How to promote positive change in teams and organizations with Appreciative Inquiry

I am a big fan of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as an approach to introduce change in organizations, teams, communities and workshops and also for personal and leadership development.

I like it because it proposes a shift from problem solving to identifying and building on existing strengths.

The basic tenet of AI is that  a team or an organization will grow in whichever direction that people in the organization focus their attention.

If all the attention is focused on problems, then identifying problems and dealing with them is what the organization will do best. If all the attention is focused on strengths, however, then identifying strengths and building on those strengths is what the organization will do best.

The model has been applied to many different kind of organizations:

  • profit sector:  (e.g., Avon, British Airways, Cap Gemini, Coca Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, Lafarge, McDonald’s, Nasa, Nokia, Pfizer); and the
  • non-profit  sector (eg. United Nations, World Vision,  USAID)

As a  change management approach it is suitable for a wide range of transformation processes, including quality management, vision/mission/value creation, improvement of collaboration, etc. It is the starting point and basic philosophy of my Lab for Change methodology. 

It can also be used with communities in development projects, where local people can use their understanding of “the best of what is” to construct a vision of what their community might be if they identify their strengths, then improve or intensify them. They achieve this goal by creating provocative propositions that challenge them to move ahead by understanding and building on their current achievements.  I have already written about the case of IISD and Myriada, have used this approach to work with rural communities in India.

There are four steps to the appreciative approach:

Discover – Appreciating and valuing the best of What Is. Information and stories are gathered about what is working well.

Dream – Envisioning What Might Be. How do we want things to be for the future?

Design – Determining What Should Be. How can we move from where we are now to this vision of the future that we have created? How can we put the ideas into practice? Who will be involved?

Deliver (or Destiny) – Innovating What Will Be. In this phase, practical strategies or projects are put into practice and space created for ideas to flow and develop. There is an emphasis on empowering and encouraging people to take action and carry forward their own ideas.

The four stages are very well explained in this video:

Why it works: the main principles

Practitioners of appreciative inquiry believe this approach is true to human nature because it integrates different ways of knowing. Appreciative inquiry allows room for emotional response as well as intellectual analysis, room for imagination as well as rational thought. A successful athlete intuitively uses the appreciative approach when he visualizes breaking a record in his mind to help him break the record in reality. A successful leader intuitively uses it when she paints a picture the community’s potential to inspire people to achieve it.

The following principles help explain the power behind the appreciative approach:

  • Constructionist principle (Words create worlds): Reality as we know it is a subjective vs. objective state. It is socially created through language and conversations.
  • Simultaneity prin­ciple. (Inquiry creates change): Inquiry is inter­vention. The moment we ask a question, we begin to create change.
  • Poetic principle. (We can choose what we study): Orga­ni­za­tions, like open books, are endless sources of study and learning.What we choose to study makes a difference. It describes — even creates — the world as we know it.
  • Anticipatory principle. (Image inspires action): Human systems move in the direction of their images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the present-day action.
  • Positive principle. (Positive ques­tions lead to positive change): Momentum for large-scale change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding. This momentum is best generated through positive ques­tions that amplify the positive core.

So what does this look like in practice?

The full process typically includes:

  • Select a focus area or topic(s) of interest.
    This is often (though not always) done by a core group of people volunteering or selected to drive the Appreciative Inquiry process.
  • Conduct interviews designed to discover strengths, passions and unique attributes.
    Typically stakeholders and participants interview one another. This is a much more powerful catalyst for positive change than having an “outsider” conduct the interviews.
  • Identify patterns, themes and/or intriguing possibilities.
    Most often this takes place at a large group or community meeting – frequently called a summit. Ideally all stakeholders are brought together so all voices are in the same room. This maximises the impact of summit conversations.
  • Create bold statements of ideal possibilities.
    These are often called Provocative Propositions and are designed to stretch the imagination into the desired future. This step goes beyond traditional goal-setting approaches. It actively and intentionally encourages innovation and appropriate risk taking. This is what it means to make bold statements of ideal possibilities.
  • Co-determine what should be, reach consensus on principles and priorities and plan practical action steps.
    This is about translating into practical action the positive stories gathered through the interview process, along with the dreams and hopes of participants expressed in the provocative propositions. This step also deals with the practicalities – the nuts and bolts of what we will do to make things even better. What do we have the energy and commitment to do right here and now, to move towards the future we want?
  • Take/sustain action.
    Not only is it important to implement agreed actions, but to incorporate time and opportunity for reflection, evaluation and celebration. Sharing what has changed, what is going better and/or what more we could do to reach our desired future – all these things help us to sustain the energy for positive change. This step becomes part of the continuous improvement cycle that is Appreciative Inquiry.

AI is a term coined by David Cooperrider and Shuresh Srivastva (1987). In the video below, you can listen to an interview with Professor David Cooperrider  where he  talks about Appreciative Inquiry and the power of strength-based leadership.

appreciative inquiryIf you want to know more about this approach, check out the book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change from David Cooperrider.

Have you used or are you using Appreciative Inquiry?

What is your experience with it?

Your ideas, tips or comments are more than welcome and if you think this post can be useful for others don’t hesitate to share it.


1 Gergen, Kenneth. Real­ities and Rela­tion­ships. Harvard University Press, 1995.

2 Bushe, G. and Coetzer, G. “Appre­ciative Inquiry As a Team-Development Inter­vention: A Controlled Exper­iment,” Vol. 31, Journal Of Applied Behav­ioral Science,March, 1995, pp. 13.