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Innovation and You | Reaching Your Dreams Using Appreciative Inquiry


This past Friday, a colleague, Monica, and I co-presented at the Chesapeake Bay Organization Development Network’s annual conference on innovation in organizations.  Our workshop was an incubator for innovation, featuring the Four-D Model of Appreciative Inquiry, titled An Incubator for Innovating with Four Dimensions of Appreciative Inquiry.

In the session, we introduced the Four-D Model (Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver) and walked participants through a creativity exercise to prime their thinking on innovation.  Since many of us spend so much time and energy on small tasks such as doing laundry, attending a work meeting, and figuring out what’s for dinner; or on our bigger life commitments, such as family and career; it is often difficult to spend time thinking about our passions and dreams.  Therefore, Monica and I created a space in the workshop for consultants and business leaders to take time and discover their passions while also taking action to reach their dreams.

What’s your passion?

Next, each participant identified their passions and dreams.  Their passions being what they were eager to accomplish in their lives, or the driving forces that excite them.  Focusing on a particular goal that they wanted to accomplish–we called this their “incubator idea”–we then asked them to share what they wanted to accomplish for themselves.  Some identified career goals, while others identified more personal dreams.

After walking through some introductions on passions and ideas, participants then broke into pairs or small groups.  Using the Innovator’s Handbook, which we created specifically for this workshop, each attendee had the opportunity to receive coaching, as well as offer support to others in the room.  Using guiding questions in the handbook and the small-group coaching, each person could then identify the types of support that they need to reach their goal, their desired outcomes (including tangible and emotional measures of success), and could form an action plan.  We encouraged participants to take at least one action in the room, such as calling a friend to set up a meeting, or emailing a prospective client to have lunch about partnering on a project.  By the end of the session, each attendee had walked through the Four-D Model and identified an action plan to help move them forward over the next few days, weeks, or longer.

Below are the slides used during the session, along with the Innovator’s Handbook.

CBODN Workshop Presentation

Participant Workbook

Now that you’ve heard an overview of this workshop, here are a few questions for you to consider:

  1. What inspires me most?  What gives me energy?
  2. What is my dream goal?
  3. What are my strengths and accomplishments?
  4. What would it look like to achieve my dream goal?
  5. What support do I need, and who can help me?
  6. What can I do right now to take a step towards my dream?


Appreciative Inquiry Commons (n.d.).  Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University.  Retrieved from:

Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D (2001) A positive revolution in change. In Cooperrider, D. L. Sorenson, P., Whitney, D. & Yeager, T. (eds.) Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (9-29). Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Daft, R. (2011). The Leadership Experience (5th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Page, S. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.Princeton, NJ: Princetone University Press.

Watkins, J., & Mohr, B. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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The Plop – Ideas that Go Nowhere

The Plop

“Maybe it’d be a good idea if we _____(insert idea to expend the organization’s resources here)_______.”

How many times have you heard that line, in some form or another, in meetings?  (I lost count years ago!)  Now, how many times did a tangible result come from it?  (almost never!)  Instead, the person who made the suggestion plopped the idea and left it to fade into the ether of the great-ideas-we-never-implemented space that clutters our mental energy.

The “plop” is a suggestion that is made, but the creative mind offering it puts the onus of making decisions onto the group without driving the conversation about who will lead the idea, who will assist in its implementation, what the timeline for completing the suggestion will be, and which resources are required.  When this happens, the (perhaps) excellent thought falls to the ground, loses its gusto, and carries zero momentum forward.  Fret not, there is a remedy!

Turning a Plop into a Plan for Action

Your coworker or peer volunteer just made another plop in your three-hour-long meeting.  Everyone has lost interest, because the pattern of ideas that go nowhere keeps repeating.  You feel overwhelmed by all these suggestions that “we could do, and it’d be great!”.  Now what?

Step one: ask the person making the plop to take ownership of her or his idea.

Pose a few questions to help shape the plop into something the team can manage.  Ask the plopper what she or he would like to do to move the idea forward: will s/he be the project manager?  Will s/he play a supporting role on the project?

Find out more details about the idea so there is a clear picture of the expectations if the concept were to become reality.  Also, query which resources are necessary to make progress, and compare this need to a list of resources the team has at their disposal.

Step two: build the idea into a proposal.

The team now needs to consider the purpose of the idea–what will this suggestion solve, do, or change?  Additionally, a serious look at how strongly the idea connects to the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic objectives will provide guidance on whether the project is worthwhile for the organization.  Further, the team should consider who will do what, when, how, and with which resources.

Step three: make a decision.

From the inquiry in steps one and two, it will become clearer whether the plopper and others have time, energy, and resources to proceed, and it will uncover the degree to which there is alignment to the overall organization’s purpose.  These considerations make it easier for the team to make a decision whether to move forward with the idea: (a) move forward and enjoy a new adventure or (b) walk away from the idea with some new lessons on how to manage a plop.

Benefits of the Process

Regardless of the choice in step three, this process will build your team’s capacity to manage its decision-making, especially its ability to prioritize which projects best align with the organization’s strategy.  It also aims to reduce the number of plops in the long term, because teammates will realize that coming to a meeting unprepared is no longer the easy way out.  Instead of passing the work of building out a proposal to the team with little direction or leadership, anyone suggesting an idea will need to do some homework before dropping myriad plops onto the group.

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Build a Vision, Change Reality: Four Steps to Dream Big and Deliver

I recently led the design and delivery of a one-hour, high-impact training session on how to engineer ideas to a room full of my colleagues: consultants, technical gurus, designers, and senior managers at a global consulting and marketing agency.  Prior sessions that my coworkers had designed–each on diverse topics–included 50 minutes of lecture, a few minutes of Q&A with the audience, and then a few minutes of feedback.  Thinking to myself, different designs could have more impact, especially for a room full of intelligent adult learners, I wanted to create a session that was more interactive.

A vision began to form in my mind as I designed the course, and it was basically this: provide a lot of research-backed information about how to be a more effective strategy consultant, centered on adult-learning methods, that engages energy, while going deep into the topic.  It seemed unrealistic…almost.  As I began to recruit a team of fellow organization development peers (a rare breed in the firm!), I realized that our collective minds would be able to bring this vision into reality.

What Is a Vision?

A vision, as Daft (2011) defines it, is “a picture of an ambitious, desirable future for the organization or team.”  Let’s break that into manageable chunks:  The first part of this definition is to design or paint a picture–perhaps not so literally as creating a piece of art when it comes to organizations and teams, but rather this aspect is more about crafting an image of what the future will look like for the organization.  Next, Daft describes visions with the word ambitious.  This means that visions require a sort of stretching of the imagination.  A new future will take effort to achieve; it will not be simple to accomplish greatness!  The term “desirable future” refers to what the organization imagines will serve its stakeholders in a beneficial way.  Lastly, Daft’s definition is geared towards organization- and team leaders, who have the responsibility to craft and implement visions.  Find out how to develop a vision that fits your organization and how to move towards it.

How to Build a Vision and Deliver It in Four Steps

Based on research from Cooperrider & Whitney (1990), and the subsequent writings by Watkins & Mohr (2001), there are four stages to build a vision and make it happen.  These four steps come from the Four-D Model, which has roots in Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  Outlined below, anyone can use the Four Ds (discover, dream, design, deliver) for practically any sort of visioning and change work.  Whether an individual looking to make a personal life-altering decision; or a team seeking a better way of operating together; or British Airways, a multi-national corporation exploring a new competitive strategy, this model has proved to be impactful (Watkins & Mohr, 2011).


During this introductory stage, it is important to analyze and explore the organization’s or team’s past successes and accomplishments.  The point is to focus creative energy on the positive (Watkins & Mohr, 2011); in this case, what has already worked.  At the crux of AI is the attention to possibilities. 

Tapping into positive energy from past accomplishments aids the organization or team to catapult itself into a creative mindset.  This then transcends into behaviors that enable the organization or team to make strides towards its ambitious vision.  When designing the course for my colleagues, I first recognized prior research on AI that I had conducted during graduate school, as well as the previous experiences using an Appreciative Inquiry approach on consulting projects.  This, along with the realization that I could build a team to deliver the course, helped me to build confidence that I have knowledge and skills to deliver the ambitious vision.


In this second phase of the Four-D model, the goal is to tap into the team’s creativity.  Brainstorm, ideate, design.  Whatever term or concept of dreaming ideas of possible future states (visions!) supports your understanding of this phase will work.  No idea is too crazy, stupid, or ridiculous during this step.  Encourage teammates with diverse experiences and thinking styles to participate.  Research shows that groups with diverse thinking styles come up with better solutions than groups of experts of a singular subject matter (Page, 2007).

Perhaps your mind is getting stuck in negativity: Our budget is too small.  We don’t have enough time.  Last time we tried this, we failed.  Take a deep breath and think about what would be the ideal future state if you had millions of dollars, or 5 more months of time, or if you had succeeded last time.  Break free of the negative thinking; be creative.  During the course planning, once I had formed a team of co-facilitators, we came up with 4 or 5 designs on how to deliver the course material, not to mention the 20 or 30 iterations of decisions on what that material would be!  Every idea was put on the table for consideration, which is part of the next step.


Your creative ideas are beginning to flow by now, and you have at least 5 different ideas, right?  Now what?  In the Design stage, it is important to begin to make decisions on what your future state should look like.  In the Dream phase, you came up with multiple options, ignoring roadblocks, tapping into potential visions of a better future.  

Perhaps you have begun to prioritize these ideas into which is most important, or which option best suits the needs of your stakeholders.  During the Design phase, you can begin to design an action plan, or map the elements of the decided vision.  

Back to the course planning, our committee met one or two times each week to iterate our ideas.  We began to capture designs of the slides that would support our lecture points, as well as refine the interactive components.  We analyzed each section of the plan, comparing our objectives and desired vision to ensure we kept ourselves on track.  By the last planning session, we had created a clear plan for the speaking points, activities, and handouts.  We were ready to practice and then deliver.  

Each decision you make in this phase to clarify what the organization or team will do to reach its vision will enable successful implementation in the final phase.  

This is where the hard work creating a vision pays off.  As you begin to roll out the vision and take steps towards reaching it, your team or organization can benefit from a constant reminder of past accomplishments, current skills and abilities, and the desired future state (vision).  Perhaps a roadblock pops up during the implementation.  Reframing your perspective of “roadblock” to “opportunity to innovate” will allow the organization to maintain a positive outlook and continue to practice using the Four-D model to modify the vision or its delivery.

In the case of the course planning, we delivered the vision on the day of the session.  Using the framework of our session plan, our team had confidence that our design would have a positive impact on the participants.  At one point, participants were very energetic on a particular part of the session, and so we modified our design live with a mini committee meeting as participants did some small-group work.  Our iteration on the design in the moment allowed us to maintain a balanced flow while also covering all the materials.  Therefore, it is important to remain flexible as those opportunities for innovation are certain to arise.

Take Action

Now that you have learned the basics of Appreciative Inquiry’s Four-D Model, try it out.  This article focused on organization and team, however the model is applicable to individual and community levels as well.  Practice the model on your own with a personal vision.  Take yourself through some personal discover, dreaming of the future, designing your own action plan, and then making a personal life change.  Remember to be ambitions and look for possibilities!

By the way, the course described in this article went well.  We met our own objectives and received positive feedback from participants even a week after the session.  It was rewarding to try something new, work hard to deliver an ambitious vision, and learn what worked well as well as what we could innovate for the next time.


Appreciative Inquiry Commons (n.d.).  Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University.  Retrieved from:

Cooperrider, D.L. & Whitney, D (2001) A positive revolution in change. In Cooperrider, D. L. Sorenson, P., Whitney, D. & Yeager, T. (eds.) Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (9-29). Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Daft, R. (2011). The Leadership Experience (5th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Page, S. (2007). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princetone University Press.

Watkins, J., & Mohr, B. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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Courage to Raise Conflict Outweighs Remaining Silent out of Fear

Video Overview

When was the last time you disagreed with something or someone?  Did you talk about your concern directly with them?  Likely, the fear of raising the conflict won and the issue remained hidden.  Margaret Heffernan (2012) discusses why having the courage to disagree and openly discuss conflict far outweighs the risks of remaining silent in this TED Talk.  Watch the video here:

One of Heffernan’s (2012) recommendations is to seek someone whose personality, point of view, or thinking style is drastically different.  By so doing, this partner can offer a different perspective or challenge your assumptions, allowing you to refine the project, research paper, argument, design, or other work.  This takes energy and patience, because dealing with conflict goes against the natural human tendency.  But, Heffernan argues that the end result is worth the investment, because diverse perspectives build a better outcome than like-mindedness.

One example Heffernan (2012) offers comes from Alice, who researched why a certain segment of children had higher rates of cancer.  She found that the reason was because the mother had an X-ray during pregnancy, and so Alice published her findings.  Yet, X-ray exams remained common for women during certain stages of pregnancy, and the cancer rate for children remained steady.  While Alice’s findings were available, it took considerable time and her challenging the thinking of the day to convince the medical community to change its practices in order to save lives.  She took courage to disagree with the status quo in order to have a positive impact.

Take Action

After watching the video, what problems will you solve or risks will you mitigate by voicing your opinions, worries, or ideas?


Heffernan, M. (2012).  Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree.  TED.  Retrieved August 24, 2012, from

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Gaining Momentum: Amplifying Creativity for Innovative Business Solutions

Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to work with a non-government organization (NGO) abroad, whose board asked for help meeting their strategic goals in the next 18 months.  Their membership voted six months prior on a handful of milestones that needed to be accomplished, and the board members were nervous.  There was an air of uncertainty and doubt about how they would reach the fast-approaching deadlines.  I needed a way to help them move into a better state of mind so that they could get their work done.

During the discovery stage of the consulting project, I revisited academic research on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which is founded in the fields of positive psychology and positivism.  To summarize the findings, researchers have determined that using positive thoughts and focusing on the upside of a challenge leads to greater chances of actually accomplishing the task at hand, compared to dwelling on negative aspects of the issue.  Appreciative Inquiry goes further in providing consultants, facilitators, and business leaders with a framework of using positivism to help clients drive through a challenge.

Focus is kept on what is possible (what could be), rather than on the negative (what is “wrong”).  Using AI, the facilitator amplifies for the team that no idea is too far-fetched, too expensive, or too laborious to be considered.  With this approach, the conversation shifts from dwelling on what is wrong, to discovering and innovating possible solutions.  This shift in conversation also changes the energy in the room for those involved.  Facilitating this dialogue requires attention to the messages, ensuring that the focus is on ideas, possibilities, and creativity.  When someone says, “we can’t do that; we just don’t have the time,” the facilitator can ask, “what is it that we can do?” or “if we had the time, what could we accomplish?”

What about the NGO mentioned earlier?  The energy at the start seemed to be negative: worry, anxiety, nervousness.  I needed a way to help them create solutions to their challenge.  Appreciative Inquiry provided a way to reframe the conversation from “how will we ever get this done?” to “here are some solutions…”  The first step was for the board to shift into a positive state of mind (they recalled their accomplishments so far), and then they moved into a state of innovation, creativity, and solution-mongering.  In the end, they had a robust action plan that solved each challenge and would complete the milestones on time.

Interested in more about AI?  Check out the book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, by David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney.