Appreciative Inquiry Mindset Essential to Customer Discovery

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a mindset that is essential in customer discovery. It encourages you to look for what’s working in an potential customer’s organization and “work with the grain of the wood.” It enables you to build on demonstrated strengths and accomplishments in framing your solution to a critical business problem.

Appreciative Inquiry Mindset Essential to Customer Discovery

appreciative inquiry is an open ended exploration of strengthsLet me suggest what I think are the two best working definitions for entrepreneurs from a much longer list at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

“Appreciative Inquiry focuses us on the positive aspects of our lives and leverages them to correct the negative. It’s the opposite of ‘problem-solving.'”
White, T.H. Working in Interesting Times: Employee morale and business success in the information age. Vital Speeches of the Day, May 15, 1996, Vol XLII, No. 15

An overwhelming focus on pain or “what’s wrong” in a prospect’s organization can too often cut an otherwise promising customer development interview short. By taking the time to understand what’s working–and what they don’t want you to break–you increase the chance of creating a working relationship.

“The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, do a diagnosis, and find a solution. The primary focus is on what is wrong or broken; since we look for problems, we find them. By paying attention to problems, we emphasize and amplify them. …Appreciative Inquiry suggests that we look for what works in an organization. The tangible result of the inquiry process is a series of statements that describe where the organization wants to be, based on the high moments of where they have been. Because the statements are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.”
Hammond, Sue. Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing Company, 1998, pages 6-7.

I mentioned in “Early Customer Conversations: Use AI and Amplify Positive Deviance” that I found the “Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry” to be $8 and two hours well spent. It’s only 63 pages long but I found myself stopping several times and realizing I needed to change what I had been doing.

At a high level AI guides you to ask

  • “What’s working around here?”
  • “What problems are you having?”

in that order. While you need to understand a prospect’s pain, any solution must build on their strengths.

Your prospects want to understand how your product will help them outperform their competition.  This requires more than explaining to them how it works.  If you wait for customers to tell you what to implement you will lose to other firms that ask questions that enable them to appreciate not only current weaknesses but also the strengths that they can build on.

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Photo Credit: Jordan Peterson “Cambridge Gate” used with attribution

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