How businesses can better plan strategically

Instead of approaching business as a series of problems to be solved – say, how to cut down on spending, or how to keep employees from getting bored at work – organizations should take a more appreciative look at themselves. That’s the aim of appreciative inquiry, a change method that consultant Bill Swedish thinks can help businesses get out of a negative rut.

The problem-oriented approach limits business thinking, and companies end up being reactive instead of proactive. “We limit the scope of what we consider as real possibilities for our organizations,” said Swedish. “Appreciative inquiry does not ignore problems, but it intends to look at problems from the other side, that side being opportunity. And it intends to take the organization out of the realm of negative thinking – thinking of scarcity, thinking of lack, thinking of problems – and move the organization into thinking about capabilities, strengths and opportunities. And that shift – that does magic.”

Here are the four D’s of appreciative inquiry, with explanation from Swedish:

  • Discovery: This phase is characterized by discipline and rigor, designed to define the “positive core” of the organization. What are the values? What do we do when we are at our best? Organizations must avoid looking at questions such as, “What’s wrong with us?” Swedish said. It’s not about fixing but about identifying what does not need fixing and can be improved.
  • Dream: In this phase, organizations explore their possibilities. “How can we create the biggest, wildest, happiest, most fulfilling future, and not just in terms of profit?” The dream phase involves thinking beyond customary boundaries. “We take the limits off and identify what these pictures of the future could be,” Swedish said. An example of a company dreaming is a new strategy: Netflix, the movie rental and streaming company that evolved from delivering DVDs to creating original content.
  • Design: This is a practical phase, where the ideas and energy of the first two phases are prioritized. “What has the highest value? What is the most important thing for us to do? This is where organizations take a focused look at systems and structures, decision-making processes and overall market strategies,” Swedish said. Companies should take the best of their past, the positive core from the discovery phase, and align it with what’s possible, the dream phase, and, then, in the design phase, develop a plan.
  • Destiny: This phase is “a series of inspired actions,” Swedish said. The phase is ongoing, where the emphasis on thinking beyond boundaries repeats itself. In the destiny phase, an organization “lives its dream and its design and executes on that design to mold its future.

The process then can repeat itself. Companies can go back and “rediscover” – expanding or sharpening on their core. “The destiny phase is really about specific commitments that the organization makes and that the personnel in the organization make regarding this path forward, and that is where the change actually happens,” Swedish said.

“One reason strategic planning processes fail,” Swedish said, “is that organizations view them as an add-on. Employees think of time spent on strategic planning as something they muddle through so they can get back to their real jobs.”

“The mentality that you have to go into this with is, ‘We are changing the way we think about the way we plan and execute in the organization.’” he said. “It takes leadership and commitment. It takes some education. People have to understand the what and the why as well as the how about appreciative inquiry. But for it to work, the organization needs to embrace this as the way forward, and not as a separate, side project.”