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Appreciative inquiry

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Appreciate inquiry is a philosophy or approach that is sometimes applied to enhance organizations (e.g., Johnson & Leavitt, 2001;; Martinetz, 2002) and help communities (e.g., Messerschmit, 2008). The key theme is that individuals are encouraged to contemplate, and then extend, the most effective practices or programs in the organization rather than orient attention to the problems or complications. That is, stories, metaphors, and contemplation of successful developments and pursuits are assumed to inspire change, hope, purpose, joy, camaraderie, compassion, and innovation (e.g., Fitzgerald, Murrell, & Miller, 2003). In contrast, a focus on problems can undermine motivation and persistence (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987;; Whitney, 1998;; see also Powley, Fry, Barrett, & Bright, 2004).

Main phases

In essence, when appreciate inquiry is applied, individuals are encouraged to consider questions and envision a future that facilitates relationships and amplifies the most inspiring facets of the organization. The approach comprises four key processes that are implemented in sequence after a topic is identified (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987;; for information about implementation, see Cooperrider, Whitney, & Stavros, 2003;; Hammond, 1998;; Mohr & Jane, 2001).

During the first process, called discover, individuals are invited to identify workplace practices, procedures, and processes that are thriving and effective. That is, they unearth the most positive experiences in the past. They might be encouraged to reflect upon exceptions to problems. Somehow, insights from many people, corresponding to a diversity of constituencies, including customers and other stakeholders, need to be collected and collated.

These insights are often communicated in the forms of stories or anecdotes that illustrate and elucidate past triumphs and developments. To elicit these stories, individuals often discuss a topic, such as employee attitudes or customer service, in pairs. They each attempt to identify a positive experience in this domain and, later, share their responses with a broader team or workgroup.

During the second process, called dream, individuals envisage how the organization would seem if these positive experiences became the norm instead of an exception. Hence, these individuals are encouraged to envisage a more supportive, progressive, and productive environment.

Usually, facilitators will first arrange the positive experiences that were unearthed in the first phase in categories. Themes and insights thus gradually emerge. Next, participants might be encouraged to imagine how the organization might evolve if these themes were extended. An inspiring, collective, and vivid direction or vision then evolves.

During the third process, called design, the individuals then discuss how to prioritize these opportunities. They also formulate action plans that can be implemented to utilize these uplifting or possible initiatives and practices. Specifically, the individuals consider specific policies, structures, norms, attitudes, or other opportunities to pursue the dream or vision they identified earlier.

During the fourth process, called destiny, but also referred to as deliver, the employees and managers implement the proposed design or plan. Specific projects are implemented to exemplify the action plans. Sometimes, coaches and trainers are later contracted to sustain the implementation of these action plans.

Mechanisms and assumptions that underpin the benefits of appreciative inquiry

Many arguments have been proposed to explain the benefits of appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider, 1999;; Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987;; Cooperrider & Whitney, 1998;; for a review of these merits, see Messerschmit, 2008). First, appreciate inquiry can translate into more enduring pursuits rather than ad hoc activities. When organizations attempts to solve problems, they usually terminate the initiative as soon as the matter is resolved. In contrast, when organizations strive to extend and to utilize the uplifting and effective practices within the organization, these endeavors persist, instilling a sense of continuity, stability, and meaning.

Second, appreciative inquiry can facilitate the formation of relationships. When appreciative inquiry is applied, individuals attempt to apply the processes that are useful in one department to other departments as well. This approach, therefore, can facilitate alignment and sharing across the organization or industry.

Third, practitioners of appreciative inquiry assume that every individual or organization has developed some unique talents and, therefore, may contribute some key benefits to the organization or community. Hence, to distill positive experiences and successful practices, data from many people need to be collected. Discussions should not be confined to specific constituencies.


As Messerschmit (2008) outlined, appreciate inquiry is often applied to transform organizations and communities especially in the realms of poverty, youth (McAdama & Mirza, 2009), health (e.g., Reed, Pearson, Douglas, Swinburne, & Wilding, 2002), and education. This philosophy is intended to empower local teams and individuals, ultimately improving their lives and conditions. Because appreciative inquiry emphasizes successful endeavors, the traditional responses of local communities are embraced rather than rejected. Individuals thus feel appreciated and empowered.

Furthermore, appreciate inquiry has been applied to enhance many functions of organizations. These functions include leadership development (e.g., Walker & Carr-Stewart, 2004), strategic planning, team building (e.g., Bushe & Coetzer, 1995), culture change, and innovation (Richer, Ritchie, & Marchionni, 2009), as reviewed by Philips (2004). Skinner and Kelley (2006) considered appreciate inquiry within the context of sales.


Although appreciative inquiry almost always comprises the four cardinal phases, many different variations can be applied, as stipulated by Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2003). For example, organizations can apply the approaches called:


According to Messerschmit (2008), appreciative inquiry has not been evaluated extensively (for exceptions, see Jones, 1998). Indeed, many practitioners of appreciative inquiry perceive evaluations, especially quantitative and positivist approaches, as a focus on problems rather than an emphasis on possibilities. They virtually reject the utility of evaluation.

Nevertheless, many case studies have been reported to illustrate the benefits of appreciative inquiry. Messerschmit (2008), for example, reported a study that applied this approach in the context of two programs in Nepal, both intended to improve the health of women in local regions. One of the key aims was to curb maternal mortality.

Many factors exacerbate these mortality rates. Hospitals and other health services often neglect the health of women. Public perceptions of health care are thus unfavorable. Furthermore, women are often denied voice, rights, and education, and elevated rates of fertility are encouraged. Thus, appreciative inquiry was utilized to facilitate changes in these institutions. Workshops were conducted jointly with staff and the community, facilitated by trained consultants. The four main processes of appreciate inquiry were implemented.

Messerschmit (2008) observed some important findings. Certainly, participants often expressed an elevated sense of camaraderie and a shared feeling of hope as well as pride. Social exclusion, derived from other barriers such as castes, had diminished. The conditions of hospitals also improved markedly.

In addition, staff members tended to utilize the language of affirmative inquiry. They often referred to listening skills, new commitment, recognition of humanity, social equality, ownership, trust, and self confidence.

Nevertheless, teams that had been formed specifically to implement action plans, but were not preexisting workgroups, were seldom as sustained or effective as hoped. Furthermore, when assessors, such as government officials, were not present, the purported benefits of appreciate inquiry seemed to diminish.

Another drawback of appreciate inquiry in this context was the elevated cost, in time and money, that was dedicated to the project, especially when ongoing coaching and facilitation was needed. In addition, staff members who had received training in this approach did not seem to impart this knowledge to newcomers. Dependence on facilitators remained.


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Last Update: 7/17/2016