Introducing Appreciative Inquiry

Change can be difficult because it is often being done TO us rather than WITH us, which drains our energy. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way to involve as many people as possible in the change process, collaboratively, and in a way that develops the future based on what is already working. This article explores the principles of AI and provides you with some practical tips.

Introducing Appreciative Inquiry

Defining Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

Appreciative Inquiry builds on what is working in organisations – it looks for stories of success rather than focusing on problems – on the basis that building on strengths and successes will yield better results than focusing on weaknesses and failures. This both enables an organisation to play to its strengths as well as being much more energising for employees.

Appreciative Inquiry was developed in the 1980s by David Cooperrider and is based on the premise that organisations change in the direction in which they inquire.

If you spend your time inquiring into problems, you will keep finding problems. But when you attempt to appreciate what is best, you will discover more and more good on which you can build a future where the best becomes the norm.

4 characteristics of AI

Cooperrider proposes that inquiring into your organisation should have four characteristics:

  • Appreciative: AI looks for an organisation’s “positive core” to use as the foundation for future growth
  • Applicable: AI is grounded in practical past experience, seeking the best of “what is” so you can build the best possible “what might be”
  • Provocative: AI invites you to take risks in how you imagine and redesign your organisation. By exploring what’s already best, people respond with “provocative propositions” about the future
  • Collaborative: AI involves the whole organisation or a representative cross-section, so all voices are heard and all contributions are valued

5 principles of AI

Building on this, some writers have defined five principles that underpin an Appreciative Inquiry approach.  The headings sound rather “fancy” but actually we can all recognise these principles in organisational life:

  • The constructionist principle: Rather than believing we can’t influence the future, constructionism claims that the focus, language and metaphors we use create our reality. So, what you spend your time and energy on and how you describe things influence what’s real for you and how you build on that reality.  In addition, we are all influenced by those around us so their language and focus affects us too – the power of doing this collaboratively cannot be underestimated.
  • The positive principle: By supporting people to focus on the positive and only express their best experiences, you build virtuous circles in place of vicious circles. (Please see my recent positive psychology article for more on this subject.) When I work with teams and we spend time analysing what’s working well and why, while also recognising the individual strengths of team members, it is incredibly energising. I find it enables far more creativity than spending too much time discussing the problems that need resolving.
  • The simultaneity principle: Instead of using a linear approach to organisational change that starts with diagnosis (and sometimes gets stuck there), AI has no separate diagnosis phase that looks into the past. Positive change begins as soon as the steering group starts asking each other appreciative questions.
  • The poetic principle: Classic organisational theory talks changing from one state to another (sometimes phrased as un-freeze and re-freeze) whereas AI sees organisations being part of a continual story rather than in a static state. By encouraging the sharing of positive stories, the experience of storytelling itself changes the way people think and act. Given that organisational life is now about constant change – “the only constant is change” – this principle sits well in reality.
  • The anticipatory principle: AI argues that creating images of the future affects behaviour in the present – visioning a desirable future as clearly as possible means people are more likely to start to behave in ways that bring it about. This is where the power of a vision statement really comes into its own.

How to apply AI in your organisation

So, how can you apply an AI approach in your organisation, or with your team or employees? Ask questions about what is working well. Capture as many specifics as you can so you get to the core of why something is successful and then step back to gain the insight, to then set the direction.

Here are some suggested areas of focus and questions (note some of the questions can also apply across the areas of focus).

When defining your future

  • Use the technology in your organisation to use a crowd-sourcing approach to seek stories of what is working well amongst your employees
  • Look for stories of what is working well today across the company you work in so you can learn from the best, wherever it may be
  • Meet with your stakeholders in person to find out what they appreciate about your organisation and what would delight them even more
  • Look for success stories in other organisations – think laterally (e.g. outside your industry) to stretch your imagination of what’s possible

Suggested questions:

  • What do you believe are our core strengths as an organisation (our unique selling point)?
  • Imagine you are at the end of your career and you are describing your legacy to a friend – what do you want to be able to describe that we have achieved?
  • What’s the best team you have been a part of? Describe the elements that made it your best team?
  • What do you appreciate about the service we provide you? What would delight you even more?
  • Which organisations do you admire? Why?
  • Which leader(s) do you admire and why? What shall we adopt in how we will lead the organisation?

When reviewing your progress

  • Again, look for success stories
  • With those success stories, look at how you can apply them to other areas of your organisation, or to progress any objectives that may not be going according to plan
  • Make sure you take time to celebrate success – both as a team and to acknowledge individuals
  • Use social media and share photos to help get the message out there of your success – both the what and the how.
  • Promote the work of your department (see last month’s article for additional ideas)
  • Remember a ratio of 5:1 when reviewing the positive:negative
  • When reviewing progress whether it’s at the half-year point or the success of a meeting, start with the benefits – what was good and give plenty of time for this, before moving to things that are working less well. Label these “concerns” and encourage people to express them as a concern or question (e.g. How can we….) to invite a constructive and team approach to resolving.

Suggested questions:

  • What have we accomplished so far? How did we do this? What specific actions led to this outcome?
  • What is it about our organisational structure, values, systems, processes, policies, staff, leaders and strategy that meant this result could occur?
  • What can we learn from this and where else can we apply this successful delivery/approach?
  • What was it about your role and your style that enabled this success? How and where can we use these strengths more?
  • Who else enabled this success and why? How and where can we use these strengths more?
  • Who should we thank and celebrate with? How?
  • How should we share our success stories and to who? How can we serve our stakeholders even more?
  • How can we help other parts of the organisation with our strengths? How can they help us?

When developing your team

When developing existing teams, invite them to share “best experience” stories from elsewhere in the organisation. This material can be used as a platform for the team to build a more effective future together.

If the team is facing a problematic issue, the appreciative approach helps them explore it in a way that avoids blame. Help them draw out the positive core of previous good experiences so they can dream of a better way to move forward.

When working with new teams, a great start is for team members to talk about good experiences they’ve had in other teams. Discuss what made them successful and why it felt so good. The shared stories will energise team members and help them create a vision of how they would like their new team to be.

  • Find out how team members like to work – the best teams they’ve worked in in the past and why
  • Share each team members’ strengths, by using a tool like Strengthsfinder, to affirm what each team member brings irrespective of their functional expertise. This also encourages team working as members will seek out those strengths needed for a particular piece of work
  • Create a Team Charter that outlines up to seven statements of how you will work together, worded positively, to drive the Vision and make it a great place for everyone to participate in

Suggested questions:

  • Tell me about the best team you have worked in and describe what it was like, and why. What would you like to bring into this team about how we work together?
  • What is the best praise you ever received and why was it so good?
  • What type of leader gets the best out of you? What can I do to best serve this team?
  • What do you love about being in this team? How can we do more of this and/or apply it to other aspects of our work?
  • Ask questions about what is working well. Capture as many specifics as you can so you get to the core of why something is successful, before drawing general conclusions.

Dealing with negatives

AI shouldn’t be overly naive. It’s important to recognise that, in any organisation or team, there is a natural tendency to focus more on the negatives. This is still valuable – it’s all about balance so the negative doesn’t dominate or override the creativity inspired by an AI approach.

In most cases, people respond positively and enthusiastically to an AI discussion. But occasionally, your questions will draw out negative responses. Here are a few ways to handle that situation:

  • Persuade the team member to “park” their negative thoughts to focus on the positive for the moment, and promise to return to them later. At the end of the discussion, ask how they think things ought to be – this addresses the negatives.
  • If people can’t get out of a negative emotional state, let them talk about what’s wrong so they can vent and get it all out. Listen supportively, with as much empathy as you can. Do not make comments or judgements. Then summarise what you’ve heard to show respect for their position and guide them to move forward with the discussion.
  • Let them tell their negative story, and use it as a signpost to the positive. Ask them to consider what could have been different, what ought to have happened, and what they wish had happened. That way, you can turn the story around to something more constructive, and they feel ownership of that.

AI and strategy

AI recommends the use of the SOAR framework developed by Jackie Stavros, to look at:

Results (measurable)

It’s essential to let your imagination go and dream about what could be achieved to leave a proud legacy, and I have a number of exercises I use to do this. However, I personally recommend using the standard SWOT analysis as it is useful and practical to be aware of areas of weakness as well as your aspirations:


A SWOT analysis is a visual way of identifying these factors, which makes it easy to cross over, i.e. look at how you can apply your strengths to tackle weaknesses. This way you get the best of both worlds – building on your strengths whilst not ignoring any problem areas. You can use this analysis together with stakeholder input to create your vision statement and then develop a strategy that includes measurable results.

I hope you have found this article interesting and that it has given you some tips to use, particularly at this time of year as we look back over 2013 and forwards to 2014. How can you use an AI approach to take a fresh look at your organisation and build on your successes and strengths?

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information about Appreciative Inquiry.

The next two issues will focus on career management – December’s will be ‘How to manage your career’, and January’s will be ‘Comparing career management for women and men’.