Appreciative Inquiry: a leadership technique during uncertain times

As the world faces unprecedented events due to coronavirus, ‘business as usual’ is disrupted.

The pandemic is to businesses, amongst many other things, a large scale experiment in change. It is testing people, systems and strategies. New ways of doing things must be worked out. So how do we, as leaders, support our people through this intensive period of change and uncertainty? What leadership techniques might we have in our toolbox?

The Helmsman Project hosted last month, as part of its Leadership & Innovation Series, a seminar with Michelle Etheve, Co-Founder of The Change Lab. Michelle shared with us her knowledge on Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based leadership technique to engage in meaningful, positive conversations in support of successful change initiatives.

In the spirit of sharing, here are the six D’s of Appreciative Inquiry, as presented by Michelle:

Define - Define the overall focus or purpose of the inquiry using inspiring, positive language. A question to ask here is: “What is the positive change/outcome you want to create?” For example, the topic could be “Engaging and empowering our home-based workforce”. 

Discovery - The Discovery phase is about sharing tales of strengths. What’s working well? Start the meeting with what’s working well. This is a useful way to shift current mindsets and vocabulary away from deficit-focused thinking and support your team to feel confident and positive about the challenge.

Dream - The Dream phase is about imagining all potential positive futures for the organisation. What might be possible? The past successes and strengths identified in the previous step should support this phase. Multiple perspectives and opinions are very useful here.

Design - The Design phase brings together the ideas generated in the Dream phase but the focus shifts to discussing and designing the possibilities. How might we get there? The goal is to reach a shared vision that the team sees as having real, positive potential. 

Destiny - The Destiny phase covers how the vision is delivered, embedded through the organisation, teams and with individual commitment. One question to consider is: “Where will we start?” 

Drum - Repeat and sustain the Appreciative Inquiry model over time.


While COVID-19 is hurting many businesses and sectors - in some cases in catastrophic ways - I do have a glimmer of hope that new opportunities will come out on the other end of such devastating events. We will have learnt, adapted, innovated. In the meantime, leaders must use all resources at their disposal, including a great dose of empathy and resilience, to support their people. Appreciative Inquiry might be one of these techniques.

If you’re interested in more insights from our Leadership & Innovation Series event held with Michelle, check out my last post 'When innovation and change collide'.


Coronavirus update

The Helmsman Project, in consultation with partner schools, has cancelled the final three weeks of its current face-to-face programs. These will be reinstated once the situation settles. In the meantime, a remote coaching session is being trialled in collaboration with one of our partner schools. 

The Helmsman Project has exciting projects in the pipeline to support our big ambition to become a sustainable and scalable for purpose organisation. School term 2 was always going to be dedicated to progressing these critical projects. Programs will resume in term 3 or when deemed appropriate.

Kim Larochelle

Kim joined The Helmsman Project as a volunteer when it first started delivering programs in 2013. In January 2014, she became one of the organisation's first two employees and is now CEO. She has had the privilege, along with the team, to witness and support The Helmsman Project's growth.

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