The Organizational Strategist

November 25, 2009

Appreciative Inquiry: An Introduction to a Fantastic Way to Enact Change


I have found that properly involving people are often an incredibly critical factor, if not the most important factor, to ensuring some sort of organizational change goes along as planned. Understanding the direction of the change should come with the organizational strategy that has been set forth. Knowing the proper timing and ways to involve stakeholders in the change process comes with time and experience. Once those details and the strategy to go forward have been agreed upon, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has been a favorite method of mine to involve any number of individuals from very small to incredibly large groups toward the implementation of an initiative.

There is an enormous that could be said about AI. In this post, I’ll just stick to the basics to help readers get a flavor of what it is. Further articles will mention more specific aspects of AI.

-Description of Appreciative Inquiry-

Appreciative Inquiry is fun to facilitate, energizes all of the participants, constructs and cultivates at the same time and is many other helpful attributes. It centers on finding the good, the strength, and the positive in an organization or individual, which forms the appreciation. The process to find that information is the inquiry. Hence, that combination becomes appreciative inquiry.

I came to know of AI from the Organizational Behavior (OB) department in Weatherhead. Those who taught me the most are Professors David Cooperrider and Ron Fry, who are both very well known for their consulting work and writing. They can both be recognized by their calm tone, easy going attitudes, and well pronounced mustaches. As a side note, it did seem that many of the distinguished characters in the OB department all had mustaches. Ladies, don’t worry, I have known many fantastic AI practitioners that are women.

In the MPOD (Master of Science in Positive Organizational Development and Change) program, AI changed the program so radically that it evolved into MPOD instead of simply MOD. With the addition of the “P” for Positive, often people ask “was organizational development negative previously?” The answer would be “no” because organizational development is meant to help build or implement changes. The approach in doing so would likely not have been as upbeat or optimistic because of the way that AI purposefully centers on the positive in an organization.

The positive focus is often referred to as a strengths based approach. In using AI, it pulls upon the good aspects that are already present or have been enacted in an organization. The inquiry is the information gathering that helps elicit the stories, descriptions, and other imaginings of what can be possible from the people involved. Due to the nature of pulling out the good aspects present in an organization, it makes it easier, more engaging, uplifting, energizing and more to be a part of the process. Unlike a problem-centric change initiative, one where the objective is to “fix” something, AI tries to create, build, cultivate and otherwise inspire growth in the system of influenced people. Often the energy and enthusiasm brought up in the AI process will produce new dialogue, conversations and fast paced team formation to further enact change.

-How AI Works-

I won’t get into the details of the 4D cycle of AI here yet or other specifics. Those juicy bits of information can wait for follow up posts.

As said above, AI involves a lot of interviewing and storytelling. That is the most crucial aspect of AI since that information and energy from the conversation fuels the rest of the effort. How the interviews are implemented can be done in many different fashions to meet the needs of the change intervention and other potential constraints (time, money, etc). The two methods that I know to be the most influential are cascading interviews and summits.

Cascading interviews

Cascading interviews are where a core group starts as interviewers to gather data, create energy, and discover ideas. Each interviewer would undergo a handful of interviews. The interviewees would then become interviewers and would interview another handful of people who have not been interviewed yet. Through the breadth and depth of the interviewing from gradually spreading out the AI interviews, the cascading effect is obtained. This method allows for the change process to occur at a more natural pace and does not necessitate people to be pulled away from their normal jobs in such a way that an offsite or series of multi-hour long meetings would.


AI Summits are multi-day workshops that include AI interviews, activities for planning and coordination, and project team formation. The intent with summits is to bring in as many of the key people as possible to try and enact a holistic change process.. AI, being a very energizing method, helps tremendously to provide the steam to the engine of change.

-AI in Action-

Here are some avenues that I have found AI to be helpful:

  • Job interviews
  • OD interventions on the topics of empowerment and performance management
  • Sustainability collaboration
  • Workshop facilitation
  • Best practice sharing
  • Personal development and coaching
  • Case study interviews
  • MBA curriculum design applications and ideas
  • Data gathering for a study on Gen Y values, motivation, and retention
  • AI strengths-based performance management reviews

Some Examples Where I know AI has been used very successfully:

  • Higher Education
  • Utilities (Coal and Water energy)
  • Aerospace & Defense
  • Fortune 100 companies
  • US Armed Forces
  • Manufacturing companies
  • United Nations Conferences
  • Engineering companies


AI rapidly became one of my favorite ways of implementing a phase or an entire change project. The AI interventions can rapidly grow with their own vitality in such a way that it’s both shocking and inspiring. Needless to say, I highly recommend finding your own vehicle for trying it out.


  1. Although this program has been around a while, I am only beginning to understand its value. I just completed Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. Many questions were generated and your article here gives me some incite into effective employment of the process. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by James Beeler — November 25, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    • Thanks for reading James. I’ve found AI to be applicable in many different forms. What are your interests in using it? I may be able to suggest some options or connect you with those who might have good ideas.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  2. Hi Whit. Another interesting piece, seems we have much in common. As a sustainability and change practitioner I’m enjoying your work. Appreciative Inquiry is indeed fun as you suggest. I’m happy to see you use that word, fun in work is good for us all. And as for story telling, well that’s just the best! Needs a lot of practice and then – pow, the things you can achieve! Won’t bother you with the gory details but I used AI as a way of moving a global relationship between a customer and supplier from good to excellent in the words of the supplier.

    Good work, thanks for the article.

    Comment by Doug Shaw — November 26, 2009 @ 12:56 am

    • Hi Doug,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! The story telling component is a powerful piece that should not be underplayed. I may do an article on that. It’s also a skill I’d like to develop better myself. I’m happy to hear that you’ve used AI to an ‘excellent’ result.

      As far as sustainability and AI together, summits are a fantastic means of bringing together collective action. I do have plans on writing up an article on that topic because the fit of AI & sustainability inititiatives have been remarkable.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  3. Dear Whit,


    So AI has finally arrived into the realm of OD +.

    It seems to have gathered some mass as also some excellent proponants, since it came in as an alternative for Participatory Rural Appraisal which we used to practice with the communities in the social development realm, in the 90s. It was yes, fun and helped communities look inward as to what they can do based on what they already had achieved rather than expect from the outside world. I was kind of trying a mix and match with a good measure of success.

    Would be interested to learn more and follow the articles. Do post.

    Comment by Rajeshwar — November 26, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    • Hi Rajeshwar,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! AI has indeed been gathering more acclaim and industry application.

      I’d be interested to hear more about Participatory Rural Appraisal since that’s new to me. What is that methodology like and how has the mix and match with AI looked like?

      I have plans for more articles on AI. I recently posted one concerning strength based change and how it isn’t “fluffy”.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  4. Wow enjoyed reading your post. I added your feed to my google reader.

    Comment by Appoikifs — November 27, 2009 @ 3:37 am

    • Great! Let me know if there are any particular interests you have that you would like to read about.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  5. I enjoyed reading this Whit. I am on a 1 year AI Practitioners Certificate program with NTL and am networked with the European AI group. The AI process is fun and has enormous power, even for cultural change in an organization – the type of change we acknowledge as the hardest of all. The theory is increasingly being grounded in neuroscience as social scientists combine research with medical scientists using developing fMRI and EEG technology to test how the brain processes information. Positive Thinking, AI and other disciplines that change perspective and focus will grow in OD and Change as we understand better how and why they work so well.
    Thanks Whit. Let’s keep this discussion going.

    Comment by Richard Coe — November 30, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! AI is very helpful for surfacing ideas for positive change and brings out the gut feelings through the story telling well. I’d be happy to hear about your experiences too. How have you seen it used for a culture change? How do you plan on using AI going forward?

      You bring up a good point Richard about the neuroscience behind AI. Do you have any links or sources for that? I remember hearing about it, but have not been able to find the research papers and sources.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

      • Not neuroscience as such, but Positive Psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson has done interesting work on the value of positive emotions in encouraging strategic thinking, resilience and all kinds of other benefits: and particularly which links to a number of readable articles by her.

        Good article BTW Whit! We use Appreciative Inquiry all the time in our work.

        Comment by aiconsult — December 16, 2009 @ 1:37 am

  6. This article really explains well the practical implications of AI. Well done! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Ellen Markey — November 30, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    • Thanks Ellen. I’m happy to do so, especially since I’ve found AI to be such a great way to “do business”, in its many different forms.

      Comment by Whit — December 3, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  7. […] This post was Twitted by bmecdw […]

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  8. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wasser_Stiftung: Appreciative Inquiry: An Introduction to a Fantastic Way to Enact …: Higher Education; Utilities (Coal and Water energ

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