Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith


The key aim of the discovery stage is to discover the best of ‘what is’ in relation to the topic under investigation by recalling times of excellence – times when people have had a sense of being really effective, engaged and productive. The aim is not to benchmark average performance, but to find the moments of ‘positive deviance’ – examples of exceptionally good performance that stand out from the norm.

Having elicited stories of these high points, the aim is also to uncover the unique factors that made the high points possible. This may offer clues as to how the organisation or team can make exceptional performance happen more consistently in future. You also want to know what the narrators value most about their stories, as this offers clues about what motivates them at work.

By telling one another stories about those times when they have experienced things at their very best, people begin liberate themselves from a ‘fault analysis’ mindset and move into a more positive and generative shared mindset. This will assist them in coming up with more imaginative visions for the future, and more creative ideas for improvement.

The discovery stage is typically conducted via one-to-one Appreciative Interviews, using a series of pre-agreed questions. It can also include focus groups and large group meetings. This stage can take hours, days, weeks or even months, depending on the size, scope and aim of the inquiry.

In any form, the discovery stage aims to involve as many diverse voices as possible from within the organisation at all levels. Ideally it should include external stakeholders, customers, ‘best in class’ benchmarking organisations and, if appropriate, members of the local community.

It should provide

  • An appreciative understanding of the ‘positive core’ of the organisation or team
  • Improved morale and creative new thinking though the sharing of best practice and examples
  • Enhanced knowledge and collective understanding
  • People starting to make positive changes spontaneously, well ahead of completion of the overall 5D cycle.

Effective discovery

Really effective discovery involves a number of key activities.

1. Asking the right questions

This involves translating the affirmative topic(s) into a series of positive questions, designed to elicit the required information and also to move the interviewee towards a more positive and creative emotional state.

Here are some examples which can be adapted to fit most work-based situations:

  • Tell me about one of your best experiences at work – a time when you felt most alive and engaged with your work and proud to be part of it…
  • What do you value most about... yourself, your team, your work, your organisation?
  • What is the core factor that gives life to your organisation – which it wouldn’t be the same without?
  • If you had three wishes to improve your organisation, what would they be?
  • What achievements are you (and/or your team) proud of?
  • Leaving aside the money, what makes it worth coming into work?

2. Asking the questions in the right way

Good appreciative questions encourage people to use their imaginations and to think in different ways. They should aim to produce stories, rather than dry abstract opinions and theories. Say ‘tell me about....’ and ‘describe to me...’, rather than ‘what’s your view about...’ or ‘what do you think...’

3. Identifying themes

At the end of the Appreciative Interview process, it’s time to see what themes have emerged from the interviews. With a small group or an individual table of six to eight people in an Appreciative Inquiry summit, you can ask the people around the table what really stood out for them from the interviews.

At the end of a larger-scale and longer-term discovery process, where trained interviewers have each conducted a number of interviews, the interviewers could share what stood out most for them from their interviews and then vote on which are the most salient themes.

In either case, it’s important to identify which themes have the most emotional resonance for participants, as well as how often similar themes crop up in the interviews.

4. Compiling the findings

Depending on the form chosen for the Appreciative Inquiry process, you could

  1. Compile the stories and themes into an interim Discovery report for stakeholders (this feeds into the Dream, Design and Delivery stages of AI)
  2. Review it immediately with all participants and feed it directly into the Dream stage of an AI event (as well as capturing it for a future report).