Flipping the Script: An Appreciative Inquiry-Based Approach to Career Planning

There are some interesting intersections in my (day job) as a Professional Development Manager and my career coaching. At work today, I was talking about appreciative inquiry theory. This is an approach to organizational and personal development in which we focus on strengths, possibilities, and a future-oriented vision. As you can imagine, it’s far more inspirational and motivating than focusing on problems, weaknesses, and gaps. And it made me think about how powerful that kind of approach could be for career planning, too.

If you think about where you want to get to, rather than how stuck – or miserable – you may currently be, then career planning can become more powerful. Thinking this way helps you think of and build a vision for your own future. And sometimes is what we all need – especially when they are mired in a job or career that stinks. What if you used your happy hour to think about where you could get to, rather than commiserate about how broken it is now?

So how do you go about this, exactly?

Step 1: Identify your Target

Appreciative inquiry starts with identifying the thing that you will discuss and reimagine. I’ll do this for you. Let’s focus on your 3-5 year goal as your target.

Step 2: Dream Big

Next, you will enter the dream phase. No, no, don’t go take a procrastinap first. Or do, but get back to this after! In this phase, you are focused not on what is, but what could be. Here you write down questions that you will later find out the answers to. The important thing is to free form, stream-of-consciousness write down what you wish could be.

Here’s my dream phase from my most recent exercise:

  • Who are the top employers for work-life balance in my area?
  • Do they even hire Professional Development Managers?
  • Would I still be able to coach as part of my work if I worked there?
  • What about [My Dream Employer]? If they don’t have my role, could I pitch them on the value of having a “me” there?

Bingo! There’s my actual goal, in the 4th bullet point there. It took me a bit to get there, and it will for you, too, during the Dream phase.

Keep things future-oriented, rather than grounded in the here and now. After all, even if you do discover what things are like at an employer now, that’s not necessarily how they’ll be in 3-5 years. So keep your mind as wide open as possible. Think of things like: “What will the work of a book editor even look like in 3-5 years?” Or “I wish I knew of an educational nonprofit that had the organizational culture of somewhere like Disney or Pixar.” This will help you uncover leads to explore that you had mentally blocked before.

Step 3: Discovery

Once you’ve identified what you wish to know, it’s time to set out on a discovery expedition. No, no, not info gathering. Okay, fine, they’re kind of the same thing, but think of this as discovery instead.

Rather than a specific set of questions you already know that you want answered (aka info gathering), discovery is the process of free form brainstorming what questions you want to ask of your targeted career/job and thinking more about what is possible.

These 3 steps can help you break open new leads, consider new career trajectories, and give you a meaningful reason to connect creatively with others outside of your current workplace / industry, which will be KEY in getting you from here to there.

When you take a problem-solving approach to career planning, that limits your ability to create a new future, one that might be even better than you ever imagined. Try this appreciative inquiry exercise to see what new possibilities occur to you.

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