How do you structure an Appreciative Inquiry process? The 5D format is the most widely-used way of doing it.

Here’s a quick overview of what happens in each stage.

0:32 – What do we mean by the ‘Positive Core’?

2:05 – Sometimes known as the 4D Format

2:37 – The Definition stage

3:12 – The Discovery stage

3:51 – The Dream stage

5:07 – The Design stage

5:44 – The Delivery (or Destiny) stage

6:16 – Using the 4D format to review progress

6:40 – The 5D model is a guide rather than a one-way linear process

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It turns out you can, as long as the course is live and interactive!

I know this because I’ve run five Practical Appreciative Inquiry courses online with great feedback from participants. The next training starts soon – find out more and book your place here.

The 5D Format – Video Transcript

Let’s take a look at the most widely-used format for structuring an Appreciative Inquiry process.

It’s not the only format available, but is the default one for Appreciative Inquiry and it’s certainly as user-friendly as any other format, so it’s the one I normally use.

The overall aim of the 5D cycle, like any Appreciative Inquiry process, is to discover, build on, and refine the ‘positive core’ of the organisation or team.  

By the ‘positive core’ we mean its knowledge, best practices, successes and strengths, as well as the aspects of its history, present experience, and imagined future which make people proud to feel part of it and motivated to work there.

At the same time, going through the 5D process strengthens understanding and trust between people.

A 5D process, bringing together everyone involved in the change in one room, can be completed in as little as half a day.

The format is carefully designed to keep participants focused on the positive, and to liberate their creative thinking.

Each stage in the process psychologically primes participants to be open to and ready for the next stage.

The structure is the same, whether the inquiry is an organisation-wide project that takes years or a brief one-to-one coaching session. The aim is always to discover, strengthen and build on the best of the organisation – the elements that give life to it, that people are proud of, that motivate them, and which give rise to exceptional performance. These elements are often referred to as the ‘positive core’ of the organisation.

You may also encounter a 4D version of the model which leaves out the Definition stage. In some books on AI you will see the Delivery stage referred to as the ‘Destiny’ stage, though I believe in most organisational settings people will find it easier to relate to ‘delivery’ as a term relevant to business.

There are other models (for example, the Mohr/Jacobsgaard 4Is model), but the 5D or 4D model is the most widely used.


First, we define an ‘affirmative topic’ or topics for the Appreciative Inquiry. This determines the area to be inquired into and sets a direction for what is to be achieved.

‘How do we… <achieve the desired outcome>?’ is a practical format for stating the affirmative topic.

This would also be the stage where you plan your Appreciative Inquiry process, get your steering group together, define the questions for the first Appreciative Interviews, and so on.


In this stage, we inquire into people’s best experiences in relation to the topic – times when people felt alive, engaged and worthwhile, and when they produced great results and achievements to be proud of.

We can also ask what is important to people about these experiences, to discover the values that motivate them, and the factors that made these examples of exceptional performance possible.

The ‘appreciative interview’ format is the method most often used to uncover this information.


Next, the people involved in the inquiry – ideally, in a large-scale project, everyone in the organisation, plus representatives of outside stakeholders – co-create a vision of the organisation’s ideal future, without limiting themselves (at this stage) with concerns about whether it is possible or how to get there.

The aim is to define a positive image of the future so that the organisation is inspired to grow towards it, and to open new possibilities for action that are not constrained by assumptions which may have led to existing problems.

We’re going for a high-level vision of the desired future, metaphorical rather than prematurely going into concrete details, so that it’s easier for participants to agree.

The key question is not “What will the future be?” but “What will it be like?”

To encourage creative and metaphorical thinking at this stage, so that we can break free of the previous patterns of thinking that led to current problems, we ask participants to create some kind of artistic representation of the desired future.


We can now develop options for bringing the Dream vision, or at least parts of it, into reality. This may involve redesigning structures, processes and information flows within the organisation so that it becomes capable of supporting the vision.

At a team or individual level it’s also about generating ideas for possible actions that can take us closer to the Dream. We’re not committing to any of the ideas at this stage, so we can be as wild and creative as we want.

Delivery (or ‘Destiny’)

We commit to taking the actions we have selected from the design stage in order to make the dream happen. Depending on the scale of the project, this could involve formal action planning or just making some small changes immediately. This stage is also about actually implementing the chosen changes, and learning from the experience of implementation.


We can also use the Discover/Dream/Design/Deliver part of the 5D cycle to review progress. We can discover what worked and what didn’t, update our Dream with our new learnings, Design ways of dealing with whatever problems showed up, and Deliver those improvements.

Finally, the 5D cycle isn’t a linear process where you can only go one way. It’s more like a roadmap or guide that shows you where you are at any point in the process.

For example, once you’ve discovered the best of what’s currently working, you might want to go back to Definition to refine your affirmative topic in the light of new information.

Or when you’ve created your Dream vision of the desired future, you could go back to Discover where parts of that dream are already happening, even if they’re only happening partially or occasionally.

Appreciative Inquiry: The 5D Format (video + transcript)

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