Appreciative Inquiry: a simple way to discover effective solutions

From prehistoric times, we have been programmed to detect and solve problematic situations. That’s why so many people are obsessed with their problems. However, in most cases, a positive focus (instead of a problem-focus) would be more fruitful. One amazing method that puts this philosophy into practice is Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Appreciative Inquiry is a practical and constructive intervention-method developed in the mid-’80s by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. The method consists of 5 steps.

1. DEFINE: Define a positive 
theme to investigate
By drawing attention to what you want to move towards, instead of what you want to move away from, you build a foundation for a positive approach.

Let me show you an example. Which of the two questions below engages you in the most positive way?

  • How can we reduce the number of complaints from our customers?
  • How can we make sure that all our customers get a big smile on their face?

2. DISCOVER: Appreciate and value existing good things

In every situation, positive aspects can be found.

There is a simple trick you can use to gather insights about the things people appreciate. Ask stakeholders to assign a score to their situation, ranging from 1 – 10. 1 is the worst situation possible, and 10 the best in which everything is perfect. Use the score to start a constructive conversation. Talk about what goes well (“What already works well?”, “What is the highest you ever scored, why did that happen?”, “You have assigned a 5 to your current situation, what makes it a 5 and not a 4?”).

In the end, you can also start exploring the ‘dream’ phase by asking how the score can be improved (“How do we get from this 5 to a 6 or 7?”).

3. DREAM: Envision the ideal future

Having a shared dream (or vision) for the future is a powerful way to create a support base for change. The dream phase is perfect for creative sessions to define the desired spot on the horizon. Stimulate participants to build upon their past experiences and to imagine an ideal future-scenario.

Ask the participants questions such as: What would the future look like if your best experiences from the past would multiply? What would this ideal situation look like? What would make you happy or proud? What gives you energy? What would this ideal situation look like? How would it feel? What would it mean for you? etc. 

Help participants to make their ideal future as tangible as possible.

4. DESIGN: Investigate & design the success factors

The design phase is about creating a roadmap to the ideal future. 

This phase is about what can be done to move towards the dream. Often, little but concrete steps are designed that will cause direct results. You want direct results to check whether the approach works well or should be adjusted.

What does it take to reach this goal? What do we need to do? What’s the first step we can take in order to get closer to our goal? 

5. DELIVER: Execute, learn and adapt
The last step is about implementing the design strategy and learning on the go. Create a plan, carry out the actions and adapt if necessary. Add improvements or adjustments if it helps you.

What does work? What do you learn from it? What is helping? 



This article was written with the help of Arjan van Vembde, a specialist in the field of Appreciative Inquiry.

(if you speak Dutch, you might want to check out his book on the topic: ‘Werken Vanuit Kracht‘)


Two methods very similar to AI are Positive Deviance and Solutions-Focused thinking.

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