Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach to organisational change that focuses on doing more of what is already working, rather than on trying to diagnose the causes of problems. It engages people at all levels to create change by focusing on the core strengths of an organisation, and then using those strengths to reshape the future.

AI is being used around the world in change initiatives ranging from large-scale (organisations and communities) to small-scale (team and individual development). It is being applied to problem-solving, to involving people in developing engaging and credible visions of the future, and to strategic change.

The benefits of Appreciative Inquiry as an approach to change include building stronger relationships, sustaining morale, engaging people with the change process, and ensuring that what is currently good in the organisation’s performance is not lost.

How did Appreciative Inquiry originate?

Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the early 1980s. As a graduate student undertaking a conventional analysis and diagnosis of organisational problems at the Cleveland Clinic, a leading healthcare facility, Cooperrider was struck by the levels of positive cooperation and morale at the clinic.

His supervisor, Suresh Srivastva, noticed the energy and excitement that Cooperrider showed when discussing these positive findings, compared to when he considered the clinic’s problems, and encouraged him to focus exclusively on analysing the factors contributing to the clinic’s success. Cooperrider began interviewing clinic staff about what was working well at the clinic, their successes, their achievements and their proudest moments – the times when they felt most alive and engaged in their work. Not surprisingly, he found that people became more enthusiastic and open when asked about successes and strengths rather than problems and failures.

News of the inquiry spread through the organisation, encouraging everyday conversations that focused on positives, which in turn lead to measurable increases in a focus on positives and behaviours that supported success. The culture of the clinic began to alter in a more positive direction, and the clinic’s board were so impressed with Cooperrider’s initial report that they asked for this approach to be applied within the group as a whole.

Cooperrider’s evolving ideas about AI were initially received with scepticism, most notably provoking laughter at their first public presentation to the Academy of Management in 1984. However, the defining idea of Appreciative Inquiry – viewing organisations and other ‘human systems’ as centres of infinite human capacity rather than as ‘problems to be solved’ – caught the imagination of many change agents and the approach began to spread.

AI is now used worldwide by organisations, non-profit bodies, churches and government institutions.

Where has Appreciative Inquiry been used?

AI is being used in Fortune 500/FTSE 100 companies, non-profit bodies, and military and government institutions, as well as in schools, smaller companies, and church groups.

Some high profile examples include

  • ANZ Bank
  • BAE Systems
  • British Airways
  • GTE Telecommunications
  • Roadway Express
  • John Deere Harvester
  • McDonald’s
  • NASA
  • National Health Service
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • Imagine Chicago
  • O2
  • Save The Children
  • United Religions Initiative
  • US Agency for International Development (USAID)
  • US Navy.

You can find case studies for many of these initiatives at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.