Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to change management that emphasizes engaging all stakeholders in dialogue, collaboration, and positive questioning. Opposed to traditional change management approaches focus on what is wrong and problems to be solved, which often leads to fear, blame, and even hopelessness. It’s renowned for building energy and innovation by channelling an organization’s strengths, assets, and strategic opportunities. Throughout this article you’ll learn when, where and how to apply it.
What is appreciative inquiry?
AI examines what gives life to the organization when it’s most effective and capable. AI captures an organization’s positive core — its greatest strengths, assets, resources, and opportunities. Then, it leverages it to grow collective knowledge, increase engagement, and achieve optimal performance.
Where to apply it?
AI can be applied in any size group or organization. The process should include everyone who is interested in, has an influence on, has information about, or is impacted by the change. Everyone is encouraged to speak and treated as equals. AI can also be used as a model for individual change, allowing people to examine their strengths and focus (or refocus) their energies towards their positive qualities and growth.
How does it work?
AI uses a 5D model: Define, Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny. This phased approach gathers information and provides a framework to inform the change process. Facilitators use open-ended questions which unearth and enhance the positive core of an organization.
Phase 1: Define
What is the topic at hand? The definition phase identifies a positive area of focus that guides the learning, knowledge sharing and action. In this phase, it’s useful to begin by turning the issue or challenge into a positive, affirmative statement (i.e. what the organization hopes to embody.)
Phase 2: Discover
What is currently working well? The discovery phase aims to search for and highlight the positive core relating to the area of focus. Participants tell stories of when the organization is at its best and analyze what strengths, best practices, and resources make them possible.
Phase 3: Dream
What could be next? The dream phase identifies clear and meaningful visions of the future inspired by the positive core. Participants share their hopes and aspirations and paint a compelling picture of what the organization could become. Questions may include: What is the world calling us to become? What does an ideal future look like? How is the organization different? How is it the same?
Phase 4: Design
How can we make this dream a reality? The design phase builds upon the dream by articulating values, norms, systems, and structures that must be in place for the dream to become a reality. This phase develops a list of statements that illustrate what the organization would look like if it were designed to amplify the positive core and accelerate the realization of their dreams.
Phase 5: Destiny
What does success look like? The destiny phase establishes how to deploy and deliver what was designed. It outlines specific, measurable goals and encourages the organization to use positive questioning to empower learning and make adjustments through the change process.
How-to Ask Appreciative Inquiry Questions
Language is key. AI goes beyond spinning something positively. For example, if an organization has been experiencing issues with employee engagement, a traditional consultant may ask: “Why are employees disengaged?” A positive spin would reframe it to: “How do we improve employee engagement?” Though this is more positive, it is still deficit-focused. Instead, an AI consultant would ask questions such as: “Where are employees most engaged? How has the organization benefited in these cases of high engagement? How did the organization achieve those moments of positive energy?”
What are the core principles?
There are five core principles that underpin the AI process.
1. Constructionist Principle
Words create worlds. Individuals jointly construct understandings of the world through language and conversations, which enables shared realities and organizational cultures. Positive language and conversations, therefore, create positive realities.
2. Positive Principle
Positive questions lead to positive change. Change requires engagement and group cohesion in order to succeed. Inquiring into and amplifying the positive core enables positive affect, strong relationships, and increased motivation. On the other hand, negative conversations fray relationships and instigate fear, blame and withdrawal.
3. Simultaneity Principle
Inquiry creates change. The moment a question is asked, change begins. The inquiry is an intervention into what and how people think, feel, connect, and interact with change. In other words, the questions we ask determine in large part what we find and the basis for future action.
4. Poetic Principle
We can choose what we study. There are limitless sources of learning, and therefore we should choose what we focus on wisely. By choosing to focus on the positive, we can create new realities that strengthen the positive core.
5. Anticipatory Principle
Images inspire action. Individuals move in the direction of what they imagine the future will look like. By establishing a clear, positive picture of the future, an organization can collectively refashion what stakeholders expect. The more positive and hopeful the image, the more positive the present-day action.
Who uses it?
AI has been applied in a variety of settings from Fortune 500 companies to micro-enterprises, governments, community development initiatives, universities, and much more. AI founders David Cooperrider and Whitney Diana have worked with the U.S. Navy, VISA, Apple, Verizon, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the United Nations, and even the Nepalese federal government. Find a long list of case studies here.
The AI approach has four key characteristics throughout each phase process:
- Appreciative: Looking for the ‘positive core’ of the organization to use as a foundation for future growth.
- Applicable: Grounded in real stories, which helps interventions be practical and easy to implement.
- Provocative: Inspires stakeholders to risk imagining a bold ideal future.
- Collaborative: Involves the whole organization, or an appropriately representative cross-section so that all voices are heard and valued. All data is made public to extend the collective knowledge and energy throughout the organization.
To learn more, check out:
- AI Commons, www.appreciativeinquiry.champlain.edu
- David Cooperider and Associates, www.davidcooperrider.com
- Centre for Appreciative Inquiry, www.centerforappreciativeinquiry.net
- Corporation for Positive Change, www.positivechange.org
- International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry, www.aipractitioner.com
And for nerds like me…
- Busche, G.R. (2013). The Appreciative Inquiry Model. In E. H. Kessley, (ed.) Encyclopedia of Management Theory (Volume 1, p 41-44), Sage Publications, 2013.
- Cooperrider, D. L. (2013). Organizational generativity: The appreciative inquiry summit and a scholarship of transformation (First ed.). Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald.
- Cooperrider, D. & Mcquaid, M. (2012). The Positive Arc of Systemic Strengths: How Appreciative Inquiry and Sustainable Designing Can Bring Out the Best in Human Systems. Journal of Corporate Citizenship. 2012. 10.9774/GLEAF.4700.2012.su.00006.
- Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. K. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
- Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change. Brunswick: Crown Custom Publications.
- Ludema, J., Cooperrider, D., & Barrett, F. (2003). Appreciative Inquiry: The Power of the Unconditional Positive Question. Retrieved from http://2012waic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Ludema-Cooperrider-Barrett-goed.pdf
- Seel, Richard (2008). Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry. New Paradigm Consulting. Retrieved from http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/Practice.htm
- Stavros, J. M., & Torres, C. B. (2018). Conversations worth having: Using appreciative inquiry to fuel productive and meaningful engagement. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.