Appreciative Inquiry: Key Research and Fields of Application

appreciative inquiry researchAppreciative Inquiry (AI) is an innovative problem-solving approach. Most approaches for problem-solving are rooted in negativity.

If we want to improve something, our first thought is to ask what is not working or what is wrong.

We start by identifying the problem, analyzing possible causes and then implementing solutions. Organizations have basically become problems to be solved.

After a while, this deficit-based approach depletes our energy, our motivation and our sense of goodwill toward others.

The thing is that these are exactly the qualities we need from our employees.

Appreciative Inquiry helps us take another approach. Instead of looking at what is not working, we can examine what is already working.

By imagining how good something could be, the problems become opportunities waiting to happen.

As a result of this approach, people begin talking about successes instead of failures. People begin sharing positive stories and having positive conversations. This approach also helps build a new sense of confidence and strength.

The idea of Appreciative Inquiry is more like a philosophy than a technique, which is what we will examine in this article.

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The Research on Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) helps us move beyond typical problem-solving approaches. AI helps companies and organizations believe in a better solution that can help create a new future.

The idea of AI emerged from the doctoral research of David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University. In his research, Cooperrider was studying the various factors that contributed to the effective functioning of an organization, which happened to be the Cleveland Clinic.

In his dissertation, Cooperrider presented a set of AI principles and a rationale, which included different phases of inquiry.

The AI philosophy focuses on leveraging organizations’ positive core strengths in order to design and redesign the systems within the organization to achieve a more sustainable and effective future.

AI initiatives are implemented using something known as the 4D Cycle.

  • Discovery
  • Dream
  • Design
  • Destiny

This methodology allows an organization to identify its positive core strengths relative to the affirmative topic.

As a result of the Appreciative Inquiry process, concrete operational steps can then be formed for an organization to achieve its goals.

AI is based on the idea that human systems grow much more effectively in the direction of their persistent inquiries. This propensity is the strongest and the most sustainable when the means and ends of inquiry are positively correlated.

With this process, an organization can consciously construct their future based upon their positive core strengths


The discovery phase is all about identifying and appreciating the best of what is. It’s about learning to focus on what is already working instead of what is not working. During this phase, an organization would focus on peak times of organizational excellence, and times when the organization was the most effective.

Other areas of focus would include things like leadership, relationships, core processes, values, structures, learning processes and methods of planning as well as external relationships.


The next step involves dreaming. In this phase, the organization would envision its future. These dreams would stem from grounded examples from a positive past, instead of a pie in the sky idea.

This phase can be both exhilarating and invigorating.


While the dream phase is focused on a vision of sustainability, a powerful purpose and a compelling statement of strategic intent, the design phase turns its attention to creating the ideal organization.

This ideal image is once again based upon positive practical examples grounded in the past.


The destiny phase is all about bringing the discovery, dream and design phases into some kind of logical conclusion. It also forms the beginning of an appreciative learning culture.

This phase is a time focused on continuous learning, adjustments, and improvisation. This final phase helps build momentum and a shared positive image of the future.

Interesting Studies

There have been many interesting case studies and success stories when it comes to AI.


Roadway, a four billion dollar transportation company has held 65 AI summits to date. These summits have brought together nearly 300 people at a time who were all focused on innovative ways to re-design the facilities.

Through collaborative input, Roadway was able to improve customer peace of mind, collaboratively design the company’s information system and move its stock from $14 dollars a share to $48 dollars a share over a five-year time frame.

The company documented significant positive changes in survey indexes of moral, labor-management trust, retention, alignment and building an innovative culture.

Nutrimental Foods in Brazil

Nutrimental Foods in Brazil was faced with the effects of globalization on the industry in their country. Nearly 80% of manufacturers in Brazil became victims of this globalization.

The CEO, Rodrigo Loures, used the AI process as a way to survive this onslaught and to enhance the company’s culture.

The AI process was so successful that a short year later the company recorded a 300% increase in earnings, a 75% decrease in absenteeism, and was recognized as one of the 100 best places to work in Brazil.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc.

When Green Mountain Coffee Roasters began using the AI process, their stock prices hovered around $18 a share. Five years later, the shares continue to grow, at $61 per share on the NASDAQ.

The company was also ranked the No. 1 on Business Ethics Magazine’s 2006 list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens.

AVON Mexico

AVON Mexico started with 3,000 employees at the time of the study. They had a sales force of 250,000 independent distributors.

AVON wanted to increase the number of women in senior management and in executive positions across the company.

The AVON Mexico location was the pilot project. When the project began the company had no women on the executive committee and very few female executives.

AVON used the 4-D model framework for the task at hand – Definition, Discovery, Dream and Destination.

The definition phase began with the creation of a planning team made up of internal opinion leaders who could help co-define the topics to be studied. The team then planned the next step, which would be a 2-day workshop.

The discovery phase began with the 2-day workshop in which they introduced the AI theory and philosophy.

  • They then selected learning teams who would conduct interviews.
  • Over the course of 2,000 interviews, the learning teams began uncovering best practices and compelling stories that illuminated what it looks like for men and women to work together.

The dream phase involved writing reports and summarizing the key learnings. This was reinforced with stories, presenting a wide range of possibilities for achieving gender equity.

The reports showed that the ideal was already happening and how it might be possible to foster even more of the same. They also discovered what was possible:

  • Men and women working together in teams.
  • A clearly defined plan of action for steps moving forward ensuring male and female co-chairmen for project teams.

Within six short months, the first female executive was appointed to the Executive Committee. Avon’s profit also increased dramatically. The division then won “The Catalyst Award” which was given each year to a company that had policies and practices that benefited women in the company significantly.

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A Look at Appreciative Inquiry in Education

Appreciative Inquiry can also be very beneficial to education. In one study done at California State University, San Bernardino, scholars looked at the AI process as a path to change in terms of education. (Buchanan, 2014)

Most state and federal initiatives for educational change stem from a deficit model that examines what is wrong and how to fix that.

Appreciative Inquiry focuses on what is right and what is already working. The study done explored the various relationships and leadership as well as organizational learning qualities that existed within five unified school districts in the High Desert.

The study used AI as a process to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to embrace a distributed leadership structure and to create the conditions for a more impactful implementation of the next reform.

The research question involved examining the relationship between the educators’ appreciative capacity, distributed leadership, organizational learning, and preparedness in order to implement a state-mandated curricular reform, the CCSS.

The study had the potential to transform educational practice providing a valuable template for ongoing educational reform.

The study used the 5-D Model of AI, which focuses on taking a strength-based approach to improve school culture.

5d cycle

This 5-D approach prepares organizations for continuous growth in terms of strengths in the system.

The study examined AI in terms of distributed leadership and organizational learning. The context for the study was the educators’ preparedness to implement the CCSS reform.

Study participants were drawn from school districts in the High Desert of San Bernardino County, the largest geographical county in the U.S. and home to 33 school districts.

The district employs approximately 2,212 teachers and 177 administrators.

The hypothesis and proposed analysis were as follows:

  1. AI capacities inventory will be moderately correlated with the 8 principles of AI.
  2. Participative decision-making will be moderately correlated with the functions of Leadership.
  3. Dialogue will be moderately correlated with the idea of taking risks.
  4. Taking risks will be moderately correlated with experimentation.
  5. Experimentation will be moderately correlated with dialogue.

The study concluded that Appreciative Inquiry alone is not enough. Distributed leadership and organizational learning are also necessary components to implement successful change.

Many efforts to change will fail even when people have a voice because leaders may fail to sustain input from those voices.

Distributed leadership and organizational learning each partially mediated the Appreciative Inquiry to Common Core State Standards preparedness relationship.

However, the study revealed that meaningful change takes time. Participating educators did report that the constructs of the study were related.

Furthermore, it was determined that real change cannot often be accomplished in a static one day workshop. Growth needs to be nurtured with continual input and feedback in order to monitor the change to adjust for new information which is continually being gathered.

The study did demonstrate that Appreciative Inquiry is a good fit for implementing educational reform.

According to Cooperrider and Whitney, leaders embracing appreciative inquiry “send a clear and consistent message: positive change is the pathway to success around here.” (Cooperrider and Whitney. 2005. p. 46)

Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life

Appreciative Inquiry distinguishes itself from other organizational visioning and change models by the fact that it seeks to focus on the best of what is. It uses this focus as a platform to build future directions.

This realm of AI is based upon a “sociorationalist” view of science.

Thinkers in organizational behavior are beginning to see why an administrative science based on a physical science model is not really adequate any longer.

It is not adequate because it is not a means for understanding or contributing in relevant ways to the workings of complex, organized human systems.

The sociorationalist vision of science is of great importance. It is of such importance that students, organizational scientists, action-researchers, managers and educators can no longer ignore it.

This kind of viewpoint is very powerful in terms of helping social systems adapt and evolve.

According to the essay ” Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life,” there are five ways by which theory achieves its exceptional potency:

  • Establishing a conceptual and/or contextual frame.
  • Providing a presumption of logic.
  • Transmitting a solid system of values.
  • Creating a language that serves the group.
  • Creating a vision of possibility or constraint.

Establishing a conceptual and contextual frame helps shape perceptions, cognitions, and preferences, most often at a preconscious level.

For example, when American eugenicists attributed biological determinism as a factor in poverty and as a reason for the inferior genetic construct of poor people, they could not immediately see a different remedy or perspective.

On the other hand, when Joseph Goldberg theorized that pellagra was not determined by genetics, but caused by cultural influences, he could then discover a way to cure it.

By seeing things differently, he overcame the notion that pellagra, a disease typically caused by a lack of the vitamin niacin and often attributed to the dietary habits of the poor, was a disease faced only by the poor.

Providing presumptions of logic is also important. One example is the typical performance evaluation, which is normally done on an individual basis. To adequately assess performance, one really needs to examine the individual in relation to the organizational environment.

Looking at the whole setting often changes things because it helps give you perspective.

Transmitting a system of values is also important. One example is the role that scientific theory played on slavery, colonialism and a belief in the genetic superiority of certain races.

In the 1800s, this theory led a number of America’s highest-ranking scientific researchers to unconsciously miscalculate so-called objective data.

Samuel Morton, a scientist with two medical degrees gained his reputation by measuring the size of cranial cavities as it relates to brain size. He objectively ranked them by measuring physical characteristics.

What he determined was that whites were on top, Indians in the middle and blacks on the bottom, at least as far as size goes, which he equated with the mental worth of races.

This, of course, is not an accurate assumption whatsoever which is where a system of values could have come into play.

Creating a group building language is important as well. It is well known and established that groups are formed around common ideas that are expressed in and through some kind of shared language.

This shared language makes communication and interaction possible.

The sociorationalist philosophy also involves extending visions of possibility or constraint. Theories gain a generative capacity by extending their vision of what is possible. This, in turn, helps expand the realm of possibility.

In order for action-research to reach its full potential as a vehicle for social innovation, it also needs to begin to advance theoretical knowledge of consequence.

A good theory may very well be one of the best means human beings have for affecting change in a postindustrial world.

Through our assumptions and our choice of methodology, each of us essentially creates the world we later discover.

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Using AI to Facilitate Organizational Development

Appreciative Inquiry is also a wonderful tool for organizational development. AI accomplishes this by engaging organizational stakeholders and everyone from the factory floor to the executive suite.

Doing this kind of activity without taking into consideration how many years of seniority one has is transformative. During the AI process, one might also bring in external voices such as clients or community stakeholders, in order to expand an organizations’ understanding.

In more traditional methods, the process usually involves asking very different questions such as what are the key problems or what is the root cause of failure. This is a very different approach than the AI approach when it comes to organizational development (see our post on AI questions).

While it may be important to understand the root cause or the problem, the AI process helps organizational leaders reframe the problem and look at the situation differently.

AI is also based on the idea that organizations are made up of networks of people. To quote David Cooperrider:

Get people talking about a compelling shared future, and you begin creating new levels of understanding and the future in the process.”

Let’s consider how you would feel upon asking yourself this question – “Am I feeling tired today?

By asking yourself this question, you would begin to focus on how tired you really were. If you were to ask yourself another question instead, such as “What makes me feel energized today?” you would formulate a much different answer because you would immediately focus on how good you felt.

It’s a simple shift, but a powerful one.

The Six Questions of Appreciative Inquiry

Nearly any organization could benefit from asking AI’s six questions.

  1. What led me here?
  2. What is the high point of the past?
  3. What do I value?
  4. What is changing?
  5. What’s the best future I can imagine?
  6. What will it take to get us there?

Looking back at what led you to a certain point, can really help you focus on the good aspects of your situation.

For example, if you were looking at what brought you to a company or led to you to be a part of a certain team, you could think back to what originally attracted you to your team or company. You could explore your initial impressions and your level of excitement. These are also very positive things.

In looking at the high points of the past, you could focus on those times when you felt truly engaged and proud of your involvement.

By focusing on those things you value, you begin focusing on those things or traits you want to preserve going forward.

The next question, what is changing, gives participants a chance to ground the topic in the current reality or situation, which is also important.

This might involve looking at current or future trends, competition or even new developments in technology.

Examining the best possible future helps people push their dreams a little. It also stimulates the imagination and removes roadblocks.

Framing this question in a playful manner is also a great way to stimulate the imagination. For example, you could ask yourself what life would look like if you fell asleep one night and woke up a year and a half or so later.

You would most likely see major changes in your life, which would prompt you to think outside of the box.

Finally, looking at what it would take you to get somewhere helps you form a strategy that can work going forward.

Focusing on three things you could make a priority, or 3-5 actionable items, is one way to do this.

Using these six questions is a great way to have a different conversation, a much more positive one.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry in Social Work

AI can also be very beneficial when it comes to social work. Social workers are professionals who help empower citizens.

They do this by helping one understand their respective rights and obligations in relation to their condition or position in life.

The idea of empowerment is a wonderful strategic tool that helps strengthen the individual. It also helps the individual take ownership of their life and their situation.

The social worker is a kind of intermediary between the problems and the resources needed to solve those problems.

Applying AI concepts to the realm of social work can help make the social worker much more effective. More often than not, allocating resources for providing problem-centered social services does not actually solve the problems for which the services were designed.

AI involves a paradigm shift from a problem-centered approach the typical social worker faces to an appreciative approach.

Virginia Satir, a social worker, and family therapist, based her professional activity on improving the communication within the family.

Satir’s work was positively focused and came from a positive consideration of the human being. According to Satir, the family must nourish and become characterized by being a provider of adequate self-esteem via direct and assertive communication.

Satir taught the importance of change and of growth via communication, which was based on self-respect when interacting with others.

In the history of Social Work, theoretical contributions can also be seen in Mary Richmond’s work. Richmond’s contributions strengthened the person through the use of skill or chances of the person and also through the use of their will to solve their social troubles, which departed from any social determinism that may have been pre-established.

There are clear links between Appreciative Inquiry and strengths. The AI approach is a solution-focused approach for things like social work, health, workforce development, and community development. AI can, of course, also be used for things like coaching and even leadership development.

Those in social services and even health care understand the importance of asking the right questions.

If one focuses on someone’s difficulties and hardships, people will continue to feel hopeless and stuck. Focusing on questions about successes, skills, and strengths, can help someone think differently.

Helping someone acknowledge their achievements is a great way to help them focus on the positive. As they focus on their strengths, they begin to feel enthusiastic, which can help them pull themselves out of a desperate situation.

It’s also important to understand that AI is not a single set of skills per se or a particular method. It is essentially a set of core principles and ideas that can help change existing patterns of thinking and patterns of conversations.

It is also a great innovative way to give voice to a new conversation and a new perspective, expanding what is possible in any given moment.

Other Fields of Application

Appreciative Inquiry can also be very useful in the world of sales. One case study examined the use of an AI Model by salespeople for a distributor in the Midwest.

A model was developed that was based on customer orientated selling (SOCO) of salespeople and the subsequent adaptive selling behaviors.

The salespeople were surveyed for their adaptive behaviors using an ADAPTS survey model. The salespeople were also surveyed for their customer orientated selling through the SOCO survey.

In a sample of approximately 20 salespeople, which were interviewed by phone, the interviewers determined their use of AI in their particular sales approach.

The results showed a positive approach was utilized by salespeople, but not as predicted.

One of the interesting findings was the usage of the AI approach to developing personal relationships.

Many of the salespeople interviewed mentioned that they often work to develop personal relationships with clients. This also helped to build trust. Discovering what their customer’s goals were and helping them achieve those goals is a big part of the process.

It was also discovered that the salespeople used two processes at once. One process involved building personal relationships. Another process was focused on selling.

The process that involved building personal relationships often utilized AI elements. This involved finding the customer’s passions and then supporting that passion to the extent that they could.

Finding out what someone likes, being interested in their life and even what their kids are doing, can help you get to know them without being overly pushy.

The study discovered that while some salespeople used the positive-based sales approach, not all did. The next step would then be to develop a formal sales process built on this positive model.

Another interesting usage of Appreciative Inquiry involved the U.S. Navy.

Dr. Ronald Fry, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University, used AI principles for the U.S. Navy, which resulted in a $2 billion cost savings from the creation of a Centre for Positive Change.

AI can be used across many sectors of life including but not limited to:

  • Non-profits
  • Sales
  • Educational Institutions
  • Governmental Organizations
  • Communities
  • Coaching, etc.

A few examples of how AI can transform companies and organizations include the use of AI in:

  1. The United Nations Global Compact.
  2. Imagine Chicago (an AI-inspired community development process copied all over the world).
  3. Wal-Mart and its use of AI for its global sustainability.

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The International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry

The International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry is a joint effort between The David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, and Kessels & Smit, The Learning Company.

The partnership strives to build a community of individuals and organizations that support a flourishing model of AI practitioners, who work to continually support one another in their work practices.

The David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry provides cutting edge educational content in both AI and Positive Development while also providing AI-related organizational consultancy services. They also serve as a scholarship incubator to help advance the theory and practice of AI.

Kessels & Smit, the Learning Company, is an international group of professionals who have a passion for learning and development.

They see themselves as a laboratory where they experiment and find their own answers for learning and development issues. They have a firm belief that the best solutions are often developed in partnerships.

They are also interested in developing collaborations with universities, so that research can continue. The overall goal is to create a movement that helps to build an appreciative, curious and democratic society.

The site is filled with interesting articles and blogs including content such as:

  • Building Resilience with Appreciative Inquiry: A Leadership Journey through Hope, Despair, and Forgiveness.
  • Appreciating Practitioners and the Power of Discovery – Nourish to Flourish.
  • The Power of Narrating and Listening: Connecting Through Stories.
  • The Intervention Clock – Arjan van Vembde
  • Many, many others.

A Take-Home Message

Appreciative Inquiry has had a profound impact on organizational development practices around the world.

It is a strength-based approach that strives to create a positive framework. These principles can be applied both personally and professionally.

AI is a life-centric and positive approach to change. Appreciative Inquiry utilizes theories from organizational behavior, the science of sociology and psychology along with some metaphysics tossed in.

The AI methodology assumes that every system, human and otherwise, already has something that works right; it’s just a matter of identifying it and building upon it.

AI is a system that seeks to build on a model of positive change that can be sustainable, and, as a result, expand the capacity for wellbeing allowing for a culture that thrives.

For further reading, please see: The 20 Best Books on Appreciative Inquiry.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.


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  • Cooperrider, David & Whitney, Diana. (2005). A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry. The change handbook: The definitive resource on today’s best methods for engaging whole systems. 87.
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    (PDF) Appreciative inquiry, a constant in social work. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2019, from
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What our readers think

  1. Mary Grace Payla

    Thank you for a beneficial article. God bless!

  2. rene

    amazing , thank you , i have a question if you dont mind , im from venezuela and find myself starting a doctorate in education and i want to base my research in appreciative inquiry but im having some troubles in getting into the AI epistemology , i kind see AI has an mixed approach to it when it comes to theoretical foundations on one hand the constructionist principle fit the interpretive paradigm , on the other hand Ai seems a kind of action research which means AI may branches out to socio critical paradigm or critical theory, so that makes 2 paradigms, anyways today i watched a kenneth gergen lecture in which he put together these 2 theories into the constructivism reach, he even went on to add michel foucault to the mix and hes poststructuralist, i dont know , greetings and your article was great ..
    pd i apologize for my english

  3. simon

    Thanks for the great article, is very helpful

    • Leslie Riopel

      You’re very welcome Simon!


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