Implementing A Professional Development System Through Appreciative Inquiry

by Robert A. Goldberg

(Originally appeared in The Leadership & Organization Development Journal, MCB University Press, Volume 22, No. 2, 2001, pgs. 56-61)

Inertia: Tendency of a body to resist acceleration; resistance to change or motion.

Phototropism: Growth or movement in response to a source of light.

The way we think about something actually makes a difference. An assortment of organization theorists, scholars and practitioners has been converging around this simple thought for a while. Bill Isaacs, president of the MIT Dialogue Project, says no thing is fixed, but is dependent on how we interact with it (Toms, 1998). Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, talks about the importance of examining our ‘mental models’ (Senge, 1993). Jeffrey Goldstein, of Adelphi University, describes the phenomenon of how we actually create more opposition when we assume that people will ‘resist’ the changes we hope to make (Goldstein, 1994).

And David Cooperrider, in his theory of ‘Appreciative Inquiry,’ takes off on this idea that how we think about, and talk about, our organizations, influences how we work in them. Cooperrider believes that if we conceive of organizations as ‘problems to be solved,’ we end up in an endless cycle of problem definition and problem solution, ad infinitum (Bushe, 1995, Goldberg, 1997). This, in turn, saps energy for productive change since people end up feeling criticized or accused for having done something wrong. But what if we choose to conceive of organizations as ‘miracles to be appreciated?’ If we ‘see’ organizations in this way, we begin to understand what is working well and how this is coming about, and we can intentionally amplify those positive factors. This, it is argued, will create forward motion, positive energy and the possibility for lasting change.

I have been attracted to this notion for some time, and have been observing how my own and my clients’ initial framing of projects – through our filters of oft-times negative assumptions, expectations and desires – greatly influence the outcomes we achieve (or don’t achieve, as the case may be).

Choose Your Metaphor Wisely

Recently, I had the opportunity to apply Appreciative Inquiry in a long-term organization development project. Specifically, I was asked to help design and implement a new professional development strategy for the sales force of a $3 Billion U.S.-based subsidiary of a global consumer products company. A crucial factor in this project was how it was initially conceived and subsequently re-defined. More fascinating was that the successful implementation of the strategy was attributable to a process that emphasized appreciation rather than problem solving or criticism.

Cooperrider challenges us to be choiceful about how we think about the organizations and the people with whom we are working, and to select useful conceptions and language. For example, consider the widely shared, traditional view of energy in organization change through the metaphor ‘inertia.’ The assumption behind ‘inertia’ is that to get something new done, we always have to push something (or someone?) who is always pushing back.  ‘Inertia’ as a metaphor connotes images of corporate Sisyphus’ forever pushing a boulder up the mountain (only to begin again after it rolls down hill – remember gravity?).

Cooperrider would invite us to select ‘phototropism’ as a shaping metaphor, the tendency of living things to move toward light for nourishment. The assumption behind ‘phototropism’ is that we each are impelled toward health and growth, and that we are capable of finding light even in dark surroundings (Cooperrider, 1990). How many of us have witnessed the phenomenon of a small tree among giants in a forest somehow finding patches of sunlight and growing to its potential, despite the obstacles?

Not only is an appreciative frame of reference crucial to Appreciative Inquiry; so is inquiry. Inquiry is a key element of ‘Dialogue,’ a structured communications methodology pioneered by David Bohm, Bill Isaacs and others (Bohm, 1990). Dialogue is a process in which individuals explore with each other their ‘ways of thinking’ – their assumptions and mind-sets – in order to arrive at deep levels of understanding. Unlike other communications disciplines, such as ‘active listening,’ ‘inquiry’ is about:

  • asking questions from a standpoint of genuine curiosity (rather than asking questions to make one’s own point, as is frequently the case);
  • being willing to delve behind surface conclusions by exploring how those conclusions were arrived at;
  • examining ones’ own and others’ assumptions out loud; and,
  • being open to revising ones’ thinking based on new information.

I was approached by the Vice President of Sales and the Vice President of Human Resources with the following lament: “We don’t develop our people, except our entry-level hires. We used to have training programs, but they have fallen by the wayside. We fear that if we don’t do better at developing all of our people, we will not be able to dominate the marketplace, which is our goal. We won’t be able to take the sales force to ‘the next level’ of effectiveness, and our best people will leave. They will believe that no one cares about their development.

“We’d like you to help us craft the framework for the development strategy, and help us implement it.”

Question Your Assumptions Often

As they spoke, I was struck by their sincere desire to help the organization, and by some implicit assumptions behind their request. First, that the firm doesn’t develop its people. I preferred to think that people who were employed there for five years were more capable at their jobs than they were three years before, and that those who had advanced to regional manager were certainly more capable than they were when they were district managers. This just seemed like common sense. Thus, my decision was to appreciate that people were developing (remember phototropism?), but that it wasn’t clear how they were developing.

I suggested that if we find out how development actually happened in the organization, perhaps we could amplify those methods, and make them more effective as tools. The Vice President of Sales worried whether the type of process I was advocating would get the Sales Force to ‘the next level,’ since we might end up formalizing the same poor development tactics they had been living through for years.  But on the other hand, he thought this approach might help his independent-minded sales force better commit to the strategy since it would be grounded in what they were already doing.

He insisted (accompanied by emphatic fist thumping) that the project be ‘owned’ by the sales force, and not be considered another soft ‘HR program.’ He was especially concerned about this since there was a history in the firm of many projects started by staff groups (such as HR and MIS) which seemed great to begin with but that ‘died on the vine’ due to what he called ‘lack of ownership.’

The most recent example was a multidisciplinary effort to design self-study training programs in a modular format. The binders were comprehensive and attractive, but seldom used.

The second assumption that troubled me was their treatment of development and training as the same concept. After all, research shows that classroom training only accounts for a small percentage of peoples’ professional development, and that most development happens on the job.

This second assumption fed into my concern that what they wanted me to do was conduct a traditional ‘training needs analysis’ and then to identify training suppliers who would address those needs. I asked them to consider the crucial development experiences in their own careers, confident that classroom training played but a small part. As they reflected on their own growth, they came to see that for this project to succeed a short term fix led by classroom training programs would not develop the people and the organization they had envisioned.

With that in mind, the client agreed to an open-ended inquiry process to find out how development happens in the sales force and to craft the development strategy based on the knowledge we gained. Thus, we did not set out to create strategy. We set out to develop our knowledge.

That said, we did agree on certain principles to structure our inquiry:

  • To appreciate that development happens in the company, but that people aren’t aware of it so they can’t replicate development experiences or leverage them as intentional tools;
  • That the company could do better at development than it was doing;
  • That training would be but one part of the development strategy, which would focus more on integrating development into peoples’ everyday work lives.
  • That this requires a shift in mind-set, in a firm that equated development with training.

Be Curious and Playful

The Vice President of Human Resources partnered with me throughout the process. His presence lent ‘corporate weight’ to the project, and he provided much-needed industry-specific knowledge. More significantly, by working together we challenged each other’s thinking and supported each other’s ‘silly’ what-if ideas. It was important to us that we intentionally develop ourselves through the process of establishing a development strategy for the firm. We knew that if we modeled the process of development, it was more likely for others to join in.

Our plan was to visit the eight divisions (geographically dispersed throughout the USA), meet as many people at different levels as we could, and ask them the same three questions:

(1)   What are you responsible for?

(2)   Take us through your career, starting wherever you want to start, and at each juncture (i.e., new job, promotion, etc.) what were you able to do that you couldn’t before?

(3)   How did you learn to do that (i.e., the methodology used to gain the new expertise)?

After visiting four of the eight divisional offices (the division directors had set up full interview schedules, including people located in remote areas coming in to division headquarters) we made some interesting discoveries. So interesting, in fact, that we shifted our entire agenda for the next four divisional visits. This was consistent with an inquiry process predicated on curiosity and making adjustments as the process unfolded.

Our first discovery was that regardless of where they were located, individuals in the Sales Force seemed very similar to each other. We were regaled with stories of peoples’ early life experiences, which almost always included competitive sports, early entrepreneurial experience, a practical rather than theoretical education, and family hardships. This ‘collective background’ created a ‘collective profile:’ Action-oriented rather than introspective, learn by doing rather than by reading, valuing of their autonomy and independence more than being coached, and for the most part, quite fun loving.

And while there were some exceptions (and some troublesome implications regarding diversity), it was remarkable how few exceptions there were. Thus, our first key learning came from our understanding of the Sales Force profile: to be effective, any development strategy put in place must be congruent with this profile. A development strategy requiring lots of book study (remember the modules?), or that was classroom oriented, and that didn’t emphasize individual achievement would fall flat.

Our second discovery was that, yes, people in the Sales Force do develop, but like most of us, aren’t aware of their new capabilities until they are brought into consciousness and articulated. And in this particular Sales Force, development happened in five easily identifiable (albeit, tacit) ways:

  • Through independent experience: People gained expertise (and confidence) through what they called ‘baptism by fire.’ Examples included being told to ‘just go out there and hit the streets,’ opening new offices, being transferred to a position in a new region without on-site supervision, etc.
  • Through observation: People learned by watching bosses, peers, distributors and competitors in the marketplace to learn what to do, and what not to do.
  • Through instruction: People learned sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone, as well as in classroom environments.
  • Through assignments outside core duties: People learned by participating in cross-functional committees, task forces, and in meetings with other departments.
  • Through information sharing: People learned by attending meetings with their comrades, and by reading reports, emails, and periodicals.

Articulating the Sales Force ‘Development Model’ (i.e., how the company ‘tacitly’ develops its people), led to our second major learning — some skills lend themselves to being developed through particular methodologies and not to others. Thus, linking a development method to a particular skill was itself a skill.

For example, the skill of ‘merchandising’ (dominating a retail outlet’s shelf for maximum product visibility) lent itself more to observation than the other five methodologies, while the skill of ‘pricing’ (balancing the often competing needs of profit, volume and brand imagery) lent itself more to one-on-one instruction. ‘Selling,’ one of their most crucial skills, lent itself to a combination ofinstruction and independent experience.

Unfortunately, we also learned that the methodologies were used so implicitly, or haphazardly, that there was no obvious way of helping the Sales Force to leverage these methodologies for better performance. Thus, the question remained — How could the development of the Sales Force be accelerated by amplifying those methodologies?

We were particularly concerned about the ‘independent experience’ methodology. Most people recognized it to be the methodology that put the company at greatest risk, since it could lead to errors never corrected, ‘rookies’ being taken advantage of, and to the formation of bad habits. Independent experience did seem to be the most frequently utilized method, and was said to be the most potent of learning experiences: it’s hard to forget those moments when you are caught between ‘sinking’ or ‘swimming.’

Yet we knew that independent experience was so ingrained in the culture as a way the Company tests and develops its talent that we would have to work with it. An obvious way to leverage this methodology (and others, as well) was for a person to identify a learning goal  (linked to a practical business result) and then engage in the ‘sink or swim’ experience. The final step was to  ‘close the loop’ by reflecting with one’s supervisor about what was learned through the experience.

Revise as You Go

This helped us to re-think our line of inquiry for the next four division meetings. It wasn’t good enough to articulate ‘development methodologies’ and hope that people would identify learning goals and ‘close the loop’ as part of their jobs. Our ‘clients’ were too action-oriented and impatient for us to expect this. We believed though, that if people had information about how their own level of proficiency in a particular area compared with a widely shared ‘standard of performance,’ their competitive spirit could be engaged and they might find ways to develop themselves.

So for the next four division meetings, we shifted both our interview protocol and even how we interviewed people. Rather than in-depth interviews with individuals about their career histories and developmental experiences, we organized focus groups comprised of people at the same organizational level. We met separately with groups of account managers, district managers, and so on. And, rather than ask them open-ended questions, we put them to work. Their task was to identify the key skills needed to accomplish their jobs, and for each of these skills, to identify specific activities and behaviors that constituted excellent performance. Even in this task we took an appreciative frame: honoring the people who perform the work that they know what excellent performance is, rather than on benchmarking some external standard.

Our groups took to their assignments with gusto. They even worked together in the evening and then brought back their ‘standards of performance’ for our review. We served mostly as editors, ensuring the language appeared consistent and that people were working along the same format. Our most frequent follow up question was “what are examples of what you actually do” because people often spoke in generalities or described attitudes.

One product of these meetings was a listing of skills needed to succeed in the Sales Force, and for each skill, a comprehensive, behavior-based set of examples of what constitutes excellent performance. Interesting, the types of skills needed to succeed were the same regardless of one’s level in the Sales Force. What changed were the Standards of Performance associated with a particular skill area. The higher you’re level, the more in-depth and sophisticated were your Standards of Performance.

During those meetings we also asked the groups what they would they like to see in a development strategy. In addition to being excited by having specific standards of performance to assess one’s skills against and guidelines for developing those skills, other products surfaced, such as:

  • A revitalized orientation program for new hires (rather than the current ‘here’s the manual, there’s your desk’ model).
  • A transition program for people promoted or transferred to new markets (to mediate against the downside risks of the ‘sink or swim’ methodology).
  • A revised performance evaluation process that emphasized accountability for one’s own development, and for supervisors, accountability for providing development opportunities for others.
  • Classroom training to develop specific skills: selling, presenting, negotiating, computer, and people management.
  • ‘Centers of Learning’ in which experts in particular subjects (i.e., promotions, pricing, etc.) would utilize the Company’s new intranet technology to develop cross-company learning opportunities. 

Be Clear About Who ‘Owns’ What

We were excited by the ideas and the products of our work (especially the Standards of Performance as development tools), but we began to worry about how the Sales Force would implement this emergent strategy. After all, up till now, we were the ones gathering and synthesizing information, feeding it back informally to check our assumptions and to recalibrate our path. But the ownership of the strategy was still not where it belonged: in the heads, hearts and legs of the Sales Force.

To continue the process of ‘transfer of ownership,’ which began with our reaching out to the Sales Force to create the strategy, we organized a three day off-site Development Conference for all forty Regional Managers. This was the level in the Sales Force that had the most people reporting in to them; thus they were the most crucial population to work with.

The Conference was symbolic and substantive at the same time. It was the first time these folks came together as a group, and the fact that the Conference was about development rather than sales quotas or product training signaled the importance of the meeting. Also, the Chief Executive Officer of the Company came in from overseas to meet with the group, and talked about the importance of their role to the Company’s future. It was also important that the Vice President of Sales, who ‘kicked off’ the meeting, stuck around to answer concerns but didn’t interfere with any processes the group was engaged in.

The substantive aspects of the conference included:

  • Review of the process of the creation of the development strategy (they could see their own work being fed back to them) and finalizing the Standards of Performance (they worked in small groups to put the finishing touches on these crucial tools).
  • The creation of the ‘vision of the Region Manager’ of the future.  The group realized that while their role might not substantively change over the next few years, they had to get better at using their three major ‘tools’ to stay ahead of the competition. These tools were (1) technology, (2) business analysis (i.e., cost-benefit analyses, inventory algorhythms, etc.), and (3) their own people (they recognized the need to better delegate and develop their staff). Thus, a developmental agenda for region managers was established.
  • A seminar on ‘Coaching the Coach’ so they could practice using a simple coaching model to frame their responsibilities for others’ development. They practiced using this model in ‘real play’ scenarios in which they acted out, with learning partners, a development meeting with one of their subordinates. This was their ‘dry run’ in matching the development methodologies to the Standards of Performance. The simple, yet powerful concept of ‘closing the loop’ on a development experience was thought by many to be a crucial and easily implemented tool.
  • An “Open Space” meeting, a large system change methodology pioneered by Harrison Owen, in which they could raise issues they themselves were passionate about (Owen, 1997). This last session culminated in an afternoon debrief session between the regional managers, their bosses (the division directors) and the Vice President of Sales. Fifty people sitting in a circle, listening closely, asking questions, coming to closure on some issues that had troubled them for years but never were spoken about.

The Conference closed with the group establishing fairly aggressive targets to begin using the Standards of Performance. They agreed to meet with each of their subordinates, use the Standards of Performance to prioritize development needs, plan development steps using the development methodologies, and document these in each person’s performance evaluation.

Each employee would receive a copy of all the material generated at the Conference so they could first assess their own level of expertise against the Standards, then compare this with their supervisor’s assessment, and establish a plan devoted to implementation. This was an effort to help people see that their development was their own responsibility. It was also a subtle way to empower people to take care of themselves, to break through some of the ‘paternal’ aspects of the organization culture.

Other commitments included task forces devoted to revitalizing the orientation program, volunteers to work with the MIS Department on the Centers Of Learning concept, and a high level review and revision of the performance evaluation system. Performance evaluation was a contentious issue for the Sales Department, tangling together production quotas, performance feedback and development planning. The philosophy of the system they agreed on linked bonus to production goals (which would appear in a separate business plan rather than in the performance evaluation) and merit increases to the fulfillment of corporate initiatives and their professional development plans.

The Vice President of Sales took it upon himself to follow up on each of the Open Space topics that could not be closed out by the end of the Conference, and did so within three weeks.


Thus, the conference accomplished its objective: the transfer of ownership of the development strategy was achieved. But our roles were far from over.

Over the next few months we returned to several of the divisions to make sure the Sales Force felt supported, and to ensure that the remaining skeptics would see that the development strategy was not simply a ‘fad du jour.’

The Vice President of Human Resources sponsored a Center of Learning exclusively for Region Managers, so they could receive advice and support, and brag and commiserate with each other, as well. To reinforce that this was the Sales’ Force’s development strategy, a highly respected Region Manager was invited to ‘moderate’ this Center of Learning.

As time went on, and the task forces completed and implemented their plans, the strategy became embedded in the Sales Force. An emblem of the success of the strategy was the extent to which the language of the Sales Force changed. The vernacular of the Sales Force now included the terms ‘Standards of Performance,’ ‘development methods,’ and ‘closing the loop.’ No one was using these terms just a short time ago.

A year into the process, it’s a little early to assess whether the new strategy is achieving its ultimate goal: to help the Company dominate its markets. But its not too early to see short term results:

  • A higher incidence of high quality development planning sessions initiated by incumbents rather than their supervisors
  • Little grumbling with new performance evaluation system (since the Sales Force itself was instrumental in its revision)
  • Growth in the number and usage of the intra-net based Centers of Learning
  • Individuals reporting pride about the Company’s seriousness to develop its people
  • More substantive training sessions led by in-house managers and vendors
  • The Vice President of Sales report that people are receiving the type of development opportunities they deserve

As word of the Sales Force Development Strategy spread, other units of the Company began to solicit the Vice President of Human Resources for help in revamping their own development systems. He is pursuing these opportunities, but only with those units willing to commit to a process that involves wide swaths of stakeholders and uses the positive energy of the system as the key leverage point for change. As he says, “the process is just as important as the outcome.” For a results-focused, achievement oriented (and often impatient) executive, this was a major developmental step, and one that bodes well for the Company, as well.

For those responsible for revitalizing or creating their organizations’ developmental systems, some of the lessons of this organization development project might be helpful:

  • Begin with a mind-set that honors what is working within the organization, without shying away from the optimistic notion that it can be even better. Locate and amplify the positive energy.
  • Don’t be satisfied with initial requests. Be clear about the limitations of ‘quick fixes.’ Be wary of being drawn in as the ‘owner’ of development. The client system should always work harder than the facilitator.
  • Unleash the brainpower of those who are in position to implement the strategy. Don’t assume they are too busy. Respect that they know more than you know. Their good heads and hearts will often carry the strategy forward if they feel valued throughout the process.
  • Engage in the process with curiosity, rather than attempting to prove your assumptions or hypotheses.
  • Recognize the principle that the process of crafting a developmental strategy is itself a developmental experience for you and for others.
  • Process your learning continually. Be open to amazement.


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Bushe, G. (1995) “Advances in Appreciative Inquiry as an Organization Development Intervention”, Organization Development Journal, Vol. 13 No. 3.

Cooperrider, D. & Barrett, F. (1990) “Generative Metaphor Intervention: A New Approach for Working with Systems Divided”, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 26, No. 2.

Goldberg, R. (1997) “Talking About Change”, Issues & Observations, Center for Creative Leadership, Vol. 17, No. 1-2.

Goldstein, J. (1994) The Unshackled Organization, Productivity Press, Portland.

Owen, H. (1997) Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler, San Fransisco.

Senge, P., et al (1993), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Doubleday, New York.

Toms, M (1998) Interview with William Isaacs, “Dialogue – The Art of Living Together – Sparks Spirit of ‘Aliveness’ in Organizations”, The Inner Edge, Vol. 1, No.3.