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Is Appreciative Inquiry a Useful Workplace Tool?

Is Appreciative Inquiry a Useful Workplace Tool?

Appreciative Inquiry has now been around as a methodology for over 25 years, having first appeared publicly as a concept in 1987 in David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva’s article on the subject.

Like its linked predecessor Action learning (developed 25 years earlier by Dr Reg Revans in the UK), the Appreciative Inquiry (or AI for short) model (evolved originally at Case Western University in the US) is based on the assumption that the questions we ask are critical and if well-crafted and positively framed will tend to focus our attention in a particular direction. Cooperrider and Srivastva also argued  that most problem-solving processes (of which there are many) tended to exacerbate the problems they were attempting to solve, and a more generally positive or appreciative approach was therefore needed.

The Approach

The following table, which comes from the original Cooperrider and Srivastva paper helps to describe some of the distinctions between Appreciative Inquiry and the more traditional problem solving:

Problem Solving

Appreciative inquiry

Felt need, identification of problem(s) Appreciating, valuing the Best of What Is
Analysis of Causes Envisioning what might be
Analysis of possible solutions Engaging in dialogue about what should be
Action Planning (treatment) Innovating, what will be

The original AI approach called for a collective discovery process using the following four steps, when interviewing people who were faced with dealing with an issue, challenge or change in a given organization:

1) grounded observation to identify the best of what is
  • Example Question: During the recent merger between our two companies please describe the highpoints?
  • Possible Answer: One very helpful feature of the merger was getting lots of young and able software engineers.
2) vision and logic to identify ideals of what might be
  • Example Question: What is the value of newly recruited software engineers? 
  • Possible Answer: We can give these engineers a number of interesting projects that are important to the organization.
3) collaborative dialogue and choice to achieve consent about what should be
  • Example Question: When the software engineers function at their best what are they contributing most to further the organization?
  • Possible Answer: We have considerably more debate and discussion and a lot more ideas to consider at weekly development meetings.
4) collective experimentation to discover what can be
  • Example Question: Given the opportunity to run 2-3 short pilot projects what would they look like? 
  • Possible Answer: We have a number of well-defined and relatively short projects which we could make available to newer software engineers to contribute to with perhaps an experienced software engineer as a project mentor on each one.

The Four D Cycle

Within a few years this broad four-step approach had evolved into an iterative loop-type model such as the one below which stressed the need for continually positive questions in order to arrive at the best solutions.

Appreciative Inquiry Process

Although it is now used as a methodology on many organizational issues and challenges, the greatest use of the AI approach has been in the area of change management, where potential solutions will typically spring from whichever direction that people in the organization focus their attention. Hence, in change management, most of the attention should be focused on what could be (rather than what is wrong or not working). In other words, if most of the attention is focused on strengths, then identifying and building on those strengths is what will lead to the most optimal and long-lasting solutions.

So how useful is AI in today’s workplace?

Despite the fact that AI started in a hospital and medical industry environment, it has clearly now been used extensively in many different kinds of organizations. In process terms the inquiry part of the approach analyzes current data and then looks for themes that can bring possible forward actions into play. A group then starts to evolve dreams of “what could be” and “what will be.” Including what it will take to deliver or execute on any ideas put up. This approach is easily taken up in organizational life by both intact teams and by cross-functional teams looking to look at larger-scale process challenges. 


In summary then, the assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry are:

  1. In every organization, department or group, something works so let’s start by focusing on that.
  2. What we choose to focus on (and the language we use in doing so) becomes our current reality and will offer up new insights.
  3. There are multiple realities and it is worth considering several of them.
  4. The act of asking questions of individuals and teams will have an influence on both the questioner and the people questioned.
  5. Using the four step process advocated by AI helps to structure questions and answers received
  6. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  7. If we elect to carry parts of the past forward, they should be the most positive aspects of it.
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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