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Appreciative Inquiry: An overview

Sarah Elaine Eaton, Ph.D

APA citation information:

Eaton, S. E. (2010). Appreciative Inquiry: An overview. Eaton International Consulting Inc. Retrieved from

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach used in academia, business and the not-for-profit
sectors. The main pioneer of AI is widely recognized to be David Cooperrider.

Traditional methods of assessing and evaluating a situation and then proposing solutions are
based on a deficiency model. Traditional methods ask questions such as “What are the
problems?”, “What’s wrong?” or “What needs to be fixed?” Sometimes such questions are
sugar-coated in trendy jargon. Instead of asking “What’s the problem?”, which can seem a
little harsh, the question may be couched in terms of ‘challenges’: “What are the
challenges?” Regardless of whether the question is asked harshly or softened with less
antagonistic language, the model remains as one of deficiency. The thinking behind the
questions assumes that there is something wrong, that something needs to be ‘fixed’ or
‘solved’. Business people (especially consultants) like to say they ‘can provide solutions’. The
underlying belief is that there is something wrong and it needs to be fixed.

Appreciative Inquiry flips all that on its head. It is an asset-based approach. It starts with the
belief that every organization, and every person in that organization, has something good
about it. Each person has something valuable to contribute and the organization itself has
merit of some kind. It asks questions like “What’s working?”, “What’s good about what you
are currently doing?”

AI seeks to uncover the best of what an organization is currently doing, using interviews with
its members. The interviews challenge participants to examine and discuss what is good about
their current situation and explore what works well within the organization. This approach
then utilizes the data collected from those interviews to construct a plan for enriching the
Appreciative Inquiry - An overview 2

organization by building on what is already working and what is already considered to be


An initial reaction for some people is to balk when they hear questions like “What’s working?”
An retaliatory answer may follow of “Nothing is working! It’s all a mess!”. People are so used
to working within a deficiency framework, that it is almost like the brain can not process
questions that are rooted in an asset-based approach. It may take some time for people to
come up with an answer to questions based on an AI approach. This is because AI challenges
us to shift our paradigm from deficiency thinking to asset thinking. Changing paradigms takes
some time, but the results can be worth it.

Appreciative inquiry can be particularly useful in organizations where individuals or group of

people are polarized over major issues. Rather than exacerbating the polarization between or
among the parties, it assumes that a core of positive traits exist which can be highlighted and
expanded up on to create even more success in an organization.


Cooperrider, D. L. (2007). Business as an agent of world benefit: Awe is what moves us

forward. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from
Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2008). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry.
Retrieved March 27, 2008, 2008, from
Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook.
Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.
Eliot, C. (1999). Locating the Energy for Change: An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry.
Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development / Insitut International
du Developpment Durable.
Faure, M. (2006). Problem solving was never this easy: Transformational change through
appreciative inquiry. Performance Improvement, 45(9), 22-31.
Murrell, K., L. (1999). International and intellectual roots of appreciative inquiry.
Organization Development Journal, 17(3), 49-61.

Eaton International Consulting 2010