A Review of "Appreciative Inquiry as a Team-Development Intervention: A Controlled Experiment"
Appreciative Inquiry is "a theory of organizing and a method of changing social systems" (Bushe & Coetzer, 1995) that has received significant attention in the action research field. Born out of the sociorationalist paradigm it assumes that social order is created on the fly through the interaction of people, ideas and actions. New ideas and theories are thought of as a tool for positive change and development in societies and organizations. Appreciative inquiry, as a theory, criticizes the logical positivist implication that societies, organizations and groups are problems to be solved. Instead groups are miracles of change and development to be appreciated. This insight impacts practice and the understanding of practice. Bushe and Coetzer summarize this as follows:
Appreciative inquiry, as a praxis of collection action, is an attempt to generate a collective image of a new and better future by exploring the best of what is and has been. These new images, or "theories," create a pull effect that generates evolution in social forms.
Traditional positivists take a dim view of unspecified "pull" effects. Bushe and Coetzer are aware of this view and have designed their study to directly address concerns from that sector. A critical analysis of their articles reveals strong conceptualization of the research questions and concepts as well as rigorous and straightforward operationalization and data analysis.
The article begins by implying a larger question that will be answered, in part, by the research in the article: Is appreciative inquiry a valid addition to action research? As this question is too large and too subject to opinion to answer, the researchers narrow their focus to evaluate the effectiveness of appreciative inquiry as a group development aid. They articulate their focus well:
In this study we develop a team-building intervention based on the principles of appreciative inquiry and use a controlled, laboratory study to assess its impact on conventional measures of group process and team outcomes in comparison to a traditional team-development intervention and a "placebo".
The study uses a classically positivistic methodology to assess the impact of a sociorationalist method of inquiry of action (p. 14).
Before describing how the team-building interventions will be evaluated, the interventions themselves are described. First the theoretical and historical background for the style of interventions is described and then the specific intervention is delineated in an offset paragraph. The appreciative inquiry intervention focuses on creating a consensual image of a "peak" teamwork experience and then identifying characteristics of that experience within the current team.
The other intervention is based on Task Oriented Team Development (TOTD) wherein an outside party observes a group and provides data on form and process to the group so problems can be identified and plans developed to solve them. TOTD assumes "that problems in task groups arise mainly from a lack of clarity or agreement among members about the goals, roles, and/or procedures of the team". The TOTD intervention begins with data gathering that is then presented by a facilitator to the group. During the presentation special attention is paid to divergence in the data. The facilitator "works to develop group consensus about actions to take in the future".
The control intervention is a lecture on group dynamics. The authors claim this acts as a "nonobvious" control in their research because it is not an action research process and it is these they are evaluating. This is one of the few areas of weakness in the study: support for the belief that the impact of the control will be low is not sufficiently addressed:
Normative re-educative change theory (Chin & Benne, 1985) predicts that a lecture may result in some learning by individuals but will not result in much change in a group's form or process (p. 18).
The authors lay out the details of their experiment in the "Method" section of the paper. Teams of four students at a university taking a course in organizational behavior and working on a semester long case-study project were randomly selected to receive one of the interventions in the middle of the semester. Pre- and post-intervention surveys were used to measure group processes. Grades on the assignments were used to measure performance. The experiment was performed during two different semesters. Details were provided on who taught the class, how many students failed to participate in the surveys, and the nature of grading.
Team effectiveness measures were based on assessments of process and outcome and on measurements of performance. Process was assessed with surveys taken two weeks before and two weeks after the intervention. Outcome was assessed with surveys taken after the projects were complete but before grades had been returned. Performance was measured using the grades assigned by graduate assistants using standardized grading sheets.
Before analyzing the survey data, Bushe and Coetzer tested the data reliability. Scales in the surveys were tested using Cronbach's alpha. Group process variables were tested by checking correlations between the group process and group outcomes. With valid data, ANOVAs (analysis of variance) and ANCOVAs (analysis of covariance) were used to understand the effects of the interventions and the effects with small differences in the groups partialed out.
The results are presented in three tables with detailed explanations. The overall results of the analysis show that appreciative inquiry and TOTD produce higher scores on the surveys and the grading than the group dynamics lecture. TOTD produced the highest performance scores. Scores for process and outcomes for appreciative inquiry and TOTD were not significantly different. The authors suggest
[o]ne could interpret these results to mean that TOTD is superior to appreciative inquiry on measures of task performance and that the two interventions are roughly equivalent on measures of group process and group outcomes (p. 24).
In their discussion, the authors argue that the study provides support for appreciative inquiry as an "effective team-development intervention". It is difficult to find any weakness in their conclusion. Their analysis is sound for the question they asked. They are aware, though, of several potential problems or threats to generalizability:
Bushe and Coetzer use this last point to suggest future research: Appreciative inquiry may be more effective than TOTD in dysfunctional groups because TOTD tends to encourage more fragmentation by focusing on the problems that cause fragmentation while appreciative inquiry can encourage a pulling together in the group.
There is evidence to suggest that the authors began their study with a mission in mind: To prove that appreciative inquiry can withstand the rigors of logical positivism. Their study shows that it can. They produced a fully conceptualized research question and developed research procedures to create quantitative data. That data was then reduced, allowing analysis that revealed appreciative inquiry as an effective tool in the studied setting.
Bushe, G. R., & Coetzer, G. (1995). Appreciative Inquiry as a Team-Development Intervention: A Controlled Experiment. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31(1), 13-30.