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Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way of looking at organisational change which focuses on doing more of what is already working, rather than focusing on fixing problems. It mobilises strategic change by focusing on the core strengths of an organisation, then using those strengths to reshape the future.

AI is both a high-participation learning process to identify and disseminate best practices, and a way of managing and working that fosters positive communication and can result in the formation of deep and meaningful relationships

AI was developed by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the mid-eighties. His wife Nancy, an artist, told him about the “appreciative eye” – an idea that assumes that in every piece of art there is beauty. AI applies this principle to business.


How It Works

Appreciative Inquiry begins with analysing the “positive core” of an organisation (or a person) and then links this knowledge to the heart of the strategic change agenda.

The very act of asking a question influences the worldview of the person who is asked. Because human systems move toward what they persistently ask questions about, Appreciative Inquiry involves the deliberate discovery of everything that gives a system “life” when it is most effective in performance and human terms.

When we link the positive core directly to a strategic agenda, changes never thought possible are rapidly mobilised while simultaneously building enthusiasm, corporate confidence, and human energy.


Comparison With Problem-Focused Approaches


  • What to fix

Appreciative Inquiry

  • What to grow
  • Thinks in terms of: problem, symptoms, causes, solutions, action plan, intervention and all too often blame
  • Thinks in terms of: good, better, possible
  • Breaks things into pieces, leading to fragmented responses
  • AI keeps the big picture in view, focusing on an ideal and how its roots lie in what is already working
  • Slow pace of change – requiring a lot of positive emotion to make real change
  • Quickly creates a new dynamic – with people united around a shared vision of the future
  • Assumes an organisation is made up of a series of problems to be overcome, creating a deficit culture
  • Assumes an organisation is a source of limitless capacity and imagination, creating an appreciative culture



The AI Change Process

Appreciative Inquiry 5D Model

Typical AI Project Start-Up

  • Choose the topic: combine themes from generic interviews with research questions
  • Agree on desired outcomes and critical success factors
  • Agree on how to get there
  • Develop draft interview protocol
  • Practice interviews; develop interview guidelines
  • Plan for collecting & “analysing” the data
  • Plan for how the process will drive change.


Six Generic Questions To Start

  • What have been your best experiences at work? A time when…
  • What do you value about… yourself, work, organisation.
  • What do you think is the core life-giving factor or value of your organisation –which it wouldn’t be the same without?
  • If you had three wishes for your organisation, what would they be?
  • What achievements are you (and/or your team) proud of?
  • Apart from the money, what makes it worth coming into work?


Why It Works

  • It doesn’t focus on changing people, which leads to relief that the message isn’t about what they’ve done wrong or have to stop doing.
  • Instead, people get into a positive, energised state because you’re focusing on what’s good about their work.
  • It invites people to engage in building the kinds of organisations and communities that they want to live in.
  • It helps everyone see the need for change, explore new possibilities, and contribute to solutions.
  • It’s easier to see your vision of the future vividly when it has roots in your past experiences, rather than trying to start with a blank canvas
  • It means you won’t be throwing out the good stuff that’s already there when you start to build your new organisation.
  • Through alignment of formal and informal structures with purpose and principles, it translates shared vision into reality and belief into practice.


Underlying Principles

  • In every human system, something works.
  • What we focus on, and the language we use, becomes our reality.
  • Reality is created in the moment and there are multiple realities. It is important to value differences.
  • The act of asking questions influences the group in some way.
  • People have more confidence & comfort to move to an unknown future when they carry forward parts of the past.
  • What we carry forward should be what is best about the past.


“Provocative Propositions”

As part of the “Dream” stage, we take the best of what currently happens and determine the circumstances that made that possible. We then write one or more “provocative propositions” which describe the idealised future in which the best happens all the time, and serve as a reminder to focus on it. Examples:

We anticipate the customer’s needs and we are continually learning about what they want.

My coaching practice is full and growing through word-of mouth recommendation.

Checklist for determining a provocative proposition:

  •  Is it provocative? Does it stretch, challenge or innovate?
  •  Is it developed from real-life examples?
  •  Do people feel passionate enough about it to defend it?
  •  Is it stated in bold, positive terms and in the present tense?

Provocative propositions resemble answers to the ‘miracle question’ in Solution-Focused Therapy – except that they are explicitly grounded in past successes, rather than being dreamed up from scratch.


Some NLP and Emotional Intelligence Perspectives

Because memory is state-dependent, people may need some time to get into a positive frame of mind to recall their best experiences.

Bear in mind “ecology” (knock-on effects and unintended consequences on the wider system) when choosing the topic – go for optimising the system rather than maximising a single variable.

When people focus on what’s working, they feel more positive. Positive emotions increase energy, creativity and resilience.


Appreciative Inquiry Resources

Download our free ‘What is Appreciative Inquiry?’ briefing paper.

For more about Appreciative Inquiry, some videos of AI sessions in action, and practical tips, see the Appreciative Inquiry postings on this site, or visit the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

This paper borrows heavily from The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond – buy it from Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon Canada

Appreciative Inquiry: A Revolution In Change – PowerPoint presentation by Debbie Morris

The central resource for AI is the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.  A Positive Revolution In Change: Appreciative Inquiry is a great introduction.


For Appreciative Inquiry facilitation and coaching, call Andy Smith on 07967 591 313.

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