Appreciative Inquiry – Overview of Method, Principles and Applications

10 minute read

My intention with this resource is to provide an overview of Appreciative Inquiry for people who are new to this strength-based, transformational, positive change methodology.

My Intention for this Resource

This resource is an overview of the change methodology Appreciative Inquiry. Topics covered:

  • What it is
  • How it is a strength-based, positive framework
  • What it can achieve through collaborative conversations
  • The 4-D process of Appreciative Inquiry
  • How it can be applied personally and professionally
  • The guiding principles
  • The importance of affirmative questions
  • The value of story-telling in Appreciative Inquiry

My wish is that you will be more curious and excited about the possibilities of this life-centric, positive approach to change after reading it.  And, there are many more posts and stories throughout Positivity Strategist if your interest has been piqued.

 What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Seeing with Appreciative Eyes

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a change methodology grounded in theories from the disciplines of organization behavior and the sciences of sociology and psychology, with a good dose of metaphyics. Those of us who practice AI refer to it as both a way of being and doing.

Appreciative Inquiry is a perspective on the world that invites us to see ourselves and the world through an appreciative or valuing eye.  We are made aware that how we use language, how we ask questions, and what stories we tell shape our own and collective destinies.

Appreciative Inquiry CertificateEarning my certification in Positive Business and Society Change Program at Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in 2004 with Professors David Cooperrider and Ron Fry has been a high point of my personal and professional life.  It has enabled me to meet extraordinary people and contribute in ways I had never dreamed possible, adding to the body of work in this field.

Definition of Appreciative Inquiry

From the Handbook of Appreciative Inquiry, (link here) here’s a comprehensive definition:

Appreciative Inquiry is the co-evolutionary, co-operative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them … AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate and heighten positive potential … AI practice focuses on the speed of the imagination and innovation.  Instead of negative, critical, and spiraling diagnoses commonly used in our organizations … there is discovery, dream, design and destiny.”

Organizational Change

Appreciative Inquiry Summit

Organizational Change

Appreciative Inquiry is an affirming way to embrace human, institutional and organizational change.  As a change methodology, AI offers a life-centric structured approach to energize people in organizations to move in the direction of what they most desire.  Its framework focuses organizational members on their existing core capacities, strengths and successes; it invites them to to envision a desired future; it initiates collaborations to design projects and activities the members are willingly commit to.

This change methodology has the perspective that every system, human and otherwise, has something that works right already —things that contribute to its aliveness, effectiveness, and success, connecting it in healthy ways to its stakeholders and the wider community.   With the Appreciative Inquiry perspective, we can create positive change that can be sustainable, thereby expanding capacity for wellbeing and flourishing.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is a co-construction, shaped by language, stories, practices and relationships. The quality and tone of the language, relationships and stories  will determine whether the culture is harmonious, creative and productive, or hostile, de-energizing and destruction, or somewhere in between.  The culture can foster inclusiveness or exclusiveness. The culture can lift people up or let them down.  It can heighten peoples’ spirits or dampen them.  Appreciative Inquiry is a structured approach that seeks to lift people up to their highest aspirations.

Our imaginative capacity

As human beings, one of our greatest assets is our imaginative capacity. We can imagine the best and we can image the worst.

“Imagination is everything.  It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”  Albert Einstein.

As a life-centric change process, Appreciative Inquiry pays attention to the best in us, not the worst; to our strengths, not our weaknesses; to possibility thinking, not problem thinking.

Developing Strengths

Key question: Are we better off investing in and developing human and organizational strengths than dealing with weaknesses that can be worked around?

Yet, the old paradigm of ‘overcome weaknesses first’ is played out every day in most of our homes, our schools, our institutions, and our places of work and worship. By default, we are acculturated to focus first on the things that “need fixing.”  The behaviors, the processes, the decisions that are weak or problematic in some way, are the first to grab our attention.

What happens then, is that those behaviors, thoughts, feelings, decisions, and processes that are already working well and bring us successes don’t attract the same attention or the investment of resources.

We invest energy, money, time, intellect, and emotion into things that don’t work for us instead of putting energies into those things that will give us an easier and a much-amplified return for our efforts and investments.  Appreciative Inquiry flips that around by starting investing in what already works, thereby shortening the path to achieving organizational aspirations.

Process of Appreciative Inquiry

The process  of Appreciative Inquiry is named the 4-D Cycle – Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny.

You see this process represented graphically:

Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Cycle

Appreciative Inquiry 4-D Cycle

The four steps in the iterative cycle:

Step 1: Discover

  • Discover high-point experiences and identify strengths and capabilities—all of which add up to the “positive core.”

Step 2: Dream

  • Dream—imaginatively and collectively envision what else is possible.

Step 3: Design

  • Design—co-construct what can be done to build capacity (practically) and what should be done (morally).

Step 4: Destiny

  • Destiny—commit to the iterative exploration of learning, innovation, and delivering results all stakeholders care about.

Appreciative Inquiry Questions

Appreciative Inquiry is the art of asking unconditional, positive questions to strengthen the system’s capacity to anticipate and heighten positive potential.

Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes the art of crafting positive questions. The following summarizes the Appreciative Inquiry perspective on questions:

  • We live in a world our questions create.
  • Our questions determine the results we achieve.
  • The more positive our question, the more it will create the possible.
  • Our questions create movement and change.

Below are the four foundational interview questions for a business situation.  You can substitute ‘organization’ with ‘relationship’, or ‘career’, or ‘wellness regime’.

  1. What has been a high-point experience in your organization/division when you felt most alive, successful, and effective?
  2. Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself, your work, and your organization?
  3. What are the core factors that make this organization function at its best, when it feels a great place to be in, and without which it would cease to exist?
  4. Imagine it is three years into the future and the organization is just as you would want it to be. What’s happening that makes it vibrant and successful? What has changed? What has stayed the same, and how have you contributed to this future?
    • What can you continue doing to keep the good?
    • What can you begin to do to make it better?
    • What can you stop doing because it no longer serves or gets in the way?
    • What are some transitions you’ll need to make to because you have existing responsibilities and constraints, and can’t just drop everything immediately.

Applications of Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciate Inquiry is applicable across a range of contexts.  As it’s a collaborative process to engage people discovering the best in their context, it is successfully applied from one-on-one coaching and interviewing situations to 1000+ person summits.

In a nutshell, the Appreciative Inquiry framework enables generative dialogue in any context, in any age group and any culture. Whenever there is a strong desire for healthy, productive relationships and sustainable outcomes; wherever there is a strong desire to enable all voices to be heard and to foster healthy, trusting relationships amidst diversity, complexity and multiplicity, the framework of Appreciative Inquiry facilitates such outcomes.  For example, applications include:

  • Local communities of interest
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Small business
  • Global corporations
  • Start-ups
  • Families
  • Individuals

Leadership Development

The process of Appreciative Inquiry is story based, as the above questions suggest.  When people connect through stories, their own leadership surfaces as they find examples of when they were at their best.  When you ask:  “What is a high point experience in your organization – a time when you were most alive and engaged?” you uncover stories about times when people are most engaged, effective, successful and connected as team members, leaders, service providers, solution givers allowing their own leadership to rise to the top.  It is an opportunity to take note of what they are most proud of.

Change Management

Inviting people to be part of a change they themselves can support produces cultures of ownership and commitment.  It's when change is imposed or comes as a surprise that resistance and resentments can set in.  The principles and process of Appreciative Inquiry facilitate change at a rate that is unprecedented and is sustainable because the change comes from the stakeholders themselves.

People support what they themselves create

Large Scale Summits

Whenever a team, a department, a community, an entire organization wants to come together to work on issues that are significant and require strategic design and tactical implementation, an Appreciative Inquiry Summit offers a rigorous design process with clear outcomes. In less than three days, you discover and clarify the best of what already exists and identify what further opportunities will propel the organization in the direction of its future dream.  Everyone leaves the summit with pride in their contributions and energized about initiatives they are been part of creating toward their collective future.

And, it does not stop there.  Commitments are made before participants leave the summit and return to “business as usual.”  After an AI summit, with leadership support, there is no going back to business as usual.  A change has happened that all have witnessed and committed to publicly.

We have hit the start button and there is no going back

Collaborative Workshops

The “right way,” or the “only way” isn't the domain of any one group anymore. It's about co-creation and collaboration.  Whether it's designing new products or policies, innovating in your industry, or determining new operations or sets of behaviors to support organizational values, we know that to produce sustainable, satisfying outcomes, we need to be address diversity, multiplicity and complexity.  Inviting organizational members to collaborate in a workshop setting where participants come to inquire into a specific topic or issue in which they have some vested ownership can result in transformational changes in very short time frames.

Feedback from my book, “Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions: 21 strength-based workshops” (2010) John Wiley attests to such outcomes.

This is a great, inspiring, inspired and useful book. It is clearly and inspiringly written by someone who gets the topic and has found a way to put positivity and change into a usable format that can be adapted to virtually any organization or group. Glad we found it and we'll recommend it to others. Last chapter allows for virtually unlimited customization of concepts to specific needs or challenges. B.T.

Appreciative Inquiry provides an extremely powerful framework for such collaboration. Throughout this site, there are a number of examples in community contexts, in corporate, in non-profit where people come to together they can contribute, learn and thereby creating cultures of empowerment where they co-create solutions and outcomes they can commit to works.

Coaching

Coaching individuals or groups following the Appreciative Inquiry framework is an empowering shift for people.  As Appreciative Inquiry coaches, we start with a discovery of best attributes, strengths, of remembering past successes so coachees get a strong sense of what they already have achieved in their life and when they are most productive.  From that really solid foundation,  grounded in their own reality, we can move into what the dream is or what the goals are and what solutions will help them move in that direction.  A great quote from Peter Drucker:

“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make the organizations weaknesses irrelevant.”

Appreciative Inquiry Discovery Interview

Appreciative Inquiry Coaching

Drucker, one of the most influential thinkers on leadership and management, stressed that the role of leadership is to build on organizational strengths so that weaknesses seem irrelevant. Weaknesses cannot be ignored. But to develop and improve performance, it's more resourceful to focus on what already works well.

In my experience, most people come to coaching with the goal to improve by overcoming their weaknesses, and that’s a worthy goal.  How you achieve that goal can be addressed in a number of ways.  What is far more energizing and empowering is to start from when you are most productive and performing at your best.  In the coaching relationship, I identify what you do most easily, with greatest joy,  That becomes the foundation on which to build even greater capacity and pride and enjoyment in your performance, whatever it is.

We are more likely to be successful when we deploy our strengths with confidence rather than struggle with overcoming our weaknesses with difficulty.

Embracing Change iPad AppI created a coaching iPad app called Embracing Change in 2010 with the intention helping people through changes they may be going through from a strength-based lens, using the Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle   Here is one of the reviews:

A brilliantly designed tool to help master the most important game of life anywhere – the game of our own life. A tool to support personal reflection, about past successes and future plans. A tool to help build our own story to create the changes we want in life. And, it is so intuitive and easy to use. P.R.

Appreciative Inquiry Principles

There are five foundational principles.  The theoretical underpinnings are rich and varied.  Below is a very much simplified overview of the five principles.

The Principle of Simultaneity

This Appreciative Inquiry Principle states that inquiry and change are simultaneous events. When you ask a question, it creates some response.  A change happens between the inquirer and the responder.  As stated above, the way we ask questions will determine what we find.  It provides a moment of choice. The practice of Appreciative Inquiry involves the art of crafting and asking questions that elicit possibility and inspire hopeful images of the future.

To see this Appreciative Inquiry Principle clearly in action, I invite you to watch my TEDxNavesink talk.

What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

As change agents, leaders, friends, parents, or strangers, we need to consider the direction of the questions we ask.  Are they life depleting or life nurturing, as the very first question we ask invites change.

The Anticipatory Principle

This Appreciative Inquiry Principle reminds us that, when we envision a positive future, we are more likely to act positively and live ourselves into that positive future.  Cultures are shaped in the images we hold.

When you believe it, you see it

When we hold a dream that inspires, (for example: Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandel, Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs have and have had dreams of a world that have inspired us to think beyond our present day-to-day existence) we are mobilized toward that anticipatory future.  (And, it also works when cultures hold negative and/or fearful images of the future).

Visionary leader inspire their organizations into action.

Image inspires action.

Read this personal story to learn more.

The Poetic Principle

This Appreciative Inquiry Principle states that the topics or subjects we choose to put our attention to, or study, are fateful in the sense that they not only determine what we learn, but they actually create it.

What we focus on grows

Each of us has our own experiences and interpretations that we bring to a conversation or subject.  Just as if we were to look at a piece of art, watch a movie, read a poem, or listen to music, there are opportunities for endless interpretations, learnings, and inspirations. The metaphors we use shape our beliefs. Do we describe our workplace as a machine, a garden, a web, a family, a school, a prison, or a zoo?  Because depending on how we describe it, we’ll start to go looking for the evidence to back up our own beliefs.

Through our Appreciative Inquiry lens, we consciously seek out that which we want more of, not less—hence what we focus on are the solutions and outcomes we wish to create. There are many examples of this principle in all walks of life, from raising children, to evaluating employee performance, to attending to our own health and wellness.

Do we place our attention and energy on the behaviors and outcomes we want in our children, co-workers, and diet and exercise regimes in order to create that which we desire, or do we place our attention on the things we want less of?  Whichever it is, you’ll likely find it.

When we place sincere effort on the attributes we want to see, and can let go of those that no longer serve or support, we have greater chance of success at achieving our desired outcomes.

The Constructionist Principle

This Appreciative Inquiry Principle emphasizes the role of language and places human communication and conversation at the center of human organizing and change. As people converse and create meaning together, they sow the seeds for action. Our realities are created in communication with others, and knowledge is generated through social interaction.

Words create worlds

If the conversation during a tea break is filled with uplifting stories of success, you are likely to contribute your own story of success and all of you will walk away having expanded your understanding of success, building on each other’s ideas and stories.

We see the world we describe, not the other way round, because when we describe it, we create distinctions that govern our actions.  Our language shapes and creates our own truth and reality…and potentially our destinies.

Tragedies happen, financial crises, natural disasters, illnesses and death occur – we don’t choose them, and they change us. How we describe the events that happen in our lives determines how we see them, and then results in how we respond to them.  With the deep respect, consider: are you a survivor or a thriver?

The Positive Principle

This Appreciative Inquiry Principle reminds us that, when we feel positive, we are more likely to act positively. Being able to experience positive emotions is a foundation to strengthening our general sense of well-being, thereby nurturing caring relationships, and increasing energy and vitality.

When you feel good, you do good

Through the research of Professor Barbara Fredrickson, and, as she describes in her latest book Love 2.0, we learn far more about the benefits of positive emotions in a wider context of positivity resonance.  This book explains the impacts of micro-moments of love on our bodies as well as our emotions. Love is the foundation for all connections.

When people feel positive emotions, there is an “opening up” versus a “shutting down” effect.  Fredrickson's broad and build theory describes the cognitive, emotional, and physiological changes we experience when positive emotions are aroused.  We momentarily expand our attention and thinking, and we are more open to receive others and listen to their ideas.  Positive emotions contribute to our ability to speedily bounce back from stress and can potentially transform us for the better.  Instead of focusing on “me,” we expand to appreciate others, and think more about “we.”

Research indicates there is a ratio of 3:1, which is the tipping point for building our reserves of positive emotion.  If we can, at minimum, think, talk, and behave three times positive to one time negative, then we are on the way to building emotional resiliency that will help us flourish instead of languish.

The Appreciative Inquiry Positive Principle speaks to the need for large amounts of positive focus through deliberate choice of language and affirmative questions to discover the most uplifting stories that inspire possibility thinking and thriving futures. The higher the positive affect, the better able we are to deal with the unknown and be more accepting of change.

Seeing the World Anew

By now you have a little information about Appreciative Inquiry.  It’s a way to engage with, and affirm life in all its magnificence.

Imagine living in a state of inquiry that seeks to discover the best in all situations; the gifts, the talents, the strengths of people we come into contact with daily, and of people whom we may never meet because our paths won’t ever cross; the beauty of our planet and wonders of the universe; the untold possibilities of all that life offers us.  It is possible to live in a state of appreciative inquiry.

What’s your current story?

  • Do you look at life, at people, at organizations, and at institutions as problems to be solved or mysteries to be embraced?
  • What’s the narrative that runs your life?

What’s the story you want to pass on?

  • What stories are you passing on from generation to generation, from leader to leader?
  • What stories do we collectively want to pass on from generation to generation?
  • Do you sense we are collectively saying, there is so much more to appreciate in this world?
  • What new stories can we co-create that will leave a new and exciting, heart-centered world?

I leave the last words for Albert Einstein whose brilliant, scientific and artistic mind saw the world as a miracle.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle

To find out how I support individuals, communities and organizations experience and apply Appreciate Inquiry, I invite you to visit my Services Page.

Book Links

  • {{content-1}}

Newest Resource Offering:
  • I use Appreciative Inquiry as my main framework for coaching and consulting. It's a great process.

    I add some of my own take on it though.

    For example, I am not just looking for what works already within the system, but what works anywhere that can be brought to bear on the system. That way, even weaknesses within the system can be addressed in a constructive way since not all of the strengths need to already exist in the system itself but can be identified by role modeling.

    Also, individual coaching is particularly challenging as you have to deal with the fact that there is an unconscious, so you can't really have "everyone in the room." I have to use some other tools to handle that issue.

    I've linked to my own page on Appreciative Inquiry if you're interested. Thanks.

    • Hi Howard, thanks for adding to the post. It's perfect to share links. I am in the process of adding a links page on my site here to books, sites, people who are active in this Appreciative Inquiry, strength-based and positive methodologies. It's a growing field, which excites us.

      I'm with you on your two points. I imply "open systems" when i refer to "what's working in the system" – it's the whole system – inclusive of all stakeholders. In facilitating workshops or summits, having customers, vendors, family members involved provides a richer experience through all the multiple lenses. If clients are open to that inclusion, you end up with such a rich set of perspectives and potential outcomes. That's why public summits on environmental issues or political issues are great, because you have all those perspectives being heard and potentially acted upon. So good point of clarification. I am talking about open systems not closed systems. I often use a blend of participatory methodologies – Open Space, World Cafe, Search Conferencing through the appreciative, valuing lens.

      Regarding coaching, indeed there are many tools and ways to work with individuals, depending on the client goals. My world view through the Appreciative Inquiry lens, is to see the wholeness in a person and I am biased to look at what their strengths are as a starting point and build from there. Too often, people come with a mindset that weaknesses need to be addressed first. It's a choice of focus.

      Do Let me know if I have interpreted your comment as you intended, and my response has relevance to your thinking.

  • Robyn,

    I agree about including the whole system. That's a given. But I am saying I'll even probe for inspiration, tools, techniques, etc. that can be adopted from outside the system in question.

    As for individual coaching, of course we are looking to build on someone's strengths and recognize their wholeness. But since individuals have an unconscious that, by definition, they cannot access, it is pretty much impossible to have the entire wholeness of the person speaking. There is even Jung's concept of the "golden shadow" wherein someone may have powerful strengths of which they are unaware or which they actually are repressing out of shame. A normal Appreciative Inquiry process may help them access these, but depending on why and how deeply they are repressed, it may not.

  • Pingback: 20 Positive Outcomes from a Strength-based Approach()

  • Pingback: Importance of Storytelling - Positivity Strategist()

  • Pingback: Finding Energy for Positive Change will Boost your Productivity()

  • Pingback: The Surprising Power of Appreciation at Work()

  • Pingback: [Must Read] The Surprising Power of Appreciation at Work – ALPINEDNA()

  • Faisal Khan

    Robyn,
    Thanks for a great article and the ebook. very easy to absorb.

    • Hi Faisal, I appreciate your comment. My intention is to make it easy to absorb. How are you using Appreciative Inquiry?

  • Faisal, I love that you are using Appreciative Inquiry for your personal development with your coach. Most people who “discover” AI find it speaks to them so intuitively. It seems very natural and confirms what they have been doing for years. On learning about AI, they say they feel legitimized – that it affirms who they are. And it is so good to hear you are using this with you team members. Let me know how I might support you, if you have any questions or curiosities.

  • Hi Faisal,

    I believe I responded to you, but cannot find any record. I am delighted you have found Appreciative Inquiry via my site. How wonderful you started with applying the model and the principles to yourself and then your team. And you have coach to support you. I like how all that sounds very much. Congratulations! If I may serve in any way, please contact me.

  • Pingback: Conversation, Connection, and Co-creation: Appreciative Inquiry - Dr. Paul T. P. Wong()

  • Pingback: How can couples make decisions better? - X or Y()

  • Pingback: The Top Five Things You Can Do To Land The Dream Job - Blix Magazine()

  • Pingback: Camp Kushindwa – Kutztown Mel()

  • Pingback: Memories, Hopes, & Conversations….()