Simon Claridge

Dec 15, 2022, 12:00 PM

Appreciative Inquiry: a positive approach to problem solving

By Simon Claridge

Problem solving is an important attribute for any charity leader, or indeed consultant. Historically, however, and with the best intentions, the tendency has been to tackle problems in a formulaic manner, with often similar outcomes.

You could describe it as a “deficit model”. It goes like this. There’s a problem. Too many mistakes are being made and we’re not being efficient. We need to minimise the mistakes and deficiencies. How best can we do that? We put in place rules, controls and structure. That should solve it. 

Apply this approach to a shop in which customer care is slipping. There has been an increase in complaints and a drop in trade. So new rules are put in place about staff conduct, it is monitored and exists within a rigid structure. What is likely to happen?

Of course, the staff will begin to conform because they won’t want to lose their job, but in all likelihood they’ll be working within a culture of anxiety and that is likely to impact on how they deal with customers.

An asset-based approach

What if a different question was asked, one that included the staff and perhaps some loyal customers who would be willing to share their views? What if the question was, “When were things great here? When were we at our most successful?” How might that affect our problem solving?

Immediately the problem is being analysed from an asset viewpoint. It is inclusive and is working to understand what success looked like and to do more of it, to be innovative and creative.

Originally proposed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastava in 1987, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a theory, methodology and process of organisational and social change. It is commonly called an “asset-based” or “strengths-based” approach to systems change, because it emphasises positive idea generation over negative problem identification (the “deficit-based” approach).

The model utilises questions and dialogue that help participants uncover existing assets, strengths, advantages or opportunities in their communities, organisations, or teams, and then collectively work towards developing and implementing strategies for improvement.

The principles of Appreciative Inquiry

AI is driven by five principles. They are:

  1. Constructionist Principle (Words Create Worlds): Reality, as we know it, is a subjective vs objective state and is socially created through language and conversations.
  2. Simultaneity Principle (Inquiry Creates Change): The moment we ask a question, we begin to create a change. The questions we ask are fateful.
  3. Poetic Principle (We Can Choose What We Study): Teams and organisations, like open books, are endless sources of study and learning. What we choose to study makes a difference. It describes – even creates – the world as we know it.
  4. Anticipatory Principle (Images Inspire Action): Human systems move in the direction of their images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the present-day action.
  5. Positive Principle (Positive Questions Lead to Positive Change): Momentum for small- or large-scale change requires large amounts of positive effect and social bonding. This momentum is best generated through positive questions that amplify the positive core.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry to your charity

The shop example could just as easily be a charity, which needs to fundraise in order to achieve its mission of supporting the community. Is it the charity’s role to decide what’s needed in the community – what the money, if successfully raised, should be spent on?

I like to cite the example of the Pakistani community organisation in the Midlands, whose coordinator, when asked the question, “What would make the biggest difference to the way things are now?” replied, “What we really need are bicycles.”

The community's women had gained weight during lockdown and wanted a way to exercise. What they really wanted was to ride bicycles in the local park together. Nobody could have guessed at that; it was arrived at through bothering to ask, and the solution was duly delivered.

I’m not promoting AI as a panacea; it has received plenty of criticisms. However, as a part of the toolkit that charity leaders and consultants must carry in order to be as effective as possible, it has value. Moreover, I would argue, it is a very useful model charities in the realms of fundraising, organisational development, staff development and management and leadership.

If you would like to explore how Appreciative Inquiry might be applied in your particular context, then please get in touch with Simon by emailing office@actionplanning.co.uk. 

Stay positive.



Simon Claridge

Simon Claridge is an independent consultant specialising in Social Value and works with VCSE and Third Sector organisations and individuals to enable them to better understand Social Value and how it can bring meaningful investment into communities.

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