Appreciative inquiry

Our research uses Appreciative inquiry (AI) as a guiding epistemology. This is significant in that the AI kaupapa (methods) can help to accelerate the shift in discourse from deficit-based discourse to strengths-based discourse.

In the last decades of the twentieth century concepts of social construction (Gergen, 1994; Hatch, 1990) eroded modernist concepts about the nature of reality. This necessitates a rethink of research methods. The researcher is no longer an objective onlooker, but is an agent in social construction (Spradley, 1979; Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2003).

If social reality is constructed, why not construct it in a useful way? Appreciative Inquiry (AI) (Cooperrider, Sorensen, Whitney, & Yaegar, 2000) builds a framework for inquiry on constructivist, and postmodern foundations. Cooperrider and Whitney, (2000) expose the negative bias of inquiry; in the twentieth century, a growing vocabulary of dysfunction and deficit developed alongside the social sciences.

By contrast, Polak, (1973: cited in Cooperrider, 2000; 43) identifies vision as an agent of social dynamics “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures”. Rather than focus on deficit, this research is framed to identify and amplify the positive.

Principles found in AI build the kaupapa for our research. The AI inquiry model has four phases – discovery, dream, design and destiny (see fig. 1). Participants are guided to first appreciate what is working well in the organisation (discover), then imagine how it can be better (dream). Participants then design strategies and actions to further improve the organisation and then implement it (destiny). A second approach is not to follow these steps explicitly, but rather to include their intent in questions.

AI cycle

Figure 1: The Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2003: 6)

Cooperrider (2000:31) provides a useful summary of the application of Appreciative Inquiry in an organisational context.

  1. Organizations are the products of the affirmative mind.
  2. When beset with difficulties or problems, organisations need less fixing, less problem solving, and more reaffirmation – or more precisely, more appreciation.
  3. The primary executive vocation in a post-bureaucratic era is to nourish the appreciative soil from which new and better guiding images grow on a collective and dynamic basis.

AI also provides guidance for interviews. Ideally they surface “richly woven short stories” that can be used to inform delight and inspire the research audience (Bushe, 2000). Guidelines for AI questions are below.

AI influences our research in two significant ways:

  1. Positive inquiry. AI gives a strong mandate to surface positive aspects of the human condition. Often organisational discourse will gravitate towards the negative in a problem-solving mode. If interviewees stray into negative themes, where appropriate, our interviewers will gently seek to uncover the positives. It can be argued that this creates a bias, and that is accepted and is explicitly acknowledged.
  2. AI questioning. Our interviews will use or adapt AI questions. These questions have been used in many contexts and reported widely (Whitney, Trosteen-Bloom, 2003).

Guidelines for Appreciative Inquiry Questions

Appreciative Inquiry questions are always positive questions around affirmative topics. In asking and answering them, we get focused on what has life, meaning and value.

When communities use Appreciative Inquiry, they share in a way that stretches collective vision. By bringing their valued experiences into public view, they become civic actors by choice and can act on behalf of what they value. People see themselves as subjects of a system they can actively transform rather than as objects of a system that constrains their imaginations.

To design good appreciative inquiry questions, remember to:

  1. Allow questions to evoke ultimate concerns: ask about high point stories, most valued qualities, etc.
  2. Use positive questions that build on positive assumptions; i.e., What about this neighbourhood makes you especially glad you live here?
  3. Give a thought-provoking, appealing definition of the topic; for example, “A leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.”
  4. Present questions as an invitation; use expansive, positive, feeling, experiential words.
  5. Enhance the possibilities of storytelling, by asking questions that focus on personal experiences.
  6. Phrase questions in a conversational, friendly tone, and listen eagerly as you would to a close friend.
  7. Ask open questions to which you do not know the answer, expecting to learn something surprising and wonderful.
  8. Value the experience of the person being interviewed.

For more resources on Appreciative Inquiry, visit the AI Commons

Adapting AI Questions to A Space For Identity: Māori Being At Home At Work

This table identifies how AI was applied to develop research questions for the research report A Space For Identity: Māori Being At Home At Work.

Interview stages Appreciative inquiry questions
Stage one – the organisational environment. “We have identified that your workplace [or other appropriate label] manifests aspects of tikanga Māori. If I were an observer from another country what would I see, hear and feel that would inform me of tikanga?”
  • Describe a time you felt most proud of your organisations for its tikanga Māori.
  • What small improvements to the expression of tikanga would mean most to you?
  • When did you most feel proud to be Māori at work?
Stage two – identity. Check in with the interviewee about their sense of identity as a Māori. “The Identity Worksheet revealed that you ………… [insert strength of identity salience, for example, stongly] identify as Māori, and your organisation supports this. How does this benefit you?”
  • How do you benefit from being able to express your identity here?
  • How do the benefits you experience here manifest in other aspects of your life?
Stage threeorganisational citizenship. “You have a workplace that enables you to express your identity.   How does this benefit the organisation – in other words – what do they gain from you?” (if the interviewee is the owner ask – “You have created a workplace that enables you and others to express your identity. How does this benefit your company?”
  • What contribution are you making that you are especially proud of?
  • What would you like to be remembered for here?
  • How will you anticipate you will add even greater value?
Stage four – comparative experiences. “We have talked about the positives of being able to express your identity in the workplace. Can you recall situations in other workplaces that differ from this?”   “Consider a parent’s workplace experience and expression of their Māori identity – what comes to mind?”
Stage five – identity. There are also other identities that are important for you. Do you have any comments about the expression of these identities at work?
  • We have talked about your identity as a Māori – what other identities are nurtured here?

Table 1: Stages of Identity Development


Bushe, G. (2000) Five theories of change embedded in appreciative inquiry. In D. Cooperrider, P. Sorensen, D. Whitney, & T Yaeger (Eds.), Appreciative inquiry, rethinking human organisation toward a positive theory of change, pp 29 to 53. Illinois: Stipes.

Cooperrider, D (2000). Positive image, positive action: The affirming basis of organizing. In D. Cooperrider, P. Sorensen, D. Whitney, & T Yaeger (Eds.), Appreciative inquiry, rethinking human organisation toward a positive theory of change, (pp 29 to 53). Illinois: Stipes.

Cooperrider, D. Sorensen, P. Whitney, D. & Yaeger, T. (Eds.) (2000), Appreciative inquiry, rethinking human organisation toward a positive theory of change. Illinois: Stipes

Cooperrider, D. & Srivastva, S. (2000). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In D. Cooperrider, P. Sorensen, D. Whitney, & T Yaeger (Eds.), Appreciative inquiry, rethinking human organisation toward a positive theory of change (pp 55 to 98). Illinois: Stipes.

Gergen, K. (1994) Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hatch, M. (1997). Organizational theory: Modern, symbolic, and postmodern perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spradley, J. (1979) The ethnographic interview. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. In Stablein, R. (2004) Advanced Research Methods in Business. Palmerston North; Massey University.

Whitney, D. & Trosteen-Bloom, A. (2003). The power of appreciative inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.



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