Affirmative action

Appreciative Inquiry offers organisations a more positive approach to problem-solving. In the first of a three-part series, we put the method into context for the people development professional

Workplaces in the US, Northern Europe and the UK tend to exist within a culture where ‘problem-based’ development approaches to learning tend to outnumber ‘affirming’ ones. Think back to your earliest experiences of learning and education, from the teachings of your parents to school teachers and colleagues, and consider how often you were told you were doing something the wrong way, closely followed by somebody then showing you the right way to go about it.

There is a widely-held assumption in Western culture that improvement comes primarily from the eradication of defect or error. This has become so deeply ingrained that we no longer notice that it is just a theory, and it is taken for granted that this is the only way to achieve improvement.

This applies in many areas of our lives – from educational approaches (the focus on the correction of mistakes), medicine (the focus on eliminating the symptoms of illness), the workplace (the eradication of error and problems), to the everyday dealings in politics and the media (the tearing apart of ideas to illuminate and overcome their deficits).

Rights and wrongs

This approach of informed criticism and constructive (sometimes combative) problem solving has indeed exposed important flaws, and led to huge progress in countless domains.

But it also comes at a price. We have become so focused on solving problems that the negative things are often the ones we notice first.

When things go well, we might celebrate, acknowledge and congratulate ourselves on our success. But we rarely look into the reasons for this ‘rightness’ in the same way that we enquire rigorously when things go wrong.

The result is a society caught somewhere between negative storytelling, depreciation and distrust, with widening splits between generations, genders, religions and races. Of course, problem-solving approaches can and do work, especially in the short-term, as they help us to feel in control. But often, the experience and long-term impact of problem solving are disappointing.

The management and academic communities have recently become more aware of the limitations of the problem-solving approach. But their response has been to create an ever-increasing number of new fads, each one claiming to bring the answer to the question: how do we fix things properly this time? As each fad fades away, a new question emerges: what if the core assumption that we have to ‘fix things’ to get improvement, were flawed in itself?


Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was developed in its earliest form in 1980 by David Cooperrider, Frank Barrett and Suresh Srivastva at the Weatherhead School of Management in their consulting project with the Cleveland Clinic in 1980. The idea was to provide a rigorous, successful and sustainable alternative to fixing and eradicating problems. This was a real consulting project for a hotel attached to a specialist medical centre, caught in a spiral of deficit thinking, blame, threat and the constant presence of ‘doom’ anticipation. The more the problems were addressed head-on, the more the sense of hopelessness increased.

In an inspired experiment, Cooperrider and Barrett took the staff out of their current mindset by asking them to inquire into a high-quality, high-performing hotel elsewhere, but restricted them to only ask and talk about aspects of the hotel’s success. As the employees’ skill in this positive, rigorous inquiry increased, they then turned their attention to their own hotel, but again, only looking for strengths and successes, rather than attempting to solve problems.

Through this project and the many that followed in organisational, community, family, individual and medical environments, a key principles of AI was discovered – if we focus on what is going wrong (even with the intent of putting it right) we tend to become increasingly defined by the causes and experiences of ‘wrong’. If we focus on what is going right, we become increasingly defined by the causes and experiences of ‘right’.

How is AI different?

At first glance, AI can be confused with other approaches – most commonly with the ‘Positive Thinking’ movement, which also started in the US. When this comparison is made, it often labelled as being ‘Pollyanna-ish’, or ‘a way of avoiding critical issues’. While some may feel this is true of positive-thinking approaches, a closer study demonstrates that it isn’t true of Appreciative Inquiry. The difference is AI is grounded in past and current reality to demonstrate how AI can be applied and differentiated from both problem solving and positive thinking.

Let us consider the following challenge:

  • Falling customer retention rates
  • Increased customer complaints
  • Increased turnover of customer-facing staff
  • Stories of poor service getting into the public domain

Option 1
Problem-solving view

  • Involve your staff and customers in a rigorous analysis of critical incidents of poor customer service
  • Get behind the issues and incidents to understand the root causes of failure
  • Tell staff to ‘raise their game’ and make sure they know how urgent and important change is
  • Design solutions that eradicate the causes of these failures
  • Implement solutions to achieve improvement.

Option 2
Positive-thinking view

  • Create positive visions and images of success – ideals of what ‘could’ be happening
  • Encourage optimism and positive talk about customer service and support positive experiences
  • Discourage negativity or the voicing of issues relating to customer service or relationship.

Option 3
Appreciative inquiry view

  • Involve your staff and customers in finding past or present incidents that exemplify the best of what is possible, eg, great customer service, and analyse those incidents rigorously
  • Get behind the incidents of great service, to understand the root causes of real success
  • Talk about real (not idealised) success, share stories that set new standards and expectations within the culture
  • Design new ways of working that support and amplify the causes of success, making it more likely that these will become commonplace
  • Implement those changes and continue to assess how it is working.

In the US, many organisations have been working with AI for some time. Case studies include projects at British Airways (US), McDonalds Midwest Division, Nasa, Hunter Douglas and GTE going back during the 1980s and 1990s.

In Europe, a growing number of global and national organisations, including BP and Nokia, are finding that AI can bring fresh new approaches to change.

So, how does AI work?

AI can be defined as the art of discovering and valuing those factors that ‘give life’ to an organisation, group, individual or relationship. By this, we mean those things which make them unique, powerful and the best they can be. This is why it is so effective in transforming performance, as its aim is to help people collectively realise their full potential and be great performers.

Primarily through structured conversations and storytelling, the best examples of the past and present are recalled, to help visualise what could be possible in the future and translate it into reality and action today. It is a pragmatic, powerful way to develop individuals, and organisations.

According to Cooperrider: “AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to anticipate and heighten positive potential. It involves the mobilisation of inquiry through the crafting of the ‘unconditional positive question’, often involving hundreds or even thousands of people.”

Here, David Cooperrider refers to the other key shift in AI: a shift from advocacy to inquiry. This is often just as challenging a change in our personal and organisational lives as is the change from problem solving to appreciation. In organisations, our ability to influence, articulate and present answers is generally more prized than our ability to listen and ask questions. This is true for organisational leaders and managers as well as for HR professionals. To ‘live’ in a state of AI, we need to examine and challenge our own need to appear knowing and in control.

Problem-solving interventions   

  • The problem with this is…
  • What you need to improve is…
  • What’s getting in your way?
  • Don’t do… stop doing…
  • Avoid or remove…
  • When you feel bad? What are the symptoms and causes?

Affirming interventions

  • What I like about this is…
  • What you are really good at is…
  • What would help you be successful?
  • Do more of…
  • Build on… Continue to…
  • When you feel good, how does it feel and what enables it?

What’s next?  

The next two articles in this series will explore the underpinning principles of AI in more depth, as well as the methodologies that support the application of the method. For more information visit the AI Commons website at

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