<< Return to InPsych February 2008

By Dr Sandy Gordon FAPS
Senior Lecturer, School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health
University of Western Australia

This case study describes a strengths-based approach to enhancing the teamwork of the Sri Lankan cricket team prior to their April-July 2006 tour of England. As the team's sport psychologist I was asked to facilitate the first team meeting upon our arrival in London. I chose the theme ‘What gives life to Sri Lankan Cricket when it is at its best?' and used a combination of ‘Appreciative Inquiry' (AI), including ‘Naming Elephants' and ‘AI 4-D Cycle', and ‘Open Space Technology'.

The Appreciative Inquiry process

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was first conceptualised in 1980 by doctoral student David Cooperrider and his thesis supervisor Sruresh Srivasta, who had both been engaged in an organisation change project. Instead of detailing root causes of failure, they learned to focus on the root causes of success, and called their approach ‘Appreciative Inquiry'. AI is underpinned by core principles and core processes that are understood to have emerged from theoretical and research foundations grounded in social constructionism, the ‘new' sciences (e.g., positive psychology, chaos theory and self-organising systems), and research on the power of imagery (Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2005). For the purposes of this article, AI is regarded as a positive, strengths-based operational approach to change, learning and development that seemed suitable to enhancing teamwork in professional cricket.

Various models and approaches for applying AI have emerged including the ‘4-D Cycle', which is widely used and can be as rapid and informal as a conversation with a colleague, or as formal as a four-day organisation-wide process. In order of presentation, the four key processes in the AI 4-D cycle are:

  1. Discovery: Identifying the ‘best of what has been or what is' and supporting the client's belief in a positive future
  2. Dream: Creating a clear results-oriented vision in relation to discovered potential and encouraging clients to conceive images of possibilities
  3. Design: Creating possibility propositions of the newly expressed dream and assisting clients in bringing the dream into focus
  4. Destiny: Strengthening the affirmative capability of clients and helping them recognise the dream in the present.

At the centre of the cycle is the ‘affirmative topic choice' or theme, which is the starting point and most strategic aspect of any AI process. Appreciative Inquiry Coaching (AIC) is the practical application of the core AI principles and is highly effective for various coaching purposes, for example, leadership, development, and working relationships. Table 1 lists the assumptions of both AI and AIC about life, people and the change process itself, which form the basis of Orem, Binkert, and Clancy's (2007, p. 26) model of Appreciative Coaching.

Table 1. Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Coaching Inquiry
(Orem, Binkert, & Clancy, 2007) 
  • In every society, organisation, group or individual something works
  • What people focus on becomes their reality
  • Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities
  • The act of asking questions of an organisation, group, or individual influences the group or individual in some way 
  • People are more confident and comfortable in their journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known)
  • If people carry parts of the past forward, those parts should be what is best about the past
  • It is important to value differences
  • The language people use creates their reality 


Sri Lankan teamwork breakdown

Having been appointed to Sri Lankan Cricket in June 2005 and toured with the team in Sri Lanka and Australia later that year, I observed that most players did not speak up when opportunities arose at meetings, and younger players in particular didn't appear to either want to or know how to say what they felt. This was just one example of poor teamwork that effectively shut down possibilities for innovative ideas from younger players who possessed exciting potential. I suggested to the coach that, prior to an AI team meeting, that I engage the players in ‘Naming Elephants' (Hammond & Mayfield, 2004), which is a metaphor for making implicit issues explicit, bringing certain Sri Lankan Cricket ‘undiscussables' into the open, or having ‘difficult conversations'.

The intent of the workshop was to learn how to name and recognise unnamed ‘Elephants', to understand the primary benefit of naming them (i.e., innovation and taking action), and to learn from each other, not to attack or blame. The rules were simple:
expect and respect different points of view; avoid trying to identify who wrote what; and avoid naming names - if the ‘Elephant' is a person, only describe his behaviour and its impact on Sri Lankan Cricket.

For Step 1 of the workshop, I asked them "What are the ‘things' we aren't openly talking about as a team that you think we should be talking about?". Players wrote one ‘undiscussable' per sheet of paper in pencil and could write as many as they liked
in 5-10 minutes before returning all sheets to me. In Step 2, I read out each sheet and together we grouped those items that seemed related and came up with a name for each category. In 10-15 minutes I also asked the players to clarify what the ‘Elephant' category looked like in behavioural terms and its impact or cost to Sri Lankan Cricket. Finally in Step 3, I spent 10-15 minutes enquiring about solutions and asking "What do we propose to do about it?".

In less than 60 minutes, 15 players produced 18 sheets of paper, 13 of which identified the same ‘Elephant', namely "intimidation, negative and pessimistic communication to junior players by senior players generally". The impact of this behaviour was "lower morale among junior players who emotionally switched off and suppressed ideas and thoughts of voicing contributions". In addition to meeting all workshop intentions, this session created a much safer environment at subsequent team meetings for younger players to offer innovative suggestions and ideas about both individual and team work. It was clear to me that ‘Naming Elephants' was an essential precursor to the meeting that followed.

Adding ‘Open Space Technology’ to the AI team meeting

Later, during the same AI team meeting and after the Discovery phase, I introduced the four Principles and one Law of ‘Open Space Technology' (OST), which Harrison Owen (1997) first developed in 1984. OST has since been used around the world with all types of organisations including corporations, community groups, government agencies, schools and churches, and with groups of five to 2,500 people (Bunker & Alban, 2006). I had trained as an OST facilitator in Perth and had previously used it with the Western Australian Cricket Association, however, this was my first opportunity to combine AI with OST. While the former provides clear and powerful direction using questions that connect participants with each other as they discover universal stories about ‘What gives them life?', the latter allows freedom to learn from and listen to others who share the same heart, passion and responsibility for their collective future.

I used the following OST Principles during the Dream and Design phases within the AI 4-D Cycle. OST begins with an invitation to participants to attend. Players were also invited to form a circle so, without a word spoken, no hierarchy was evident in the team room. OST is guided by four Principles and one Law and each in their own way advanced the appreciative team environment.

The first Principle of OST, ‘Whoever comes are the right people', reminded players that they cared enough to come to discuss the session theme (What gives life to Sri Lankan cricket when it is at its best?). The second Principle, ‘Whatever happens is the only thing that could have', focused their attention on the present moment. The third Principle, ‘Whenever it starts is the right time', and the flip-side fourth Principle, ‘When it's over it's over', provided a beginning, middle and end structure to all discussions. The one ‘Law of Two Feet', meant that at any time players who felt that they were neither learning nor contributing could use their two feet to go somewhere else and do something more useful, such as visit another group discussion or simply have time out. Both the Principles and Law gave the players permission to selforganise and say and do what they wanted in the time available. The invitation was to be fully and completely themselves as they discussed ‘what gives life to their batting, bowling, fielding, training, and off-field social activities, when it is at its best?'.

The meeting ran for five hours (three hours over schedule), nobody left the room, and both senior management and senior players rated it as the "best team meeting ever". Sri Lanka subsequently drew the three Test series 1-1 and white washed England 5-0 in One Day Internationals, their best overseas tour performance in 25 years.

Applications of AI in other settings

Both Kelm (2005) and Stavros and Torres (2005) appear to have made transferable applications of AI to the enhancement of daily living convincingly possible, and examples of ‘success stories' in business and workplace settings are available at www.aiconsulting.org/success.htm. I believe strengths-based strategies like Appreciative Inquiry are ideally suited for helping teams enhance their teamwork and, in addition to the references listed below, I encourage those charged with the responsibility of coordinating coaching and leadership development programs to browse the resources on the AI Commons website (http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/).

The author can be contacted on sandy.gordon@uwa.edu.au


Bunker, B. B., & Alban, B. T. (2006). The handbook of large group methods: Creating systemic change in organizations and communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2005). Appreciative inquiry handbook: The first in a series of AI workbooks for leaders of change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Hammond, S. A., & Mayfield, A. B. (2004). The thin book of naming elephants: How to surface undiscussables for greater organizational success. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.

Kelm, J. B. (2005). Appreciative living: The principles of Appreciative Inquiry in personal life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.

Orem, S. L., Binkert, J., & Clancy, A. L. (2007). Appreciative coaching: A positive process for change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Owen, H. (1997). Expanding our now: The story of Open Space Technology. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Stavros, J. M., & Torres, C.B. (2005). Dynamic relationships: Unleashing the power of appreciative inquiry in daily living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute.