What’s Working? Appreciative Inquiry: another way to the solutions we seek!

“When you are looking for obstacles, you can’t find opportunities.” – J. C. Bell

Ap-pre’ci-ate: v. 1. valuing; the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems. 2. to increase in value, e.g., the economy has appreciated in value. Synonyms: VALUING, PRIZING, ESTEEMING, and HONORING.

In-quire’ (kwir), v. 1. the act of exploration and discovery. 2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. Synonyms: DISCOVERY, SEARCH, and SYSTEMATIC EXPLORATION, STUDY

Appreciative Inquiry is a way of looking at the world, and a methodology for working with organizations. As its name suggests, it is based on discovering the best of what works through structured questioning. Appreciative Inquiry recognizes that people are highly motivated by their own stories and images of success. The AI methodology is widely applicable to diverse organizations and situations, yet each inquiry becomes unique because it grows from the experiences of people in that organization.

The theory of appreciative inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in a paper they published in 1986: Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life (Research in Organizational Change and Development, 1987, Vol.1, pages 129-169).

The approach is based on the premise that ‘organisations change in the direction in which they inquire.’ So an organisation which inquires into problems will keep finding problems but an organisation which attempts to appreciate what is best in itself will discover more and more that is good. It can then use these discoveries to build a new future where the best becomes more common. In the words of its primary originator, Dr. David L. Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University, AI asks us to pay special attention to “the best of the past and present” — in order to “ignite the collective imagination of what might be.”

Cooperrider and Srivastva contrast the commonplace notion that, “organizing is a problem to be solved” with the appreciative proposition that, “organizing is a miracle to be embraced”. Inquiry into organizational life, they say, should have four characteristics. It should be:

  • Appreciative
  • Applicable
  • Provocative
  • Collaborative

*For details on these four characteristics, see “Key Points” of Cooperrider’s article Appreciative Inquiry into Organizational Life on page 6.

The Appreciative Inquiry approach is often worked out in practice by using the ‘5-D’ model:

  • Definitionselecting the topic(s) around which the inquiry will be framed. This may be the most important decision within the process.
  • Discoverpeople talk to one another, often via structured interviews, to discover the times when the organisation is at its best. These stories are told as richly as possible.
  • Dream—the dream phase is often run as a large group conference where people are encouraged to envision the organisation as if the peak moments discovered in the ‘discover’ phase were the norm rather than exceptional.
  • Designa small team is empowered to go away and design ways of creating the organisation dreamed in the conference(s).
  • Deliverthe final phase is to implement the changes. Almost all change processes are predicated on some form of inquiry – some attempt to study the social system before or during the process of trying to change it.  But the form of inquiry they use is “positivism” – a kind of inquiry that treats social reality as if it had objective properties.  As if we could discover the right levers to pull and buttons to push to create the outcomes we seek.

Said another way, most change processes are based on problem-solving processes.  We start by asking “what’s the problem?” When we do that, we focus energy on what we want less of and work to “fix” things.  Appreciative Inquiry is based on a different set of assumptions. 

Here are some of them:

  1. You create more effective organizations by focusing on what you want more of, not what you want less of.
  2. Whatever you want more of already exists, even if only in small quantities
  3. It’s easier to create change by amplifying the positive qualities of a group or organization than by trying to fix the negative qualities
  4. Through the act of inquiry we create the social realities we are trying to understand
  5. Getting people to inquire together into the best examples of what they want more of creates it’s own momentum toward creating more positive organizations

AI is based on a deceptively simple premise: again, that organizations grow in the direction of what they repeatedly ask questions about and focus their attention on.  AI does not focus on changing people. Instead, it invites people to engage in building the kinds of organizations they want to live in. That’s hard to resist.

We have reached “the end of problem solving” as a mode of inquiry capable of inspiring, mobilizing and sustaining human system change, and the future of organization development belongs to methods that affirm, compel and accelerate anticipatory learning involving larger and larger levels of collectivity. – David Cooperrider

Key Principles

Inquiry and intervention into “the art of possibility” in organizational life should begin with appreciation in seeking the “best of what is.” This allows for discovery of living-giving forces that lend distinctivie competence and vitality to any system. It also sustains momentum for change by unleashing positive affect in organizations, thereby enhancing resilience.

The Constructionist Principle::

Organizations are artifacts of human imagination and aspiration. There is nothing fixed or immutable about them – they are being co-created in each moment by all of their members and stakeholders. One can only “know” an organization’s reality by focusing on the relationships within and the power of language and discourse to create shared reality. Ultimately, one can only change organizations by intervening in processes of meaning making which inform their social construction of reality.

The Collaborative Principle:

The process of AI should enable participants to assume their rightful place as co-creators of the organization rather than recipients of the system-as-given. By involving participants in a process of co-inquiry, they establish new and different relationships and ultimately change their shared reality.

The Provocative Principle:

AI should provoke inquiry into how the organization can become more than it is at any moment and how the organization can learn to actively take part in guiding its own evolution. AI unleashes processes of wonder, curiosity, motivation, hope and optimism. It enhances generative capacity to “… challenge guiding assumptions of the culture, to raise fundamental questions regarding contemporary social life, to foster reconsideration of the which is ‘taken for granted’ and thereby to furnish new alternatives for social actions (Gergen 1987, p. 1346; as quoted in Cooperrider, 1990)

The Heliostropic Principle:

Images of the future guide the behavior of any organism or organization. “Much like a movie projector on a screen, human systems are forever projecting ahead of themselves a horizon of expectation … that brings the future powerfully into the present as a mobilizing agent” (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000, p. 19). AI seeks to help human systems refashion their aniticipatory reality.

The Simultaneity Principle:

Inquiry and change are not separate, but rather simultaneous events. Deciding which questions to ask is one of the most important decisions a change agent can make. The questions themselves direct attention and influence what it will be possible to “discover”. Choosing questions is not about what is wrong or right, but rather the impact the questions have on conversations and relationships in the systems – and the capacity of the system to guide its own evolution in the direction of the good, the better, and the possible (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2000, p. 18)

Appreciative Inquiry has been effectively applied in the following ways:

  • Building common vision where one is currently lacking
  • Creating openness and rapport between people and groups who don’t trust each other
  • Developing new approaches to human resource issues that will be well accepted by organizational members and lead to positive change
  • Creating a positive work climate where a negative one previously prevailed
  • Discovering, understanding and amplifying the positive forces already existing in organizations
  • Accelerating the development of new teams
  • An alternative to conventional team building processes for existing teams
  • Community development in various ways

Seeing strength and potential

Appreciative inquiry is about seeing what others may not see. It’s about heightening our awareness of the value, strength, and potential of ourselves and others — and overcoming the limits that we impose, often unconsciously, on our own capacities.

One example of great historical significance is the way that Winston Churchill appealed to the beleaguered British people in the darkest days of the Second World War.

Most of us have had glimpses of these possibilities. And yet, the pervasive “background music” of our culture seems to draw us all into a chorus of hopelessness, irony and negativity.

Churchill and many others have demonstrated that we can find signs of life and hope, if only we decide to look for them — and that what we choose to pay attention to has everything to do with how we see ourselves, how we envision the future, and how the future actually turns out.

Appreciative Inquiry and Executive Leadership

The concerns of executives about the selection of an approach to organizational transformation are often of a different order than the concerns of practitioner managers. A team lead by Dave Cooperrider, of Weatherhead School of Management, led an extended intervention at GTE Telecommunications, beginning in 1995. Within two years, representatives from GTE were accepting an award for Culture Change from the American Society for Training and Development. President Tom White had this to say about Appreciative Inquiry:

AI gets much better results than seeking out and solving problems. We concentrate enormous resources on correcting problems…[but] when used continually over a long time, this approach leads to a negative culture…[or to] a slip into a paralyzing sense of hopelessness …Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating mindless happy talk. AI is a complex science designed to make things better. We can’t ignore problems–we just need to approach them from the other side.

Appreciative Inquiry Articles:

Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing David L. Cooperrider , Case Western Reserve University.

Full Article:

Key Points

  1. The artful creation of a positive, shared image of the future may well be the most prolific activity that individuals and organizations can engage in if their aim is to help bring to fruition a significant future.
  2. Organizations (and people and societies) are largely heliotropic in character — they exhibit a largely automatic tendency to evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future.
  3. Imagery: Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein
  4. Relationship between positive image and positive action: Positive imagery — the placebo effect in medicine. Positive images lead to positive actions.
  5. The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures.
  6. Nearly everything society has considered a social advance (women’s suffrage, full employment, universal education) has been prefigured first in some utopian writing.
  7. We can create our own future-determining imagery (golf, bowling).
  8. Implications for societies and organizations: Societies and organizations need less fixing, less problem solving and more positive images born of appreciation.
  9. The appreciative eye — as Churchill had — apprehends “what is” rather than “what is not.”
  10. Appreciation not only draws our eye toward life, but stirs our feelings, excites our curiosity, and provides inspiration to the envisioning mind.
  11. Our objective is to nourish the appreciative soil. Creating the conditions for appreciation — in and around the organization — is the single most important act that an organization can engage in if its real aim is to bring to fruition a new and better future.
    (Adapted by Jim Lord)

Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life, David L. Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva

Full Article:

Principle 1: Research into the social (innovation) potential of organizational life should begin with appreciation. This basic principle assumes that every social system “works” to some degree-that it is not in a complete state of entropy-and that a primary task of research is to discover, describe, and explain those social innovations, however small, which serve to give “life” to the system and activate members’ competencies and energies as more fully functioning participants in the formation and transformation of organizational realities. That is, the appreciative approach takes its inspiration from the current state of “what is” and seeks a comprehensive understanding of the factors and forces of organizing (ideological, techno-structural, cultural) that serve to heighten the total potential of an organization in ideal-type human and social terms.

 Principle 2: Research into the social potential of organizational life should be applicable. To be significant in a human sense, an applied science of administration should lead to the generation of theoretical knowledge that can be used, applied, and thereby validated in action. Thus, an applicable inquiry process is neither utopian in the sense of generating knowledge about “no place” (Sargent, 1982) nor should it be confined to academic circles and presented in ways that have little relevance to the everyday language and symbolism of those for whom the findings might be applicable.

 Principle 3: Research into the social potential of organizational life should be provocative. Here it is considered axiomatic that an organization is, in fact, an open-ended indeterminate system capable of (1) becoming more than it is at any given moment, and (2) learning how to actively take part in guiding its own evolution. Hence, appreciative knowledge of what is (in terms of “peak” social innovations in organizing) is suggestive of what might be and such knowledge can be used to generate images of realistic developmental opportunities that can be experimented with on a wider scale. In this sense, appreciative inquiry can be both pragmatic and visionary. It becomes provocative to the extent that the abstracted findings of a study take on normative value for members of an organization, and this can happen only through their own critical deliberation and choice (“We feel that this particular finding is [or not] important for us to envision as an ideal to be striving for in practice on a wider scale”). It is in this way then, that appreciative inquiry allows us to put intuitive, visionary logic on a firm empirical footing and to use systematic research to help the organization’s members shape the social world according to their own imaginative and moral purposes.

 Principle 4. Research into the social potential of organizational life should be collaborative. This overarching principle points to the assumed existence of an inseparable relationship between the process of inquiry and its content. A collaborative relationship between the researcher and members of an organization is, therefore, deemed essential on the basis of both epistemological (Susman & Evered, 1978) and practical/ethical grounds (Habermas, 1971; Argyris, 1970). Simply put, a unilateral approach to the study of social innovation (bringing something new into the social world) is a direct negation of the phenomenon itself. The spirit behind each of these four principles of appreciative inquiry is to be found in one of the most ancient archetypes or metaphorical symbols of hope and inspiration that humankind has ever known-the miracle and mystery of being.

Additional Appreciative Inquiry Articles

This section features a handful of the classic and most provocative articles on AI.

Barrett, F. J., Cooperrider, D. L. (2001). Generative Metaphor Intervention: A New Approach for Working with Systems Divided by Conflict and Caught in Defensive Perception. Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (First Edition ed.).

Bushe, G. (1999). Five theories of change embedded in appreciative inquiry. In Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change.

Bushe, G. R. (1998). Appreciative inquiry with teams. Organization Development Journal Vol. 16. 41-50

Bushe, G. R. (1995). Advances in appreciative inquiry as an organization development intervention. Organization Development Journal Vol. 13. 14-22

Cooperrider, D., Srivastva, S. (2000). Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life. Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change.

Cooperrider, D. L. (2000). Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing. Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization Toward a Positive Theory of Change. 29 – 53

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D. (1999). Collaborating for Change: Appreciative Inquiry. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Cooperrider, D. L. (1996). Resources for getting appreciative inquiry started: An example OD proposal. Organization Development Practitioner Vol. 28. 23-33

Cooperrider, D. L. (1996). The Child as Agent of Inquiry. Organizational Development Practitioner Vol. 28. 5-11

Cooperrider, D. L., Barrett, F., Srivastva, S. (1995). Social Construction and Appreciative Inquiry: A Journey in Organizational Theory. Ashgate Publishing: In- Management and Organization: Relational Alternatives to Individualism.

Gergen, K., Anderson, H., Hoffman, L. (1996). Is Diagnosis a Disaster?: A Constructionist Trialogue. Chapter draft for F. Kaslow (Ed.) Relational Diagnosis, Wiley, 1996.

Hammond, S. (1996). The thin book of appreciative inquiry. Thin Book Publishing.

Ludema, J. (2001). From Deficit Discourse to Vocabularies of Hope: The Power of Appreciation. Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development (First ed.).

Watkins, J. M., Cooperrider, D. L. (2000). Appreciative inquiry: A transformative paradigm. Journal of the Organization Development Network Vol. 32. 6-12

Whitney, D., Cooperrider, D. L. (2000). The appreciative inquiry summit: An emerging methodology for whole system positive change. Journal of the Organization Development Network Vol. 32. 13-26



About the Author

Susanne Biro is a coach to C-suite and executive level leaders. She is the founder of Inner Life Leadership, an app for business professionals who want to reach an unprecedented level of personal understanding and corresponding leadership (and life) success. Susanne is an author, executive development program designer, facilitator, Forbes & CEO Magazine contributing writer, and a TEDx and keynote speaker.

For over two decades, Susanne has worked internationally with senior-level leaders in some of the world’s best companies. Whether coaching one-on-one or authoring, designing, and delivering leadership programs, her passion is the same: to help leaders reach their next level.

Susanne can be reached at 604.864.5408 or via email at



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