit management and governance. Her calm, positive, and inclusive style and her success in building, leading and sustaining membership organizations during constant change have earned broad respect in the industry.  Jolene would welcome an introductory conversation with you: email