Appreciative Inquiry: How Framing Questions Generate Momentum

Using a framing question to guide our work is a cornerstone of the Strategic Doing discipline. The transformation of hearts and minds that comes from the easy (and yet not simple) process of flipping the script on problem ideation can lead to renewed enthusiasm and momentum.

When we set out to seek solutions, we often fall into the trap of wanting to identify the “problem” we see before us in exacting, painstaking detail. Through documenting every flaw, fault and grievance we have with the status quo we imagine ourselves getting closer to identifying a solution key shaped perfectly to fit and open our problem-shaped lock.

The observation, dissection, and methodical process of problem identification can incapacitate a team. Motivation is stifled. And every piece of the problem surveyed, analyzed, and dissected, add to the insurmountable issue the team sees before them. Even the most functional team can get disillusioned and derailed.

It is most definitely human to engage in this picking apart of a problem. But it isn’t always helpful. When looking for ways to build strategy and take action, you will need different tools. If your team is stagnant, unmotivated, or just plain stuck, the panacea might well be found in reimagining your work through an appreciative lens.

Appreciative inquiry, developed by David Cooperrider, pokes at inertia and encourages teams to reframe their view away from investigating what is in front of them. Instead, it asks the team to imagine what could be. This turn towards possibilities can free a team from the mire of analysis paralysis. It encourages generative, not dampening, energy.

As kids we ask questions all the time—often to the frustration of many a parent and elementary school teacher. As we grow older, most of us don’t question as much. We forget to ask why, and importantly why not. Appreciative inquiry invites us to imagine why, why not, how, who, when, what if, and what would.

Teams can be invited into this process through a framing question to guide their conversations. A good framing question is intriguing, thought-provoking. It is broad enough to welcome diversity of thought about the journey. Clear enough so team members know where they are headed and how they might play a role in getting there. The framing question becomes the North Star of the team’s collective work.

There are as many framing questions as there are situations that could benefit from their use. Take the broad welcome of an “imagine if” open and a “what would that look like” close, and neatly wrap them around an “imagined future state” and you have the elements of a framing question. Devise a framing question with your team to set them on the appreciate inquiry path out of the problem analysis forest.

The best advice I can offer about generating a fitting appreciative frame is to ask for input from as many people as will lend you a hand. Teamwork makes the dreamwork. Revision and review will help solidify your ideas. Here are some examples from my work.

Imagine our university is a national, academic leader in food, food systems, and agrarian studies, across diverse geographies of people, places, and spaces? What would that look like?

What would it look like if every child in our community had a trusted adult they could turn to.

Imagine if our eldercare facilities were staffed with caring professionals, equipped with the knowledge and resources needed to care compassionately for the elderly, their families, and themselves. What would that look like?

What would it look like if, in the next five years, our county had the greatest decline in obesity rates across the state.

For more on building a framing question for your team, you can look here and here. Or you can contact a Strategic Doing Fellow near you

Jane Rogan, Fellow