Why the Wholeness Principle deserves to be recognised as the sixth fundamental principle of Appreciative Inquiry, why it liberates you from having to ‘sell’ change to your people, and how it can stop your change initiative ending up in the 70% that fail.

Do you want to get started using Appreciative Inquiry confidently with teams?

A new Practical Appreciative Inquiry online training starts soon – click here to get the details and how to book


The Wholeness Principle is one of the ‘Emergent Principles’ of Appreciative Inquiry.

These were first set out in 2003 in the book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide To Positive Change by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom.

As the name suggests, these emergent principles were formulated more recently than the five ‘original’ or basic principles.

A lot of books about Appreciative Inquiry don’t mention the emergent principles, either because the books were written before 2003, or because the authors of those books understandably didn’t want to overload their readers with too much theory.

More recently, though, I’ve noticed leading figures in Appreciative Inquiry like David Shaked start to talk about six principles of Appreciative Inquiry, putting the Wholeness Principle on an equal footing with the original five.

This is a good thing, and I’m going to follow their example. 

The idea that wholeness brings out the best in people, in organisations, and in communities, is kind of implied in the Constructionist Principle – if you go looking for it – but it’s worthwhile to have the idea made explicit.

Why does wholeness bring out the best?

It’s about getting the perspectives of all stakeholders, about everyone having input to decision-making, and about understanding the whole story.

A story is a narrative of how an event or series of events unfold through time, told from a particular viewpoint.

Stories are how we make sense of the world. The meaning of each event as it happens is evaluated in the light of what has happened before  and in the light of our expectations of what will or ‘should’ happen next.

It can be very tempting to think that the story we are narrating to ourselves is the whole truth; all the more so when our colleagues, friends or work culture are transmitting and reinforcing the same story.

In fact, because any story comes from a particular viewpoint that embodies particular beliefs, values and associations, as Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom write:

“… the whole story is never a singular story. It is often a synthesis, a compilation of multiple stories, shared and woven together by the many people involved.”

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry

In the Discovery stage of an Appreciative Inquiry process, as participants engage in appreciative interviews with another person in a different role, at a different level, or working in a different team or organisation, they necessarily hear different stories.

These other stories give different viewpoints, and a different version of the truth.

In hearing these, the interviewer comes to realise that the truth is more complex, deeper and richer than they had previously assumed, and comes to a deeper understanding and connection with the person telling the story.

In an Appreciative Inquiry session we aim to have ‘the whole system in the room’

– the whole system includes everyone responsible for or affected by a change,

or at least representatives of each group of stakeholders.

This is a departure from traditional methods of change, where senior management, or perhaps some external consultants, would decide what the changes should be.

If they consider at all how their proposed changes would impact others, they would necessarily be doing that from the outside.

At best, they would imagine themselves in the shoes of employees, customers, and other stakeholders, but it would be a very lucky guess if they could fully imagine how people in these other groups actually see things.

Much more likely, they would carry over some of their own assumptions, because our assumptions are usually invisible – to us. They just appear as part of the fabric of how things are.

Here’s an illustration of how assumptions shape the way we see the world: back in 2007, researching their book Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today, Polly Toynbee and David Walker assembled a group of top-flight lawyers and merchant bankers.

When these high fliers were asked ‘how much it would take to put someone in the top 10% of earners?’, they came up with the figure of £162,000 – in fact, at that time, the true figure was less than a quarter of that at £39,000.

When asked about the poverty threshold, they put it at £22,000 – which was actually just under median earnings, “which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay”.

This doesn’t happen when you have ‘the whole system in the room’.

The diverse viewpoints expressed lead to greater understanding between participants and better, more realistic decisions.

Major flaws in proposed solutions that may be invisible from a senior management perspective are often obvious to the front-line staff who have to make the changes work.

So why not involve front-line staff – and the customers who are on the receiving end – in developing the solutions, and get something that works better?

Also, a ‘whole system’ approach encourages trust, a break-down in ‘them and us’ thinking (‘they’ are real human beings, sitting next to you, listening to your story and telling you theirs), and a can-do attitude.

Making sense of different viewpoints and trying out different perspectives encourages individual and organisational learning, as we reflect on our own drives and values.

As well as thinking about improving how we get what we want, we can learn and develop in the area of why we want it, and what our goals should be.

Plus, when everyone has input to a decision, you don’t have to worry about ‘selling’ the decision to them.

You don’t to get their ‘buy-in’ to a proposed change, because the change is already theirs.

As a workshop participant quoted in The Power of Appreciative Inquiry says:

“Wholeness evokes trust.  When everyone is there you don’t have to feel suspicious about what the others will do – there are no others. It is collectively empowering. There is no one else who must approve your plan.You know that whatever you collectively decide can be done.”

Some questions you may want to consider in the light of this principle:

  • Who else do I need to involve?
  • Who will be affected by proposed changes?
  • Whose opinions do I need to seek?
  • Where am I making assumptions, and how would I know if they weren’t correct?

Do you want to get started using Appreciative Inquiry confidently with teams?

A new Practical Appreciative Inquiry online training starts soon – click here to get the details and how to book

Appreciative Inquiry: What Is The Wholeness Principle? (Video + Transcript)

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