Appreciative Inquiry: The Power of Asking the Right Questions in Business 

By Ann Elliott


Change is ever present. It is moving faster and faster with no probability of slowing down. Expecting things to return to normal after a major world event such as the global COVID pandemic is unrealistic. In other words, it ain’t gonna happen.  

With current technology to process information at a fraction of the time from just a decade ago, change is evident. If you are old enough, you may recall going to the local library to search the shelves for information about a subject. The internet and search engines make that mode of research outdated. You do not even have to go to the library to get the information you need. The decades of the twenties put everything in motion. 

When was the last time you were in a meeting and a question came up that no one knew the answer to? Someone said, “I’ll ask Mr. Google.” In a few moments, the answer appeared on the screen of their phone. Change has occurred at warp speed. 

The Root Cause Method for Problem Solving  

Relying solely on what worked in the past does not equip you to manage change for the future. With your organization facing disruption or addressing problems, you look for the best way to address the issue. 

A common practice is root cause analysis. This is also known as deficit theory of change. This is a valuable tool. The four steps of this approach include the following: 

  1. Identify the problem 
  1. Analyze the root cause of the problem 
  1. Brainstorm ways to solve the problem 
  1. Develop action plans to treat the problem 

The thinking of this method is “Let’s fix what’s wrong and let the strengths take care of themselves.” While this method may fix the problem, it does not provide an expansive, creative approach which yields better results. 

The Shortcomings of Focus on the Deficit for System Change: 

Relying only on this method of organizational change puts the focus on the deficit. We are looking at what is wrong, what is broken, what needs to be fixed. Using a principle of yoga, “energy goes where you focus.”  

It assumes if we fix this problem, we can get back to the way things were. “Back to normal” is a myth. 

Applying the deficit theory of change for feedback to employees to improve performance does not work. According to the article in Harvard Business Review, “The Feedback Fallacy” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall ‘focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.’  

Focusing on the negative amplifies the negative. A stronger motivation for change is to focus on the possibilities.  

An Alternative Approach to Systemic Change 

In the mid-eighties as a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University, David Cooperrider, developed a method for organization change. The method is based on questioning what is working in an organization as the name implies, Appreciative Inquiry, instead of fixing the problem. 

The problem is resolved by expanding what is working well in an organization. What is problematic is crowded out by emphasizing what is working well. 

As a chapter chair for the Women Presidents Organization, I have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Cooperrider twice in our chapter chair training. Most recently chapter chairs from around the world came to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, where he is a professor in the Weatherhead School of Management. 

Dr. Cooperrider shared with us that “human systems grow in the direction of what is most rigorously asked about.” On this premise, do we really want another survey about a low morale system?  

At the heart of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is questioning. It requires deep curiosity and fascination to discover the positive aspects of an organization. This can apply not only to large systems such as institutions/corporations/municipalities but to teams and individuals as well. It is impossible to overstate the power of asking the right questions.  

The other element of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) involves looking for and finding what is working well. Where are the successes? What are you valuing in the system?  

Another meaning of appreciation is increasing. What do you want to see or experience more of? If you have your investments in the stock market, for example, you want your broker to tell you that your investments are appreciating, increasing in value, correct? 

The most common model in using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is referred to as the 4D model. The initial step in the process is DEFINE. Identify what the sponsors of the inquiry want to improve or to create. For example, exceptional customer service or a profitable fund-raising project. In making a presentation about Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to my Rotary club, these were the two examples I cited with them. 

  1. DISCOVERY. Looking at past successes, peak experiences, and what is working well, share a high point story. It is important for this to be a narrative which is unique to the individual. Everyone has a story. 
  1. DREAM. From the narratives of the participants, envision and co create an ideal future state. This is based on the positive elements uncovered in the discovery phase. This is the continuity question. What must remain constant regardless of the change? What is life giving to the organization and to you?  
  1. DESIGN. What must be in place or created to move towards the dreamed future state? This step focuses on the practical steps which may need to be created or are in place currently. Referring to my Rotary presentation example, to provide exceptional customer service, a well-trained staff with an understanding of products for sale must be in place. 
  1. DESTINY. This final stage involves acting by implementing the design steps. Monitoring progress towards the designed future is an important element. How many times have you participated in a planning session which did not produce any results? When the participants know Who is responsible for What by When you have a method of accountability with a high probability of success and enthusiasm. Equally important is that the entire system had input into the design. Their voices were heard. Their stories were important.  

The Appreciative Inquiry Method in a Time of Change 

As Dr. Cooperrider told the WPO chapter chairs, there is a sense of hope today. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” I took that to mean I have a part to play in bringing positive change to the world. And you do, too! 

In our WPO chapter meetings, we have an opportunity to “facilitate greatness.” At a roundtable of successful women owning and running multi-million-dollar companies, the power of the questions we ask, determines the value of the outcomes.  

The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) model utilizes the principles of neuroscience as found in the Positive Intelligence (PQ) methodology created by Shirzad Charmaine. For example, when you are focused on the negative and what is not working, your mental neurons of negativity attract the negative neurons of people around you. The technical term for this is mirroring neurons. Can you recall an instance where someone expresses how bad a situation is and those around them chime in to agree and to give more egregious examples of negative situations? Negativity escalates and it becomes the norm. You have probably been on a team or in a company with this perception. Creativity and innovation do not thrive in a negative environment. 

Saboteurs are negative thinking patterns that create stress, anxiety, worry, and fear. These saboteurs abound in a process which looks for the problem as the singular way to fix the problem. By developing mental fitness to activate the part of your brain which engages creativity, empathy, innovation, curiosity, and wisdom you can achieve more with ease and flow.  

The blend of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and Positive Intelligence (PQ) creates a powerful model for change at the individual level and the system level.  

The Way Forward 

Develop your skills to ask the right questions to discover what is going well in any situation. With well-crafted questions you can stimulate dialogue, discovery, and imaginative thinking. You can be confident that you can find many things going well that you can build on. Be willing to find more right than wrong.  No matter how large or how small, your system is interconnected. Each part contributes to the whole. 

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Ann Elliott

Ann Elliott, founder of The Berkana Company, excels at leadership strategy

An expert at helping business leaders enjoy more profits and improved productivity with less stress, she blends fun and excitement with executive coaching and training to yield results for her clients.

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