Applying Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in Organization Development (OD) with a Complexity Adaptive System (CAS) Perspective

An organization is an emergent property of change adapting to its environment. There are many different theories to explain change, ranging from an incremental transaction to an episodic transformation. Adopting a Complexity Adaptive System (CAS) perspective to view changes and using an Appreciative Inquiry intervention could help OD architects and change agents to develop a thriving organization.


Complexity Adaptive System (CAS) Perspective

Company CMC was founded 50 years ago. Changes for growth in CMC are slow, steady, and modest. These conditions foster a traditional organizational culture best described as conservative, lacking initiative, risk-averse and indecisive. Stability, status quo, inertia, and conformity have been institutionalized in CMC.   Like many traditional Chinese organizations, the CMC management team takes for granted that employees understand and abide by the company values. It is not necessary for CMC to make it clear or explicitly communicate values in writing to employees. Now CMC is facing a fast expansion, the new management team agrees that they need a strong and explicit corporate culture guiding employee values and behaviors towards the strategic direction. There are two main options of change: Emerging Approach or Episodic Approach.  Due to strong organizational inertia, adopting an emerging approach can reduce the resistance to change, however the change may be too slow. Alternatively, adopting an episodic change might be able to help break through its conformity. The pace of change will be faster and the impact may be more drastic, though it causes strong resistance, induces negative emotions, and risks the existing work harmony. Between these two polarized approach, the Complexity Adaptive System (CAS) is a comparatively well-balanced method. Complex systems are non-linear and interacting agents respond to one another through feedback loops and emergent self-organization. In a “far-from-equilibrium states”, as organizations move toward the edge of chaos, a small change in one aspect of the system can create a large chain reaction, affecting the complete system. The nature of self-organizing is a socially constructive process. If suitable OD interventions could be identified and implemented, it will mitigate resistance to change as well as spread out bigger impact to the whole organization to achieve the desirable outcomes of the change.


Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as a Large Group Intervention

Appreciate Inquiry can create a self-organizing context for individuals to interact with each other to produce the desirable outcomes. It is a socially constructive process to minimize the resistance to change. As a large group intervention, it provides a real-time platform for a large group of organizational stakeholders to exchange ideas and feelings. It effectively helps them develop consensus on what they want to commit. An AI dialogic process creates an open environment for organizational members to affirm each other’s ideas and emotions, share visions, and create a ground for collaborative exploration of what they dream in its organizational future. The act of affirmation in the generative dialogue helps participants appreciate the understanding of each other’s points of view, and co-create meaning from differences. Since AI takes an appreciative view towards change, AI avoids dissatisfaction or disconfirmation feelings in the change process.


In CMC’s case, a 5-phase roadmap using AI intervention has been planned to drive the cultural change:

Phase (1): Facilitate culture meetings by AI approach to collectively define the future direction of the organization, identify the critical success factors and derive the aligned corporate values.

Phase (2): The senior management team reaches consensus on those inputs to define the culture in terms of values and its descriptions.

Phase (3): Launch communication briefings to introduce the identified cultural values.

Phase (4): Conduct culture training to speed up the institutionalization of the values in terms of job behaviors.

Phase (5): Implement communication and reinforcement mechanisms to sustain the culture change.



Organizational change is socially constructed in a whole system. Each member in the organization affects each other, leading to different outcomes of the change. Each change is unique. Other than seeing the change as linear and predicable, it is a non-linear and unpredictable Complexity Adaptive System. AI intervention in a five-phase roadmap is suggested to avoid negative emotions and reduce resistance to change, particularly when the organizational inertia is very strong.


Authored by:

Terence Chung, Principal Consultant, Integral Training & Consulting Ltd.


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