Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.
Appreciative Inquiry centrally involves the mobilization of inquiry through the crafting of the ‘unconditional positive question’ often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.
In AI the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. AI seeks, fundamentally, to build a constructive union between a whole people and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper corporate spirit or soul– and visions of valued and possible futures.
Taking all of these together as a gestalt, AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this ‘positive change core’-and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.
The typical AI cycle can be as rapid and informal as in a conversation with a friend or colleague, or as formal as an organization-wide analysis involving every stakeholder, including customers, suppliers, partners and the like.
The Four Key Stages in AI
The four key stages in Appreciative Inquiry are Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny.
- Discovery: Mobilizing a whole system inquiry into the positive change core.
- Dream: Creating a clear results-oriented vision in relation to discovered potential and in relation to questions of higher purpose, i.e., ‘What is the world calling us to become?’
- Design: Creating possibility propositions of the ideal organization, an organization design which people feel is capable of magnifying or eclipsing the positive core and realizing the articulated new dream.
- Destiny: Strengthening the affirmative capability of the whole system enabling it to build hope and momentum around a deep purpose and creating processes for learning, adjustment, and improvisation like a jazz group over time.
At the core of the cycle is Affirmative Topic Choice. It is the most important part of any AI. If in fact if knowledge and organizational destiny are as intricately interwoven as we think it, then isn’t it possible that the seeds of change are implicit in the very first questions we ask? AI theory says yes and takes the idea quite seriously: it says that the way we know people groups, and organizations is fateful. It further asserts the time is overdue to recognize that symbols and conversations, emerging from all our analytic modes, are among the world’s paramount resources.
Basic Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
To address this question in anything other than Pollyannaish terms we need to at least comment on the generative-theoretical work that has inspired and given strength too much of AI in practice. Here are five principles and scholarly streams we consider as central to AI’s theory-base of change.
1. The Constructionist Principle
Simply stated- human knowledge and organizational destiny are interwoven. To be effective as executives, leaders, change agents, etc., we must be adept in the art of understanding, reading, and analyzing organizations as living, human constructions. Knowing (organizations) stands at the center of any and virtually every attempt at change. Thus, the way we know is fateful.
At first blush this statement appears simple and obvious enough. We are, as leaders and change agents, constantly involved in knowing/inquiring/reading the people and world around us-doing strategic planning analysis, environmental scans, needs analysis, assessments and audits, surveys, focus groups, performance appraisals, and on. Certainly success hinges on such modes of knowing. And this is precisely where things get more interesting because throughout the academy a revolution is afoot, alive with tremendous ferment and implication, in regards to modernist views of knowledge.
In particular, what is confronted is the Western conception of objective, individualistic, historic knowledge-‘a conception that has insinuated itself into virtually all aspects of modern institutional life’ (Gergen, 1985, P. 272). At stake are questions that pertain to the deepest dimensions of our being and humanity: how we know what we know, whose voices and interpretations matter, whether the world is governed by external laws independent of human choices and consciousness, and where is knowledge to be located (in the individual ‘mind’, or out there ‘externally’ in nature or impersonal structures)? At stake are issues that are profoundly fundamental, not just for the future of social science but for the trajectory of all our lives.
In our view the finest work in this area, indeed a huge extension of the most radical ideas in Lewinian thought, can be found in Ken Gergen’s Toward Transformation in Social Knowledge (1982) and Realities and Relationships: Soundings In Social Construction (1994). What Gergen does, in both of these, is synthesize the essential whole of the post modern ferment and crucially takes it beyond disenchantment with the old and offers alternative conceptions of knowledge, fresh discourses on human functioning, new vistas for human science, and exciting directions for approaching change.
Constuctionism is an approach to human science and practice which replaces the individual with the relationship as the locus of knowledge, and thus is built around a keen appreciation of the power of language and discourse of all types (from words to metaphors to narrative forms, etc.) to create our sense of reality-our sense of the true, the good, the possible. Philosophically it involves a decisive shift in western intellectual tradition from cogito ergo sum, to communicamus ergo sum and in practice constructionism replaces absolutist claims or the final word with the never ending collaborative quest to understand and construct options for better living.
The purpose of inquiry, which is talked about as totally inseparable and intertwined with action, is the creation of ‘generative theory,’ not so much mappings or explanations of yesterday’s world but anticipatory articulations of tomorrow’s possibilities. Constructionism, because of its emphasis on the communal basis of knowledge and its radical questioning of everything that is taken-for-granted as ‘objective’ or seemingly immutable, invites us to find ways to increase the generative capacity of knowledge.
However there are warnings: ‘Few are prepared’, says Gergen (1985, p. 271) ‘for such a wrenching, conceptual dislocation. However, for the innovative, adventurous and resilient, the horizons are exciting indeed.’ This is precisely the call AI has responded to. Principle number two takes it deeper.
2. The Principle of Simultaneity
Here it is recognized that inquiry and change are not truly separate moments, but are simultaneous. Inquiry is intervention. The seeds of change-that is, the things people think and talk about, the things people discover and learn, and the things that inform dialogue and inspire images of the future-are implicit in the very first questions we ask. The questions we ask set the stage for what we ‘find,’ and what we ‘discover’ (the data) becomes the linguistic material, the stories, out of which the future is conceived, conversed about, and constructed.
One of the most impactful things a change agent or practitioner does is to articulate questions. Instinctively, intuitively and tacitly we all know that research of any kind can, in a flash, profoundly alter the way we see ourselves, view reality, and conduct our lives. Consider the economic poll, or the questions that led to the discovery of the atom bomb, or the surveys that, once leaked, created a riot at a unionized automobile plant in London (see Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987).
If we accept the proposition that patterns of social-organizational action are not fixed by nature in any direct biological or physical way, that human systems are made and imagined in relational settings by human beings (socially constructed), then attention turns to the source of our ideas, our discourses, our researches-that is our questions. Alterations in linguistic practices-including the linguistic practice of crafting questions-hold profound implications for changes in social practice.
One great myth that continues to dampen the potential here is the understanding that first we do an analysis, and then we decide on change. Not so says the constructionist view. Even the most innocent question evokes change-even if reactions are simply changes in awareness, dialogue, feelings of boredom, or even laughter. When we consider the possibilities in these terms, that inquiry and change are a simultaneous moment, we begin reflecting anew. It is not so much ‘Is my question leading to right or wrong answers?’ but rather ‘What impact is my question having on our lives together…is it helping to generate conversations about the good, the better, the possible… is it strengthening our relationships?’
3. The Poetic Principle
A metaphor here is that human organizations are a lot more like an open book than, say, a machine. An organization’s story is constantly being co-authored. Moreover, pasts, presents, or futures are endless sources of learning, inspiration, or interpretation-precisely like, for example, the endless interpretive possibilities in a good piece of poetry or a biblical text.
The important implication is that we can study virtually any topic related to human experience in any human system or organization. We can inquire into the nature of alienation or joy, enthusiasm or low morale, efficiency or excess, in any human organization. There is not a single topic related to organization life that we could not study in any organization. What constuctionism does is remind us that it is not the ‘world out there’ dictating or driving our topics of inquiry but again the topics are themselves social artifacts, products of social processes (cultural habits, typifying discourses, rhetoric, professional ways, power relations).
It is in this vein that AI says let’s make sure we are not just reproducing the same worlds over and over again because of the simple and boring repetition of our questions (not ‘one more’ morale survey which everybody can predict the results ahead of time). AI also says, with a sense of excitement and potential, that there can be great gains to be made in a better linking of the means and ends of inquiry. Options now begin to multiply.
For example, informally, in many talks with great leaders in the NGO world (Save the Children, World Vision) we have begun to appreciate the profound joy that CEO’s feel as ‘servant leaders’– and the role this positive affect potentially plays in creating healthy organizations. But then one questions: is there a book on the Harvard Business book-list, or anywhere for that matter, on Executive Joy? And even if there isn’t… does this mean that joy has nothing to do with good leadership, or healthy human systems? Why aren’t we including this topic in our change efforts? What might happen if we did?
The poetic principle invites re-consideration of aims and focus of any inquiry in the domain of change management. For it is becoming clearer that our topics, like windsocks, continue to blow steadily onward in the direction of our conventional gaze. As we shall soon explore, seeing the world as a problem has become ‘very much a way of organizational life.’
4. The Anticipatory Principle
The infinite human resource we have for generating constructive organizational change is our collective imagination and discourse about the future. One of the basic theorems of the anticipatory view of organizational life is that it is the image of the future, which in fact guides what might be called the current behavior of any organism or organization.
Much like a movie projector on a screen, human systems are forever projecting ahead of themselves a horizon of expectation (in their talk in the hallways, in the metaphors and language they use) that brings the future powerfully into the present as a mobilizing agent. To inquire in ways that serves to refashion anticipatory reality-especially the artful creation of positive imagery on a collective basis–may be the most prolific thing any inquiry can do. Our positive images of the future lead our positive actions-this is the increasingly energizing basis and presupposition of Appreciative Inquiry.
Whether we are talking about placebo studies in medicine (Ornstein and Sobel, 1987); reviews of a myriad of studies of the Pygmalion dynamic in the classroom (Jussim, 1986); studies of the rise and fall of cultures (Boulding, 1966; Polak, 1973); research into the relationships between optimism and health (Seligman, 1998); studies of positive self-monitoring and ways for accelerating learning (Kirschenbaum, 1984); analysis of the importance of imbalanced, positive inner dialogue to personal and relational well-being (Schwartz, 1986); research on positive mood states and effective decision making (Isen, 1983); studies from the domain of ‘conscious evolution’ (Hubbard, 1998); or theories on how positive noticing of even ‘small wins’ can reverberate throughout a system and change the world (Weick, 1990)-the conclusions are converging on something Aristotle said many years ago. ‘A vivid imagination,’ he said ‘compels the whole body to obey it.’
In the context of more popular writing, Dan Goleman (1987), in a well-written New York Times headline-article declares ‘Research Affirms the Power of Positive Thinking.’
5. The Positive Principle
This last principle is not so abstract. It grows out of years of experience with appreciative inquiry. Put most simply, it has been our experience that building and sustaining momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding-things like hope, excitement, inspiration, caring, camaraderie, sense of urgent purpose, and sheer joy in creating something meaningful together.
What we have found is that the more positive the question we ask in our work the more long lasting and successful the change effort. It does not help, we have found, to begin our inquiries from the standpoint of the world as a problem to be solved. We are more effective the longer we can retain the spirit of inquiry of the everlasting beginner.
The major thing we do that makes the difference is to craft and seed, in better and more catalytic ways, the unconditional positive question. Although the positive has not been paraded as a central concept in most approaches to organization analysis and change, it is clear we need no longer be shy about bringing this language more carefully and prominently into our work. And personally speaking it is so much healthier. We love letting go of ‘fixing’ the world. We love doing interviews, hundreds of them, into moments of organization ‘alive.’ And we are, quite frankly, more effective the more we are able to learn, to admire, to be surprised, to be inspired alongside the people we are working with.
Perhaps it is not just organizations-we too become what we study. So suggested, over and again, is the life-promoting impact of inquiry into the good, the better, and the possible. A theory of affirmative basis of human action and organizing is emerging from many quarters-social contructionism, image theory, conscious evolution and the like. And the whole thing is beginning, we believe, to make a number of our change-management traditions start to look obsolete.
Appreciative Inquiry and Power in Organizations
We could have easily called this section ‘Eulogy for Problem Solving.’ In our view the problem solving paradigm, while once perhaps quite effective, is simply out of sync with the realities of today’s virtual worlds (Cooperrider, 1996). Problem solving approaches to change are painfully slow (always asking people to look backward to yesterday’s causes); they rarely result in new vision (by definition we can describe something as a problem because we already, perhaps implicitly, assume an ideal, so we are not searching for expansive new knowledge of better ideals but searching how to close ‘gaps’); and in human terms problem approaches are notorious for generating defensiveness (it is not my problem but yours).
But our real concern, from a social constructionist perspective, has to do with relations of power and control. It is the most speculative part of this chapter; and hopefully, it better illuminates the potentials advocated by AI. In particular is the more conscious linking of language, including the language of our own profession, to change. Words do create worlds-even in unintended ways.
To be sure, Appreciative Inquiry begins an adventure. The urge and call to adventure has been sounded by many people and many organizations, and it will take many more to fully explore the vast vistas that are now appearing on the horizon. As said at the outset we believe we are infants when it comes to our understanding of appreciative processes of knowing and social construction. Yet we are increasingly clear the world is ready to leap beyond methodologies of deficit based changes and enter a domain that is life-centric. Organizations, says AI theory, are centers of human relatedness, first and foremost, and relationships thrive where there is an appreciative eye-when people see the best in one another, when they share their dreams and ultimate concerns in affirming ways, and when they are connected in full voice to create not just new worlds but better worlds.
The velocity and largely informal spread of the appreciative learnings suggests, we believe, a growing sense of disenchantment with exhausted theories of change, especially those wedded to vocabularies of human deficit, and a corresponding urge to work with people, groups, and organizations in more constructive, positive, life-affirming, even spiritual ways. AI, we hope it is being said, is more than a simple 4-D cycle of discovery, dream, design, and destiny; what is being introduced is something deeper at the core. Perhaps our inquiry must become the positive revolution we want to see in the world? Albert Einstein’s words clearly compel: ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’
Resources on Appreciative Inquiry
The Appreciative Inquiry Commons
The AI Commons is a worldwide portal devoted to the fullest sharing of academic resources and practical tools on Appreciative Inquiry and the rapidly growing discipline of positive change.
The Taos Institute website
The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change
Whitney, Diana and Amanda Trosten-Bloom. 2003. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. A very useful, practical and enjoyable book on Appreciative Inquiry. To Order: www.bkconnection.com or call 415-288-0260 or 1-800-929-2929.
The Appreciative Inquiry Trilogy
- The Appreciative Organization, by Harlene Anderson, David Cooperrider, Ken Gergen, Mary Gergen, Sheila McNamee and Diana Whitney. (2001, $12.95, 55 pages)
- Appreciative Leaders: In the Eye of the Beholder, edited by Marge Schiller, Bea Mah Holland, and Deanna Riley. (2001, $19.95, 184 pages)
- Experience AI: A Practitioner’s Guide to Integrating Appreciative Inquiry and Experiential Learning, by Miriam Ricketts and Jim Willis. (2001, $14.95, 78 pages).
Order separately, or purchase all three for $39.99. To order from the Taos Institute, call 888-999-TAOS (toll-free), 440-338-6733, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.taosinstitute.net/publishing/publishing.html.
This text is excerpted from “A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry” by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney (http://connection.cwru.edu/ai/uploads/whatisai.pdf).