Appreciative Inquiry

Sep. 25, 2019 -- Posted by : jalen

The Quest for the Best

At its root, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a philosophy and a lens from which to view and engage the world.  It is the search for the best of what has been, what is, and what could be.  It can be applied in a wide variety of settings, from personal development and personal relationships efforts all the way to multi-day whole-organization change management summits.

Appreciative Inquiry is the search for the best of what has been, what is, and what could be.

AI was originally developed at Case Western Reserve University's department of organizational behavior, starting with a 1987 article by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. It was incubated largely in academic circles for some years, but began growing as a powerful force as an organizational development method since the turn of the millennium. The model is based on the assumption that the questions we ask will tend to focus our attention in a particular direction, and that organizations evolve in the direction of the questions they most persistently and passionately ask.

The Five Core Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

Constructionist Principle
Constructionist Principle: that what we believe to be true determines what we do, and thought and action emerge from relationships.
Simultaneity Principle
Simultaneity Principle: questions are never neutral, they are fateful, and social systems move in the direction of the questions they most persistently and passionately discuss.
Poetic Principle
Poetic Principle: organizational life is expressed in the stories people tell each other every day, and the story of the organization is constantly being co-authored.
Anticipatory Principle
Anticipatory Principle: what we do today is guided by our images of the future, therefore positive images create positive futures.
Positivity Principle
Positivity Principle: momentum and sustainable change requires positive emotion and social bonding. Sentiments like hope, excitement, inspiration, camaraderie and joy increase creativity, openness to new ideas and people, and cognitive flexibility.

Distinguishing Features

The following table contrasts an AI approach to a conventional approach to addressing change.

Problem Solving Appreciative Inquiry
1. "Felt Need," identification of Problem 1. Appreciating & Valuing the Best of "What Is"
2. Analysis of Causes 2. Envisioning "What Might Be"
3. Analysis & Possible Solutions 3. Dialoguing "What Should Be"
4. Action Planning (Treatment) 4. Innovating "What Will Be"
Basic Assumption: 
An Organization is a Problem to be Solved
Basic Assumption: 
An Organization is a Mystery to be Embraced

Questions are the seeds of perspective and outcome.  It's easy to see how the frame of a question determines the kind of answer that you get back. Take it step further and consider the impact of the type of questions you ask.  What happens when you ask questions that look for strengths and expand possibilities?

As another example to illustrate the difference between conventional and AI approaches, the following is contrast of strategic planning methods:

Conventional: SWOT/C Appreciative Inquiry: SOAR
Strengths Strengths: What can we build on?
Weaknesses Opportunities: What are our best possible future opportunities?
Opportunities Aspirations: What do We Care Deeply About?
Threats/Challenges Results: How will we know we are succeeding?

Main Differences

While SWOT analysis takes a look at where a company is, SOAR strives to be forward-thinking to address the potential of the business. By eliminating weaknesses and threats, SOAR focuses on positive elements more likely to be influenced by the company. This can be a refreshing change, as SWOT requires a company to dwell on competing forces negatively impacting business. Therefore, SOAR focuses on possibilities, while SWOT is driven by competition. In addition, SOAR incorporates a level of accountability by addressing the metrics in which results will be identified and tracked. SOAR is also easier to integrate throughout an organization. SWOT is considered a top-down management tool that is only developed by a few individuals of the company.

Criticism: We can’t ignore the problems and threats!

AI doesn’t advocate ignoring challenges, problems and threats.  It just doesn’t focus on and organize effort around them. Much of the criticism towards appreciative inquiry relates to a disbelief in using a positive frame of reference instead of a problem-solving focus. It is often framed as being a Pollyanna, where the AI proponent is accused of wearing rose colored glasses and only seeing the good, the pleasant, the positive things in life to the exception of the real business at hand.

The Major Selling Features

AI methods are effective opportunities to enliven and engage the entire organization in envisioning and enacting optimal outcomes.  Staff buy-in tends to be high because they contributed to the solution.  Furthermore, AI processes inherently target excellence which leap-frog problem remedy approaches.

The Benefits of Aiming Higher

Benefit of Aiming Higher

For more detailed information on the topic, a good place to start is here.


Stevenson, Herb, Appreciative Inquiry: Tapping into the River of Positive Possibilities
Stavros, Jacqueline M, Cooperrider, D L, & Kelley, D Lynn. (2003). Strategic inquiry appreciative intent: inspiration to SOAR, a new framework for strategic planning. AI Practitioner. November, 10-17.
Stavros, Jacqueline M, & Hinrichs, Gina. (2011). The Thin Book Of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.


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