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What is Appreciative Inquiry?

A synthesis prepared by Susan Donnan, December 2005

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a fully affirmative and inquiry-based process for change and transformation developed by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University from 1980-1986.

AI is based on the deceptively simple premise that human systems grow in the direction of what we repeatedly ask questions about and focus our attention on. It is the study and exploration of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best.

Instead of asking "What are the root causes of failure or defect?", we ask "What are our root causes of success?"  Evidences suggest that questions and dialogues about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are themselves transformational.

The following is a comparison between the traditional Problem-Solving approach and the Appreciative Inquiry approach to change:

The Problem-Solving Approach The Appreciative Inquiry Approach
There is some ideal way for things to be. The way things are are socially constructed by our system and can be changed
If a situation is not as we would like it to be, then it is a "problem" to be solved. In any situation, we can find the seeds of excellence to build on.
The way to solve a problem is to break it into parts and analyse it. We build excellence by seeking out examples and sharing stories of exceptional performance throughout our system.
If we find a broken part and fix it, the whole will be fixed. As we create images of excellence, our system will move toward that image.

I. The Five Core Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

II. The 5-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry

The 5-D Cycle can be used to guide a conversation, a large group meeting, or a whole-system change effort. It can serve as a framework for personal development or coaching, partnership or alliance building, and large-scale community or organisation development. Whatever the purpose, the 5-D Cycle serves as the foundation on which change is built.

  1. Definition: 

    During the Definition phase, we choose the topics of inquiry that become the organisation's agenda for learning and innovation. The questions ask must be affirmative and focused on topics valuable to the people involved and directed at topics, concerns, and issues central to the success of the organisation.

    The following are examples of how deficit issues can be reframed into affirmative topics:

    Deficit Issues Affirmative Topics
    Customer dissatisfaction  Customer delight
    Debilitating bureaucracy Inspiring democracy
    Sexual harassment Exceptional cross-gender partnerships in the workplace
    Cross-functional conflict Cooperation without boundary
    Low morale High motivation
    High Turnover Magnetic connection
    Grievance reduction Enthusiastic engagement and positive energy
    Lost luggage Exceptional customer arrival experience
  2. Discovery:

    The Discovery phase is an extensive and collaborative search for "the best of what is" by focusing on times of organisational excellence. Discovery involves meaningful conversations among many or all members of an organisation including external stakeholders, "best in class" benchmark organisations, and members of the organisation's local community. A key result of this process is a rich description of the organisation's positive core - it's tangible and intangible strengths, capabilities, resources, and assets.

  3. Dream:

    The Dream phase is an energising exploration of "what might be" by expanding on "the best of what is." It is a time for people to collectively explore their hopes and dreams for the kind of organisation and world they want to work and live in. The outputs of the Dream phase include creative images of the future and "macro" possibility statements.

  4. Design:

    The Design phase is about co-constructing the "grounded" vision of the future created in the Dream phase. Design activities include detailed description of the social and technical infrastructures for the organisation that will bring the future alive. Key outputs of this phase are "micro" possibility statements that articulate the organisation's dream for each of the organisation's ongoing activities.

  5. Destiny/Delivery:

    The Destiny phase focuses specifically on personal commitments, organisational commitments, and paths forward for innovating "what will be." The result of Destiny is generally an array of changes to the organisation's social and technical infrastructure in areas as diverse as management practices, HR processes, measurement and evaluation systems, customer service systems, work processes, structures, and technologies. At the end of the Destiny phase, many organisations begin the Appreciative Inquiry 5-D Cycle anew.

III. The Various Applications of Appreciative Inquiry

Since its inception in the early eighties, Appreciative Inquiry has been used successfully across the globe in both profit and non-profit settings for organisational and social changes of greater and greater scale.

Business Non-profit & Government
  • Avon
  • American Data Services
  • BBC
  • BP
  • British Airways North America
  • Canadian Tire
  • First Caribbean International
  • GTE
  • Green Mountain Coffee
  • Hunter Douglas
  • McDonald's
  • Nutrimental Foods
  • Roadway Express
  • American Baptist Churches
  • Department of National Defence
  • Global Excellence in Management (GEM)
  • Imagine Chicago, Imagine Nepal, and others
  • Methodist Medical Centre
  • NASA
  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • US Navy
  • United Religion Initiative / "Spiritual United Nations"
  • World Vision / "Business as an Agent of World Benefit"

The following are change agendas suited to Appreciative Inquiry:

Change Agenda Examples
Organizational Change
  • Strategic Planning
  • Cultural Transformation
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Morale and Retention
  • Organisation Design
  • Leadership Development
  • Business Improvement
Inter-Organisational Capacity Building
  • Merger Integration
  • Alliance Building
  • Union-Management Partnership
  • Strategic Resource Sharing
Community Development
  • Participatory Planning
  • Asset Mapping
  • Economic Development
  • Educational Reform
  • Peace Building
Global Transformation
  • Global Organising
  • Multi-Local Planning
  • Consciousness Raising
Small Group Development
  • Team Development
  • Business Development
  • Meeting Management
  • Instructional Design
Inter-Group Change
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Process Improvement
Personal/Relational Transformation
  • Leadership Development
  • Performance Appraisal
  • Employee Orientation
  • Career Planning

IV. Acknowledgements

This article draws heavily on the existing body of knowledge on Appreciative Inquiry by David Cooperrider, Bernard Mohr, Diana Whitney, Jane Watkins, and others in the field.

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