The Definition Stage 3: What are the characteristics of a good affirmative topic?

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‘Flipping’ a problem statement to become an affirmative topic is the main task in the Definition stage of Appreciative Inquiry – but it can benefit any kind of coaching. Here’s the checklist of the qualities your affirmative topic needs to have to be successful.


  1. They are positively stated, so they are about where you want to get to rather than what you want to get away from. You should take any ‘problem language’ out of the topic, and use ‘solutions language’ about the desired future instead.

    So if your team meetings are universally agreed to be time-consuming and unproductive, your topic wouldn’t be “Why are our team meetings so rubbish?” but rather something like “How do we hold productive team meetings?” or “How do we use our time for team meetings better?”

    This is not (as naive critics of Appreciative Inquiry sometimes think) about pretending that problems don’t exist. Rather, it’s about addressing and thinking about the problem in a way that is most likely to generate solutions to it.
  2. They are relevant and engaging, and matter to all the people involved in the AI process – not just senior management. Ideally, affirmative topics are expressed in simple language that everyone can understand (“as simple as possible, but no simpler” as Einstein is supposed to have said).

    So if you want your company to be more competitive, you probably wouldn’t define your topic as “How do we better leverage our assets to increase shareholder return?” but more something like “How do we become the most respected company in our field?” or “How do we become the best company to work for?”
  3. They don’t presuppose a solution, and leave open the possibility of many possible ways to the desired future. If a particular anticipated solution is already built into the topic, it excludes other paths to a solution – which might actually turn out to be better.

    So if you want to reduce production defects, you wouldn’t formulate your topic as “How do we raise quality levels by improving the inspection process?” (or “by sourcing better components” or “by training the workforce better” – each of these only addresses one potential source of problems while neglecting others).

    Wording the topic in that way assumes that you already have an idea what the problem is.

    If you don’t  know what the source of the problem is, and if it originates in some other area that you haven’t looked at, you will never find it with a topic that just examines the inspection process.

    If you make your topic “How do we raise quality levels?” instead, it leaves open many possible routes to improvement and doesn’t prejudge a solution.

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Appreciative Inquiry: Checklist For Successful Affirmative Topics (video + transcript)

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