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Appreciative Inquiry

By Lorna McCue, OHCC
This is the fourth blog post in a series on facilitation techniques and approaches that will be written by various HC Link staff over the next while.

In recent years, HC Link consultants have increasingly been using an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach in working with community organizations, partnerships and networks. We find that it fits well with our overall Healthy Communities approach, which focusses on a creating a shared vision of a preferred future, developing asset-based strategies, and undertaking collective action. Whether we are working on governance, organizational development, strategic planning or policy development, AI principles can be brought into play with positive, energizing results.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

AI is a powerful vehicle for setting in motion a wave of positive organizational change. It is based on a very simple premise: that organizations grow in the direction of what they focus their attention on.   The practice of AI is grounded in an exploration of questions that will uncover an organization’s best practices and innovations, and the conditions that allow it to thrive. It then applies these findings to the daily processes and practices of the organization’s work.

AI was developed in the mid 1980’s by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University. Cooperrider saw that the traditional problem solving approaches did not lead to expanding human horizons and possibilities. He suggested that we need forms of inquiry and change that will help us discover what could be, rather than try to fix what is.  AI is based on the idea that organizational systems are not like machines that can be taken apart and fixed, but rather are social systems. As such, they are more like organisms, which are healthiest when they are focused on their positive life-giving characteristics, rather than their problematic aspects. Thus, AI seeks to “create processes of inquiry that will result in better, more effective, convivial, sustainable and vital social systems. It assumes this requires widespread engagement by those who will ultimately implement change.”

The initial set of principles for AI was that the inquiry should begin with appreciation, and be collaborative, provocative, and applicable. For many years Cooperrider resisted writing a “how to” book on AI, and encouraged people to be innovative in applying these principles, with the result that many different methodologies have been developed. However, he has since published a number of work books containing background information, examples, tools and resources, which are available or referenced on the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

Assumptions of AI

  1. In every society, organization or group, something works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.
  3. Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
  4. The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
  5. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
  6. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
  7. It is important to value differences.
  8. The language we use creates our reality.

Two Contrasting Approaches for Organizational Change

Deficit Based Thinking
(Organization has problems)

Leads to problem solving approach

Asset Based Thinking
(Organization has solutions)

Leads to Appreciative Inquiry Approach

What is wrong
  • How to fix the problem
  • Focused on the past
  • Analysis of facts and forces
  • Problem driven
  • Scarcity of resources
  • Resistance and withdrawal
What is right
  • How to build on the positive
  • Focused on the future
  • Development of relationships
  • Vision led
  • Abundance of resources
  • Energy and excitement

The Five “D” Process

AI is an ongoing, iterative cycle consisting of five phases: define, discovery, dream, design and destiny. The “define” phase is sometimes excluded, as it may happen only once within a particular AI process, while the other phases may be repeated several times. The following description of an AI process is based on a consultation provided to the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition by Michelle Chambers in 2007.

Reframe a challenge into a positive topic of inquiry and choose questions for participants to ask each other that will include the whole organizational system.

Discover: “the Best of What Is”
Identify the organization’s best practices, life-giving forces or root causes of success. Participants pair up and interview each other to gain new insights into what drives the organization, what its capabilities are and what contributions its members can make to the world. Questions are usually focussed around why they were attracted to the organization, peak experiences and what they value about the organization. They then identify key themes and best practices for the organization.

Dream: “What Might Be”
Moving from pairs into small groups, create images of what life in the organization would look like if the organization’s best practices became the norm rather than the exception. Extrapolate from “the best of what is” to envision “what might be”. Don’t just focus on incremental changes (i.e. more of the same) but be provocative; create transformational images of the future. These “dreams” are grounded in what participants know to be their own and the system’s capabilities. Once the visual image is complete, write a macro provocative proposition; i.e. one or two statements that capture the essence of the “dream”.

Design: “What Should Be”
As a large group, identify the high-leverage changes the organization would have to make in its systems, processes, roles and metrics to support the “dream”. This phase is more than just breaking down the dream into short-term actions; it requires figuring out how to align our systems, process and structures with our dream. Move into small groups for further dialogue on how we can make this happen.

Destiny: “What Will Be”
Identify challenges, innovations and facilitating forces for the reconstruction of the organization. What projects or initiatives do we need in order to deliver on those action plans and achieve our end goal? Who will initiate the next steps?


The Power of AI

AI has become very popular over the past ten years, due to the positive response it has received from AI participants all over the world. The power of AI seems to be the result of a combination of attributes, including:

  • the focus on the positive
  • the emotional responses of people
  • a deeper sense of hopefulness and optimism
  • the grounding that AI has in the past
  • the clarity of the future direction
  • the engagement of the whole system
  • an underlying movement toward action

Using AI in Strategic Planning - SOAR

AI is an exciting alternative to traditional strategic planning approaches. Its engaging, strengths based approach to organizational change creates a climate in which participants can re-invent the organization so that it really works. As an alternative to an analysis of the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT), Jackie Stavros developed the SOAR framework, which invites us to look at Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and (measurable) Results. SOAR doesn’t just involve senior leadership or the board of directors; it invites all involved in implementing the plan to participate and influence the planning process. Direct participation in the planning increases the quality and timeliness of goals being achieved. The organization will also be more resilient and adaptive to changes in the external and internal environment because its strengths, resources, skills and assets are well understood.

Evaluation of AI

Hundreds of significant appreciative inquiries have been documented and described at conferences, in journals and books, in the AI Practitioner (a quarterly magazine), and through the Appreciative Inquiry Commons (a website), including such diverse organizations as World Vision, the U.S. Navy and GTE/Verizon.

Empirical assessments of AI are limited, but are more plentiful than for most organizational change strategies. There is a growing body of longitudinal and critical research that is identifying moderating and mediating conditions that affect how AI is best done and under what conditions, opportunities and limitations. AI does not magically overcome any of the requirements for effective leadership, resourcing and skilled facilitation. However, given its extensive use over two decades and enthusiastic responses from participants, it has become a highly credible and highly valued approach.


Chambers & Associates. Appreciative Inquiry Overview; summary prepared for the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition. 2007

Gervase R. Bushe The Appreciative Inquiry Model in E.H. Kessler, (ed.) Encyclopedia of Management Theory, Sage Publications, 2013, pg. 1 of excerpt found at; accessed February 16, 2016

Gong Lucy. Appreciative Inquiry. Communication4Health accessed February 16, 2016

LeaderSkill Group: Appreciative Inquiry.; accessed February 16, 2016

McKenna, Catherine, Joanne Daykin, Bernard J Mohr and Tony Silbert. Strategic Planning with Appreciative Inquiry: Unleashing the Positive Potential to Soar. Innovation Partners, 2007.; accessed February 16, 2016

Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. Appreciative Inquiry Commons, accessed February 16, 2016.

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