Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an approach to organizational management that emphasizes working from strengths to find new directions for growth rather than focusing on weaknesses or issues to be solved. If this sounds a bit off the beaten path, it is only a matter of being unfamiliar with the name—elements of appreciative inquiry can be seen throughout the business world. In this article, we’ll look at what appreciative inquiry is and how it works.

The Origins of Appreciative Inquiry

The origins of appreciative inquiry go back to a 1987 paper entitled, “Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life,” by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, but it is more strongly associated with Cooperrider. Appreciative inquiry was created to provide an alternative to the problem solving approach to management. Cooperrider saw the problem solving approach as limiting and inherently biased towards the negative from the outset.

Problem solving focuses an organization on what is wrong and how to fix it. Appreciative inquiry starts by looking at what is working well and expands to what possibilities there are for doing something greater in the future. For example, appreciative inquiry was behind Walmart’s sustainability drive and the creation of the sustainability index for measuring progress toward the goal of using 100% renewable energy and having zero waste throughout the lifecycle of all its products. That’s a surprising goal for a business that depends on volume and tight margins, and it probably wouldn't have come out of a traditional strategy session.

The Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry begins with five basic principles meant to guide an organization through the process. The original five principles are:

  • The constructionist principle: Reality within an organization is subjective and it is formed through language and interactions of the people within.
  • The principle of simultaneity: As questions are asked and interest grows, change has already begun.
  • The poetic principle: The character of an organization is created and influenced by the stories people tell each other about it.
  • The anticipatory principle: Organizations and people work toward their images of the future. By extension, a positive future image for an organization will have a positive influence in the present.
  • The positive principle: True change requires working from positives to tap the collective creativity of the group.

Some additional principle have been added as best practices evolved around the process. They include:

  • The wholeness principle: The more stakeholders you pull together, the more value there will be in the AI process. For example, suppliers and end users can provide insights people within an organization won’t have.
  • The enactment principle: Acting as if you are in your ideal organization will help to bring about that change. This goes back to the poetic and constructionist principles, with organizations being a construction of the people within and their interactions.
  • The free choice principle: People always are more committed, passionate and effective when they choose to participate rather than being forced. This means a bit of self-organizing as people decide how to contribute to the new vision.
  • The awareness principle: We always need to be aware of the assumptions we are bringing to the table. Underlying and unchallenged assumptions can thwart collaboration.

The overlap and wording of the principles can be a hurdle as they tend to be less concrete than other management methods. In a more literal sense, the principles are saying:

  • What people say to each other about your company matters a lot.
  • Creating a future vision for the type of company you want to have will prompt you and your employees to work toward that vision today.
  • Questioning why you are doing what you do rather than just focusing on how to get better at doing what you do will prompt innovation and new ideas.
  • Focusing on the positive helps to bring people together in a mood of collaboration rather than in a defensive state.
  • Having more people involved means more creative minds and collective intelligence to draw on.
  • Don’t let assumptions and preconceived notions keep you from giving a new idea a chance.

The Process of Appreciative Inquiry

To carry out AI, a group of stakeholders will get together and choose an “affirmative topic.” The topic is something the organization is doing well that is critical to future success. For example, a grocery store might focus on the range of local products on the shelf or the quality of customer service.

Following the AI principles, the process is broken down into four phases, also known as the 4D model. These are:

  • Discovery: In the discovery phase, participants share positive stories about the topic. These include their experiences within the organizations as an employee as well as those with other organizations as a customer or client.
  • Dream: In this phase, the participants are encouraged to imagine the ideal organization to realize the affirmative topic.
  • Design: The participants discuss what can be done to realize the collective dream put forward in the dream phase and create change proposals or designs to bring about that dream.
  • Destiny: Participants decide what and how they will contribute to the dream and proposed designs. This phase is sometimes called delivery, but Cooperrider is not a fan of that term because it is too close to traditional, outcome-focused management strategies.

The Bottom Line

Pure appreciative inquiry is in use at many organizations all over the world. In addition to being used by non-profit and for-profit organizations of every size, AI has also been scaled up to municipal and national levels. When successfully applied, AI has been credited with increasing employee satisfaction, improving efficiency, driving sales and so on. More tellingly, however, elements of appreciative inquiry have made their way into the traditional management styles they were designed as an alternative to. For example, almost every company has a company vision that would fit comfortably under the anticipatory principle and many problem-solving strategies depend heavily on “out-of-the-box” group brainstorming. In its purest form, however, AI is a powerful tool for shifting the focus of an organization to something much greater than its bottom line, although the eventual outcome will often help the bottom line as well. 

(To learn about other decision-making methods and theories, see: Rational Choice Theory, The Basics of Game Theory.)