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The affirmative topic for an Appreciative Inquiry is important – ‘fateful’ as many books about AI describe it – because the topic sets the frame for what you will be inquiring into.

So it’s important that it’s defined in the right way. We’ll look at the criteria that a well-defined topic needs to meet, and then we’ll suggest a quick and easy way to turn a problem statement into an affirmative topic.

What is an affirmative topic? It’s a statement or question that defines the area you want to improve, in a way that is most likely to engage people, get them thinking in productive and creative ways, and lead to a successful result.

When to use an affirmative topic?

Even when you’re not embarking on a formal Appreciative Inquiry process, and even when you just want to improve something as an individual in your personal life, you will find that affirmative topics can transform your view of problems that have previously seemed unsolvable, and open up paths to solutions you would not otherwise have thought of.

Simple problems are easy to solve by traditional methods – if a lightbulb goes out, just replace it. If it still doesn’t light up, trace the cause of the problem back to where the circuit is broken, and fix it.

But for problems in complex systems – and anything involving human beings is a complex system – very often the attempt to fix a problem will cause other problems elsewhere in the system.

By contrast, defining an affirmative topic directs your attention to solutions rather than the problem – and it’s outside the ‘problem space’ where you are going to find your solutions.

By making you think about what you want in the future, rather than zeroing in on the (assumed) problem with narrower and narrower focus, it directs your attention to what the system as a whole will look like when you achieve your solution.

So if every attempt to fix a problem has ended in failure (or caused other problems elsewhere), or if your standard methods for improvement are hitting diminishing returns, maybe it’s time to try defining the opportunity for improvement as an affirmative topic.

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Appreciative Inquiry: Why Do We Use Affirmative Topics? (video + transcript)

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