** Do you want to learn how to use Appreciative Inquiry? You can now apply for a place on the next Practical Appreciative inquiry online course! **

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way of looking at organisational change which focuses on identifying and doing more of what is already working, rather than looking for problems and trying to fix them. It makes rapid strategic change possible by focusing on the core strengths of an organisation and then using those strengths to reshape the future.

AI is a participative learning process to identify and spread best practice. It is also a way of managing and working that encourages trust, reduces defensiveness and suspicion, and helps to establish strong working relationships quickly.

AI was developed by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the mid-eighties. His wife Nancy, an artist, educated 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 Appreciative Inquiry Works

The key feature of this approach is that it uses existing strengths, achievements and successes – the aspects of people’s work that they are proud of, that motivate them, and that are getting good results – as a foundation for a credible vision of the future, and a launching pad to reach that future vision. It does not ignore past failures, but helps people to collectively get into a more positive and therefore more creative frame of mind to come up with ideas for improvement.

The very act of asking a question influences the state of mind of the person who is asked. Because teams, organisations and societies move toward what they persistently ask questions about, an Appreciative Inquiry is the investigation of those things that are most effective within an organisation or any other sort of human system.

Once we have identified this “positive core” and linked it directly to a strategic agenda, changes not previously thought possible can be rapidly achieved while at the same time building enthusiasm, confidence and energy to get things done.

Comparison With Problem-Focused Approaches

Problem-solvingAppreciative Inquiry
What to fixWhat to grow
Thinks in terms of: problem, symptoms, causes, solutions, action plan, intervention, and all too often, blameThinks in terms of: good, better, possible
Breaks things into pieces, leading to fragmented responsesAI 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 changeQuickly 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 cultureAssumes 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 Appreciative Inquiry 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 Assumptions

  • 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?
  • It shouldn’t presuppose any particular route to where you want to get to (because that would mean ignoring other potential routes that may be as good or better)

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.

Hands-on learningWould you would like to learn how to use Appreciative Inquiry? It’s one of the most powerful methods for changing your team’s story to something more positive and generative! Why not join the next Practical Appreciative Inquiry online course?

“What I needed was some hands-on experience with the process of AI. During the course, Andy provided exercises for us to tackle in smaller break-out groups. These gave me what I was looking for.

Now, having experienced the process for myself, I am much more confident in describing it to others and facilitating my own sessions. I endorse and recommend the program because of Andy’s practical approach to learning.

– Paul Kimmerling, Consultant, Coach and Facilitator, USA

Get the full details and how to book here.

Appreciative Inquiry Resources

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

Subscribe to the Coaching Leaders Secrets newsletter to get a step-by-step guide to how to use Appreciative Inquiry to improve your team’s performance.

For more information about Appreciative Inquiry, visit the Appreciative Inquiry resources page, or read the Appreciative Inquiry articles on the Coaching Leaders blog.

An Appreciative Inquiry book list

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

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, contact Andy Smith at andy@coachingleaders.co.uk.


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