Leadership Connections

Leadership Connections is a leadership consultancy also offering HR training, large scale change, leadership safari and mentoring

Case Studies

This case study concerns problem faced within the US Navy and how the application of the appreciative inquiry technique enabled a successful outcome to arise.

If you find this case study useful you may wish to check out our other case studies which can be accessed below.


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Cultural Change at Boots Properties PLC



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Appreciative Inquiry in the US Navy

(click here to download as a .pdf file)


This is my favourite case study for illustrating Appreciative Inquiry (AI). As such it isn’t a Leadership Connections project but was carried out many years ago by one of the founders of AI.

The US Navy had a problem. The incidence of sex discrimination and harassment, perhaps unsurprisingly for a military organisation, had been considered unacceptably high for some time.

As a result, there had been a number of training and other interventions to reduce the problem. Unfortunately, a very strange thing had been happening. Each time there was an intervention to attack the problem the incidence appeared to increase.

With a little thought and research some of the reasons for this were easy to see. Increased sensitivity amongst victims of discrimination was leading to a reduction in tolerance and also increased reporting of the problem. There was probably also some resentment amongst some of the perpetrators which was also having an impact.

What was beyond doubt was that the interventions were reducing trust and increasing tensions around the issue.


There was a realisation that by focussing on the problem, they were actually making things worse. At the heart of improving the situation was the need to improve the relationships between men and women in the organisation. By focussing on what was wrong, mistrust and unease were increasing and relationships were deteriorating.

The question facing the team, then, was simple but profound. Rather than focussing on what they didn’t want, they had first to articulate what it was that they did want. Becoming clear about this was not easy. Words like respect and dignity were discussed alongside many others but the challenge was that many of them had clear negative connotations – so giving one another respect, paradoxically, tended to emphasise that there was, in some way, already an absence of respect.

After considerable discussion they arrived at a clear position for what they wanted and they articulated it as a question.

“When do men and women work best together in this organisation?”

Using a question they hoped to find more stories of such cooperation and also to learn more about the conditions which supported it. By deliberately looking for the best examples they affirmed that not only was this possible but that it was already happening.

The Intervention – Researching the present

Satisfied that they had articulated the question in terms that would help them achieve what they wanted, the next challenge was to go about finding answers in a way which also reinforced and supported the change that they wanted to see.

They decided that what they wanted was to get men and women around the organisation talking together constructively about working together and they designed an ingenious, and simple approach to make this happen using their question.

A large number of people around the organisation were given some (brief) training and were provided with a simple questionnaire. This included a few questions designed to elicit positive stories of men and women working together and to ask questions about those stories that would help to discover what was supporting such examples. Once trained, people undertook to interview a number of people of the opposite sex.

The intervention – Designing the future

The team collected the stories and insights from hundreds of interviews and were amazed at the number of positive stories they uncovered. It was as if the data was from a different organisation to the one which had been experiencing such severe problems. As well as the information itself, new stories were reaching them about great conversations and new relationships that were being created by the interviewing process.

The next step was to bring together a large group of people to talk about how the information could be used to create a better future. The conference talked about the stories and, using these, was asked to create a picture of a future which would be built on the best of the present.

This was not difficult and a powerful vision of the future was created. As with all such visioning processes, however, there was a need to make sure that the vision was translated into some practical, deliverable steps so that actions could back up the words.

The intervention – designing the next steps

Following on from the vision the conference was asked to create some ‘provocative propositions. These were aspirational statements, phrased in the present tense that would guide people in creating actions and next steps.

The most powerful of these was, as ever, the simplest. It read:

“Every team or working party in the organisation always has a gender mix”

Using these statements a raft of immediate actions were agreed. The statements were also published around the organisation to act as guidelines for what people did every day.


The results were striking. Within a few months a problem which had been stubbornly refusing to yield to any number of attempts to reduce it had fallen dramatically – and continued to fall.

As importantly, the interactions between men and women shifted and continued to move. From a culture of mistrust and suspicion a new respect and collaboration was born.

Copyright US Department of Defense.


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Leadership Connections

Leadership Connections is a leadership consultancy also offering HR training, large scale change, leadership safari and mentoring