A fresh approach to problem-solving using Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is a strategy or intentional change that identifies the best of ‘what is’ to pursue dreams and possibilities of ‘what could be’. It is a cooperative search for strengths, passions and life-giving forces that are found within every system and that hold potential for inspired, positive change.1

While traditional problem-solving paradigms are effective in leading our response to critical and regular issues arising, for some challenges we face, the problem-solving paradigm does not generate effective or sustainable change. When an issue such as team dysfunction or intense behavioural management demands arise and our normal ways of addressing them stop working, we experience that “stuck” feeling. The circumstances do not change and things do not feel better. This can lead us to continue to repeat the same recipe for problem-solving over and over again with increasing frustration.

If left too long the issue that has us feeling “stuck” can become part of team or organisational culture entrenched, unspoken and there to be implicitly passed on to new staff, children and our families as “just the way we do things around here”.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that allows us to shift from traditional deficit-based thinking to a strengths-based paradigm that exposes new opportunities. Author and practitioner Bliss Browne2 outlines the four cornerstones of the Appreciative Inquiry approach as being:

  1. The questions we ask determine what we will find: The simple act of asking questions influences a system or community. Therefore the questions we ask are ‘fateful’.
  2. Words create worlds: Words have the power to create or destroy, inspire or discourage. Negative words and images weaken us on every level, positive words, images and conversations strengthen us and what we are able to accomplish.
  3. Stories shape, identify and expand imagination: Humans hold their knowledge in story form. Their internal mental maps or stories help to create their view of reality and shape that reality.
  4. Every voice is important: Within any system, engaging the full ecology and diversity of the system is the best way to create new possibilities that are richer and stronger than what any one group could create alone.

An Appreciative Inquiry approach exposes the dynamic leadership qualities needed to generate effective and sustainable improvement. It gives permission to set aside the things that do not work and to focus on that which is working well and build on those strengths to expose new, creative and brave choices that have perhaps been hidden up until this point.

Appreciative Inquiry asks us to be very deliberate in how we decide what we are going to focus on. For instance, which statement feels more constructive: “Addressing team conflict” or “Growing a vibrant, resilient and dynamic team”? Which of these activities would you rather put your time, energy and power into?

Redirecting to this new way of engaging with challenges is most commonly facilitated through the use of the 5D model which comprises: Define, Discover, Dream, Design and Destiny/Deliver.

At the ‘Discover’ stage lots of time is spent crafting and exploring great questions that from the very outset draw out the stories people carry which reflect opportunities, strengths and meaningful connections with themselves and others. What is the best of what is here? Where is the story we like telling?

At the ‘Dream’ stage participants draw on those good stories to envisage a bold desirable future. Green fields and blank canvases–it is the chance to grow ideas previously dismissed as ‘silly’ or not even visible before.

While a visionary and positivity driven approach, the appeal of Appreciative Inquiry is that it does not leave lofty ideas floating aimlessly but has the two key stages that enable you to ‘Design’ ways to successfully implement and action required change that will help you advance towards your ‘Destiny/deliver’.

The approach is practical and energising and is a great way to illuminate opportunities for growth when things have turned lacklustre. Appreciative Inquiry is useful when a different perspective is needed, or when we wish to begin a new process from a fresh, positive vantage point. Appreciative Inquiry can be used with individuals, partners, small groups or large organisations.
Appreciative Inquiry

If you are interested in facilitating new ways of thinking enrol in our Facilitation and Presenting Skills workshop in Cairns.



1. Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987. Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivastva, S. (1987) Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In Woodman, R. W. & Pasmore,
W.A. (eds) Research In Organizational Change And Development, Vol. 1 (129-169). Stamford, CT: JAI Press.
2. From the work of Bliss Browne, Imagine Chicago/ Mary-Alice Arthur, SOAR, PO Box 10-868, Wellington.