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Appreciative Inquiry: What Does It Mean

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Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them, through the stories of their best experiences. It involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is at its best, its peak performance.  AI includes asking questions that strengthen an organization’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential.  AI involves the act of inquiry through the questions that it asks and involving every individual within the organization.


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AI focuses on imagination and innovation.  It is about the dream for the future, not the problems of the present.  There is no room for negativity in AI.  It approaches solutions through discovery, dream and design.  The goal of AI is 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.

Organizations are not like machines, their reality is subjective rather than objective.  The

human element, the story-teller, creates their reality through the stories they tell.  As such, they

are a social reality and that reality is constructed through interactions.  Human processes like

communication, decision-making, and conflict management are effected more by how the people

involved make meaning out of their interactions.   In addition, most change processes are based

on problem-solving processes.  A traditional approach starts by asking what’s the problem.

When we do that, we focus energy on what we want less of and work to fix things.

Appreciative Inquiry takes an alternative approach, based on a different set of

assumptions.  In order to create more effective organizations, focus should be placed on what

you want more of, not what you want less of.   This is already in existence within the

organization if only in small quantities.  Positive change is easier to create by focusing on the

positive qualities of a group or organization than by trying to fix the negative qualities.  This

process is created by the questions that are asked, the inquiry.  As stated previously, this process

should be encompassed by the organization as a whole, involving all employees, creating the

momentum to carry it through to fruition.   AI is based on a simple premise: that organizations

grow in the direction of what they repeatedly ask questions about and focus their attention on.

AI does not focus on changing people.  Instead, it involves people to engage in building the

kinds of organizations they want to live in.

There are four key stages involved in the process of AI:  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.  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; and

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


The core task of the discovery phase is to discover and disclose positive capacity, at least

until an organization’s understanding of this surplus is exhausted.  AI provides a way to ignite

this “spirit of inquiry” on an organization-wide basis.  What distinguishes AI, especially in this

phase of work, is that every question is positive.  Knowing and changing are a simultaneous

moment.  The process of discovery becomes the process of creating.  As people throughout a

system connect in serious study into qualities, examples, and analysis of the positive core –each

appreciating and everyone being appreciated– hope grows and community expands.

            During the dream phase, the interview stories and insights are used to construct a new

reality.  People are brought together to listen carefully to the innovations and moments of

organizational life, sometimes in storytelling modes, sometimes in interpretive and analytic

modes, creating a place where the future begins to be formed and visible patterns interwoven into

the texture of the actual.  The amplified interaction among innovators and innovations makes

something important happen: very rapidly we start seeing outlines of the “New World.”  This can

be turned into a special commemorative report celebrating the successes and exceptional moment

in the life of the organization.  Others have created a thematic analysis—careful to document rich

stories and not succumb to “narrative thin” one line quotes.  In all cases the data onto the positive

change core serves as an essential resource for the visioning stages of the appreciative inquiry 4-

D model.


Once the strategic focus or dream is articulated (usually consisting of three things, a

vision of a better world, a powerful purpose, and a compelling statement of strategic intent)

attention turns to the creation of the ideal organization, the social architecture or actual

design of the system in relation to the world of which it is part.  The sequencing is crucial,

moving first through in-depth work on Dream before Design, followed  with back and forth


One aspect that differentiates Appreciative Inquiry from other visioning or planning

methodologies is that images of the future emerge out of grounded, real life examples from an

organization’s positive past.  This may be combined with additional studies of other

organizations creating a “generative metaphor” for circumventing common resistances to

change.   Positive stories are used to craft possibility propositions that bridge the best of “what

is” with collective speculation or aspiration of “what might be”. In the working of the material

people should be invited to challenge the status quo as well as common assumptions underlying

the design of the organization. People are encouraged to “wander beyond” the data with the

essential question being: “What would our organization look like if it were designed in every

way possible to maximize the qualities of the positive core and enable the accelerated realization

of our dreams?”  When inspired by a great dream, an organization should feel compelled to

design something very new and very necessary.

AI accelerates the nonlinear interaction of organization breakthroughs, putting them

together with historic, positive traditions and strengths to create a “convergence zone”

facilitating the collective reorganization of human systems. At some point,  apparently minor

positive discoveries connect in accelerating manner and quantum change, a jump from one state

to the next that cannot be achieved through incremental change alone, becomes possible. What is

needed, as the Destiny Phase of AI suggests, are the network-like structures that liberate not only

the daily search into qualities and elements of an organization’s positive core but the

establishment of a convergence zone for people to empower one another—to connect, cooperate,

and co-create. Changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized when

people constructively appropriate the power of the positive core and simply… let go of accounts

of the negative.

But then the question is always voiced: “What do we do with the real problems?”

Basic Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

The Constructionist Principle:  Human knowledge and organizational destiny are

interwoven.  Effective leaders and change agents 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.

This may appear simple.  Leaders and change agents need to be 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 so on.  Success hinges on such modes of knowing.  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.

The Principle of Simultaneity:  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.

The greatest impact a leader or change agent can create is to articulate questions.

Instinctively, intuitively and tacitly we all know that research of any kind can, in a flash,

profoundly alters the view reality or even conduct our lives.  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.

The Poetic Principle:   Human organizations are a lot more like an open book than  a

machine.  An organization’s story is constantly being co-authored.  The past, present, and future

are endless sources of learning, inspiration, or interpretation.  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

organizational life that we could not study in any organization.

Constructionism states 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 us 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 made in a better linking of the means and

ends of inquiry.  The poetic principle invites re-consideration of aims and focus of any inquiry in

the domain of change management.

The Anticipatory Principle:  The infinite human resource we have for generating

constructive organizational change is the 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.  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


The Positive Principle.  This grows out of years of experience with appreciative inquiry.

Put most simply, it has been demonstrated 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.  The more positive the question asked in the process the more long lasting

and successful the change effort.  This process is not to view the world as a problem to be

solved.  It is critical to retain the spirit of inquiry.

            An appreciative inquiry intervention can be thought of as consisting of these three parts:

Discovering the best of…. Appreciative interventions begin with a search for the best examples of organizing and organization within the experience of organizational members.

Understanding what creates the best of…. The inquiry seeks to create insight into the forces that lead to superior performance, as defined by organizational members. What is it about the people, the organization, and the context that creates peak experiences at work?

Amplifying the people and processes who best exemplify the best of…. Through the process of the inquiry itself, the elements that contribute to superior performance are reinforced and amplified.

Appreciative inquiry is about seeing what others may not see. It’s about heightening our

awareness of the value, strength, and potential of ourselves and others — and overcoming the

limits that we impose, often unconsciously, on our own capacities.  By asking positive questions,

we can generate new images of the future.

Five Theories of Change

            Socially Constructing Reality:  All social organization is an arbitrary, social construction.

Our ability to create new and better organizations is limited only by our imagination and

motivation.  As a social entity, language and words are the basic building blocks of the

organizational reality.  Language plays an active role in developing meaning.  Through language

we construct the world as we understand it and further change the world.  Words become a

powerful force in shaping social organization because we see what we believe.  Creating new

and better theories/ideas/images is, therefore, a powerful way of changing organizations.

The problem with socially constructing reality, is how do we get people to dream alternative futures together, to envision new patterns of social organization that are better than what they currently have or may ever have individually experienced?  Talking about the future and how things could be, when no one has ever actually seen them that way makes people vulnerable.  All people can really do, is share their experiences.

Appreciative inquiry, where people listen to each other’s stories about moments in

their lives, the best experiences, creates climate where people can come together and share one

vision, one future.  Telling stories of “peak” organizational experiences, and listening to others,

can ready a group to be open to future possibilities.  Through this conversation a new reality can


            The Heliotropic Hypothesis:  Social systems evolve toward the most positive images they

hold of themselves.  These images are not necessarily conscious in that they may not be

discussible by the members of that social system.  These  images exist and the more they

affirm the group the more firmly they hold the group to a pattern of being prescribed by the

theory/idea/image the group has of itself at its very best.  If these images are out of step with the

requirements the social system faces, the group will experience dysfunction and ordinary

attempts to fix itself will not work until the underlying affirmative image of the group is

changed.  Appreciative inquiry attempts to create a new and better affirmative image for the

social system, one better aligned with the organization’s critical contingencies.

            The Organization’s Inner Dialogue:  The organization’s inner dialogue comes from the

many different voices, with varying layers of awareness in the organization of what is being said.

The organizational record for this are the things that are said between people in “official”

meetings of the organization – things that are said out loud so that everyone present can hear.

These are events like committee meetings, departmental meetings, workshops and offsite

retreats, strategic planning sessions and the like. This is the conscious, rational part of the

organizational mind.

Between and around events, however, are things people talk about in smaller groups or in

confidential conversations.  These may entail interpretations and judgments about the

vents that these people would not talk about publicly.  The organization as an entity is only

partially aware and to the extent that these perceptions, interpretations and judgments are not

discussible in any official forum of organizational business, they are out of awareness.  Three

things can form from organizational dialogue.

·         Organizations have an inner dialogue made up of the things people say to each

other in small confidential groups that are un-discussible in official forums of

organizational business.

·         This inner dialogue is a powerful stabilizing force in social systems that accounts

for the failure to follow through on rationally arrived at decisions. It is here where

people’s real thoughts and feelings about what is discussed in official forums are

revealed and communicated

·         This inner dialogue is mainly carried through the stories people tell themselves

and each other to justify their interpretation of events and decisions.

            The change theory is:  If you change the stories you change the inner dialogue. Nothing

the rational mind decides it wants will actually happen if the inner dialogue is resistant to it.

            Resolving Paradoxical Dilemmas:  All groups, especially those in organizations, face

paradoxical requirements where they are asked to simultaneously do mutually incompatible

things.  These are things like organizational injunctions to “staff up projects to ensure the best

people are doing the work” and “staff up projects to ensure developmental opportunities for

staff”; “always meet deadlines” and “never give customers defective work”; and so on. For the

most part managers find ways to work around such paradoxical dilemmas and they get the work

done in spite of them.  Groups can become stuck in a paradox where the nature of the

paradoxical dilemma facing the group is unconscious or un-discussible.  In such a case, a group

will look and feel “stuck”, constantly repeating failing patterns, finding itself with the same

issues over and over that never seem to get resolved, all the while losing energy and motivation

to continue operating as a group.

Appreciative Process:  Appreciative process is more a change agent technique.

Appreciative process theorizes that you can create change by paying attention to what you want

more of rather than paying attention to problems.  You get more of whatever you pay attention

to.  As a change technique, appreciative process involves tracking and fanning.  Tracking is a

state of mind where one is constantly looking for what one wants more of.  It begins with the

assumption that whatever one wants more of already exists, even if in small amounts.  Fanning is

any action that amplifies, encourages, and helps you to get more of whatever you are looking for.

Appreciative inquiry creates change by focusing attention on where things are working

and amplifying them through fanning.  Using this theory, the collection of stories and

creation of generative images is not nearly so important, perhaps not even necessary.  Instead,

what is necessary is a change in the problem oriented, deficiency focused consciousness of those

intervening into the system to an appreciative one that believes that there is an abundance of

good people, processes, intentions and interactions, just waiting to be seen and fanned.


Cite this Appreciative Inquiry: What Does It Mean

Appreciative Inquiry: What Does It Mean. (2016, Jul 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/appreciative-inquiry-essay/

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