What Is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a positive approach to leadership development and organizational change. The method is used to boost innovation among organizations. A company might apply appreciative inquiry to best practices, strategic planning, organizational culture, and to increase the momentum of initiatives.

This approach has also been applied at the societal level for discussion on topics of global importance. For example, non-profit and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might design initiatives across global regions and industry sectors after analysis using appreciative inquiry.

Key Takeaways:

  • Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a positive and collaborative group of techniques aimed at improving effective leadership and organizational and societal change.
  • In organizations, the method is used to boost innovation by analyzing best practices, strategic planning, organizational culture, and initiatives.
  • In society, the approach has also been used to guide discussion on topics of global importance and non-profit and NGO initiatives across global regions and industry sectors.

Understanding Appreciative Inquiry

The appreciative inquiry model was developed at the Organizational Behavior Department of Case Western University. It was based on research by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivasatva.

The core idea behind appreciative inquiry is that a problem-solving perspective creates inefficiencies and sub-optimal outcomes. As firms aim to improve efficiency, survive, perform better, and boost competitiveness, AI proponents argue that there has come to be an unhealthy over-emphasis on “fixing what’s wrong” through a negative or deficit-based approach. Instead, AI seeks a positive approach.

Appreciative Inquiry at the Societal Level

At a societal level, the model uses analysis that focuses on the best, most essential, and effective aspects of living systems and organizations. Instead of "problem-solving"—a fundamentally negative approach that implies criticism and remediation—appreciative inquiry is geared toward discovering the untapped positive potential of a system.

For example, a system's opportunities, assets, spirit, and value. This discovery of potential harnesses the energy needed to facilitate a change rooted in breakthrough, discovery, and innovation.

Appreciative Inquiry at the Corporate or Organizational Level

Initiatives at the organizational level based on appreciative inquiry commonly use the "4-D" cycle model as a means for implementing change. The positive core of 4-D includes the discovery, dream, design, and destiny phases that center around building what works in an organization rather than what may be broken.

The 5 Principals of Appreciative Inquiry

In 1990, Cooperrider and Diana Whitney defined the five principles of appreciative inquiry as follows:

  1. The constructivist principle (organizations are co-constructed by the discourse of the participants' interactions. The purpose of inquiry is to generate new stories, language, and ideas).
  2. The principle of simultaneity (the answers are implicit in the questions asked).
  3. The poetic principle (the story of the organization is always being co-authored by people within it through their stories. So, choosing the topic of inquiry can change the organization).
  4. The anticipatory principle (understanding that our actions are guided by our vision of the future, and creating a positive image of the future to shape present action).
  5. The positive principle (positive organizational change requires positive sentiments, such as hope, inspiration, camaraderie, and the strengthening of social bonds).

Examples of Appreciative Inquiry Application

Appreciative inquiry has been used by many global public and private organizations. For example, Merck used the approach to examine and improve its sales growth, British Airways improved customer service using this approach, and Wal-Mart implemented initiatives for sustainable value creation after applying appreciative inquiry. In addition, the United States Navy used the method for its leadership development program.