What is appreciative inquiry_ Theresa Renando

What is appreciative inquiry?

A lot of people ask me what appreciative inquiry (AI) is all about, so I thought I’d share what AI is in a nutshell. 


Whitney & Trosten-Bloom_AI Table2


AI takes a social constructionist approach to organisational change (see Table above).[2] Many people and organisations take a problem-solving approach to change and endeavour to understand and analyse a “problem” and then decide on changes required to bring about a “solution.” AI pragmatically views the results of an inquiry as a starting point, rather than an end destination. [3]

The AI constructivist view believes that the inquiry itself—that is the questions asked—brings about change, even if said change is only seen in seemingly simple reactions such as heightened awareness of the subject, a conversation, or an emotional reaction. Accordingly, the inquiry and change occur at the same time. This impacts the way the AI practitioner uses questions. Rather than asking if the questions are appropriate, one is better served by asking whether the questions asked are impacting the participants, and if they are generating dialogue about the good, along with ideas for the future, thus strengthening the “organisation’s” relationships.[4]

Seventy to eighty percent of change initiatives fail.[5] AI is generally not one of them. Instead, AI is respected and known for generating transformational change. The reason for its success lies in its ability to motivate participants to such an extent that long-lasting and far-reaching change occurs, not from a sense of dissatisfaction, but from a genuine heart-felt desire to attain an inspired vision.[6]


Golembiewski_AI definition

Figure 1 [7]


The beauty of AI is that it is life-affirming; participants are encouraged to see themselves as subjects of a system or organisation they can actively transform. AI is a radically positive approach to change that searches for the best in all things and generates positive (and often powerful and innovative) movement forward which is what I love about it.

AI’s form of questioning holds profound implications for changes in social practice. Rather than seeking ways to “get” less of the negative, AI seeks to celebrate the positive (see Figure 1). Cooperrider and Whitney state that problem solving approaches are exceedingly slow, do not generally result in new vision, and frequently cause defensiveness.[8] In fact negative open-ended questions frequently result in “nothing” or “don’t know” responses in questionnaires and surveys.[9] AI is a radically positive approach to change that presupposes that every person and community has a plethora of positive accounts: a positive core. Once this core is tapped and becomes the explicit property of all, it liberates the human spirit to consciously create a positive future that was once considered impossible. It does this by valuing the best about “x,” envisioning what might be, and dialoguing what could be. Thus the strength of AI is its generative ability to articulate tomorrow’s possibilities and to form new conceptions.[10]


Appreciative Inquiry Model_problem solving

Figure 2[11]


“AI is based on the premise that the art of inquiry moves in the direction of evoking positive images that lead to positive actions.”[12] Accordingly, all questions are powerful and begin with a positive preface (see-Figure 2).


Appreciative Inquiry Model_ general questions

Figure 3[13]


The “Discovery” questions inquire into narratives with life-giving forces: they identify the “positive core.” They are fateful as they largely determine the direction forward. The “Dream” phase amplifies the “positive core.” It challenges the status quo and creates excitement and unity. The “Design” questions encourage provocative propositions thus creating shared images of a preferred future. The “Destiny” phase looks to the preferred future as conversations continue with what is going right (see Figure 3).[14]


Appreciative Inquiry Model_ general

Figure 4[15]


The result? The world is made a better place one person, one team, one community, one organisation at a time.






[1] The Eight Principles of Appreciative Inquiry. Adapted by author (Source: D. Whitney and A. Trosten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change (Rev. and exp. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010), 52).

[2] J. Watkins et al., Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2011), 72-73.

[3] S. Michael, “The promise of Appreciative Inquiry as an interview tool for field research,” Development in Practice 15, no.2 (2005): 223.

[4] M. Gergen and K. Gergen, eds., Social Construction: A Reader (London: Sage Publications, 2003), 177.

[5] M. Faure, “Problem solving was never this easy: Transformational change through appreciative inquiry,” Performance Improvement 45, no. 9 (2006): 22; Melina, Lois R., et al., eds., The Embodiment of Leadership: A Volume in the International Leadership Series, Building Leadership Bridges (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 193. This statistic is often referenced to Kotter, though it is backed-up by more recent research. Cf. J. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston, Ma.: Harvard Business School Press, 1996); S. Keller, and C. Aiken, “The inconvenient truth about change management,” McKinsey Quarterly (2009): 1-18.

[6] Faure, “Problem solving was never this easy,” 22.

[7] Definitions. Adapted by author (Source: R. Golembiewski, ed., Handbook of Organizational Behavior (2d ed. Rev. and exp.; New York: CRC Press, 2000), 612).

[8] D. Cooperrider and D. Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005), 8-12, 50.

[9] I. Brace, Questionnaire Design: How to Plan, Structure and Write Survey Material for Effective Market Research (2d ed.; London: Kogan Page Limited, 2008), 53.

[10] Cooperrider and Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry, 8-12, 50. Cf. Michael, “The promise of Appreciative Inquiry,” 222-230; G. Bushe, “Appreciative inquiry is not (just) about the positive.” OD practitioner 39, no.4 (2007): 30-35.

[11] Problem Solving Versus AI. Adapted by author (Source: Cooperrider and Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry, 13).

[12] D. Cooperrider et al., Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change (2d ed.; San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), 106.

[13] The Power of Questions. Adapted by author (Source: Appreciative Inquiry: Asking Powerful Questions, n.p. 2005 [Cited 15 October 2012]. Online: www.kcsdv.org/toolkit/AppreciativeInquiry.pdf).

[14] Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 106-222.

[15] Appreciative Inquiry Model. Adapted by author (Source: Cooperrider et al., Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 129).

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