Appreciative inquiry: Searching for the best in people

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘change’?

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘change’? What emotions come to the fore? What models do you associate with? How is change enacted at an organisational level? A team level? A personal level?

What if we challenged you to look for the positives in every situation, actively use the strengths of each individual as the benchmark for excellence, and constantly search for the best case scenario as an innovative way of moving forward? Change is the constant and reframing how we view change can have a powerful effect on the way positive transformation occurs in organisations. This blog will look at how appreciative inquiry (AI) is a positive approach that underpins change and uses the strengths of the people, and the system to produce extraordinary results.

Appreciative inquiry has its foundations in a collaboration in the 1980s between David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. What became apparent during their research was the powerful influence of ‘life centric forces’ on the outcomes of initiatives. Searching for the best of what is and the best in people was affirming and led to a collective sense of purpose.

“At its heart, appreciative inquiry is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but appreciative inquiry is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ”

(Stavros, Godwin & Cooperrider, 2015)

Appreciative inquiry is a philosophical approach to change that can be used with individuals, teams, or in early childhood centres, schools/kura or kāhui ako to create positive system-wide transformation and innovation. It is a way of thinking, a way of bringing the best to the fore rather than a traditional problem solving approach.

The cycle of appreciative inquiry supports the individual/team/organisation to discover what strengths, talents and positives already exist and build upon these to design the desired future. The 5D Cycle is a process that underpins the inquiry.

The 5 Ds are:
  • Definition. Choosing an affirmative topic as the focus of inquiry. The focus is on choosing a meaningful theme that is developed collaboratively. From this initial development, you are setting the stage for positive interactions.
  • Discovery. During this stage, you inquire into the exceptionally positive moments of each group member/team/organisation, share your stories and identify the life-giving forces from which you will build your foundation.
  • Dream. Creating the shared images of a preferred future
  • Design. Innovating and improvising ways to create the ‘dream’ future
  • Destiny/Delivery: Implementing and sustaining the design.

This approach is what brought three CORE facilitators together to develop the use of appreciative inquiry in educational organisations as a positive change process. All three of us have a background in using appreciative inquiry. The interesting aspect is that each practitioner drives the initiatives from their unique appreciative inquiry perspective and the nuances of each person add to the flavour of each situation. To illustrate our successes we wanted to share our thinking around appreciative inquiry as a way of understanding some of those nuances, and describe different applications within our roles.

Natalie O'Connor

Appreciative inquiry is a transformative force that supports individuals, teams and organisations to always be positively future focused.

It is underpinned by five principles:
  • Our words create our worlds. Our conversations create the reality we desire.
  • Questions create change. The questions we ask direct the way we move forward.
  • What we choose to study/learn is the world we are creating.
  • Our image of the future drives us towards that destiny.
  • Positive questions create positive change

In the facilitation mahi I am currently involved with I constantly use the language of appreciative inquiry, and the five principles, to drive innovation.

Coaching 1:1 Situations

One such initiative is working with middle leaders on developing their e-learning leadership skills and linking this to their appraisal. We spent the initial sessions consolidating the appreciative inquiry approach, with particular reference to the five principles and then introduced the e-learning lens as an overlay. The success of the programme has been captured in the reflections of the participants:

“It has been an interesting reversal of values, to approach the leading of change from the opposite direction. By this I mean that; instead of looking for a problem to fix, for obstacles to remove – we have instead been looking for what is already good, what is already a strength, what is already working and then seeking to harness those in order to help lead the change we seek.”

“Another reinforcing factor is the use of relationships; making connections and strong relationships with others in pursuit of the change can create a self-sustaining momentum that lends itself to one in times of lapses. Overall I have found this process to be challenging and rewarding and also somewhat liberating in that I am encouraged to place trust in building relationships with others, in moving towards a vision that is not wholly my own and in accepting that I do not need to know all the answers nor provide all the ideas.”

“Personally, appreciative inquiry has helped frame the mistakes I have made and the challenges that I have faced as learning opportunities. As I have continued to use appreciative inquiry to guide my development, I have found that challenging situations that I once would have found daunting or threatening are no longer so. These moments still may be challenging, but they are vital spaces for me to reflect on myself and my practice.”

Mentoring Situations

Developing leadership capabilities is another area where appreciative inquiry promotes positive transformational change. Mentoring leaders, utilising their strengths and the strengths of their team, and working towards a common destiny develops a strong collaborative approach that benefits the entire community:

“Appreciative inquiry is a process where it engages, involves and motivates people on working on what their goal is in their professional and personal life. The appreciative inquiry approach has shown me my strengths which I was not even aware of. Appreciative inquiry has taught me how to build relationships amongst colleagues and not only in my professional life but in my personal life too.”

Using appreciative inquiry across a Kāhui Ako

All three of us are now designing mahi with Kāhui Ako from an appreciative inquiry perspective. At recent teacher only days, we underpinned the learning by creating collective visions based on the positive, future focused dreams of the Kāhui Ako. We focused on listening, utilising the best case scenarios and using the strength of the collective as the driving force. We challenged colleagues to positively question the process, and use the language to build trust and forward momentum. This focus on creating the destiny they desire has liberated staff, and innovation has been the outcome.

Ara Simmons

He waka eka noa.
We are all in this together.

Double-hulled Waka Te Matau a Maui by Shellie EvansCC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Enabling systematic flourishing

Another way to consider appreciative inquiry is how it can support our wellbeing. If wellbeing is to feel good and function well, hunting for what’s good, what’s working well offers both individuals and the teams that they belong to the energy and motivation that can propel us forward.

The teams that we work in, the schools and communities that we are all part of are indeed living systems. And to be able to dance together within these living systems we need to be open and curious. Consequently, this type of mindset supports us to live in what is described as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) times.

Flourishing whānau

Because appreciative inquiry is so much about the collective as opposed to the individual, I often use the concept of flourishing whānau in the work that I do. Culture and wellbeing are inextricably linked together. It is to ask the questions, what are the factors that can support us as a whole whānau/system to flourish? What does whakawhanaungatanga, manaakitanga, tino rangatiratanga look like for us?

Research tells us that currently only twenty five percent of the New Zealand population in the workplace experience flourishing whilst the rest of the population are languishing. To flourish is to experience high levels of wellbeing. By hunting the good within the discovery phase of appreciative inquiry supports collective whānau flourishing.

Supporting high quality connections

Through discovering the positives the wisdom that exists within the team emerges, and enables different networks and interactions between those teams. It goes without saying that appreciative inquiry enables connection, where connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued. We are hardwired for connection.

Positivity is contagious

As we slowly move through the discovery, dream and design phases of appreciative inquiry, our emotions naturally spiral upwards and our body language shifts. We look up, see what’s possible and tend to be more creative. Just some of the benefits that positive emotions offer us. A natural state that is generated within this approach.

Sat at the very heart of this approach is:

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

(The people, the people, the people)

Lesley Brown


“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Anne Frank

Why are we consistently aiming to ‘solve problems’ rather than celebrate and grow those experiences that enrich our human experiences? This is a question that would be useful to ask in any organisation, and in particular services and Kāhui Ako. If we consistently seek to identify the weaknesses in an organisation, especially in regard to human capital; we risk damaging the organisational culture and erode the efficacy and authenticity of the people so critical to the organisation. appreciative inquiry offers a window and framework towards building a strengths-based culture and a place of work that recognises and builds those actions that are making a difference for the clients (learners in services) and those delivering the product (teachers and leaders in services).

Appreciative inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves, in a central way, the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. It centrally involves the mobilisation of inquiry through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question”.

In appreciative inquiry “the arduous task of intervention gives way to the speed of imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, as the cycle shows there is discovery, dream, and design. Appreciative inquiry seeks, fundamentally, to build a constructive union between a whole people and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper organisational spirit or soul and visions of valued and possible futures.”

Appreciative inquiry deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this “positive change core” and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. Link the energy of this core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.
The appreciative paradigm, for many, is culturally at odds with the popular negativism and professional vocabularies of deficit that permeate society.” (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005).

“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but seeing with new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Using our collective experience through future-focused theory of change initiatives

The three of us are using appreciative inquiry in Tātai Aho Rau Core Education’s Theory of Action: He Ariā Kōkirikiri. The approach leads itself perfectly to be integrated into authentic situations that are personalised to our particular contexts. The same can be applied to the situations that arise in any organisation particularly with reference to your theory of change.

Tātai Aho Rau Core Education’s Theory of Action

  1. Te Mārama Pū – Deeply Understand.
    Appreciative inquiry is the vehicle to truly and deeply understand and connect with people. It is about developing positive interactions with stakeholders and understanding the people who are invested in the success of the organisation. We celebrate perspectives and endeavour to truly listen and understand. Personal narratives are used as the foundations for the life-giving forces that underpin the success of the initiative. Our positive language is linked to the reality we desire and supports us as a collective to strive for excellence in what we do.
  2. Te hoahoa kia rerekē – Design for change.
    In sharing our personal narratives, we can now focus on our collective future reality. Through the development of shared images of our preferred future, we construct our questions and design our language to drive positive change. We make conscious choices about what we want to change, and the way in which we approach that change.
  3. Te whakatinana kia auaha – Implement to innovate.
    Once the foundations have been laid, we design our mahi around innovation and improvise ways to create the ‘dream’ future. We ask questions such as, “What will have the greatest positive effect?” “How are we ensuring that every voice has been heard?” “Who has the skills to be the driving force to ensure success?” “What does our best case scenario look like and how do we reach this?” This cyclic approach leads to innovation, sustainability and strengthening of the relationships that underpin the forward momentum.



Natalie is a former lead facilitator, certified executive coach and academic life coach for students, and currently enrolled in the Positive Psychology Practitioner 12 month Certificate programme. Her background as head of schools and developing five schools in a network internationally, places her firmly in the areas of strategic planning, whole school development future focused education, individual/group coaching and leadership development.


Lesley is currently an expert partner to Kāhui Ako and a senior education consultant. She has worked across and within all education sectors. Having taught and led for 25 years in a range of high schools across New Zealand, Lesley works to grow the human capital and leadership capacity of schools and kura through a positive psychology perspective. Her previous work as a leadership and management advisor has drawn on a wide range of theory, as well as practical experience in strategic planning, culturally responsive practice, teaching as inquiry and change management.


Ara is a Positive Psychology practitioner, former facilitator and certified Positive Psychology based coach. Ara works alongside schools in supporting a whole school systems response to both culture and wellbeing which includes staff, tamariki and whānau. This includes strategic planning for delivering wellbeing, growing wellbeing teams within schools and supporting the design of wellbeing initiatives. She draws on a variety of tools that support both school leaders and teachers for career development and job crafting that support transformational shifts in individual’s that enhance self-efficacy, confidence, direction and wellbeing.

Embedding appreciative inquiry is an investment that reaps incredible rewards. Within the facilitation work we collaborate on we have noticeable successes that are future focused and are proving the power of collective efficacy.

Appreciative inquiry is the glue that binds systems and communities and propels them into the future that they desire. We challenge you to take a positive leap of faith and join us in the power of appreciative inquiry.


5-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry – The Appreciative Inquiry Commons. (2019). Retrieved 29 October 2019, from

Appreciative Inquiry – A Brief History – The Appreciative Inquiry Commons. (2019). Retrieved 29 October 2019, from

Cooperrider, David & Whitney, Diana. (2005). A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry. The change handbook: The definitive resource on today’s best methods for engaging whole systems. 87.

Firestone, L. (2019). Thinking Positively: Why You Need to Wire Your Brain to Think Positive. Retrieved 29 October 2019, from

Stavros, Jacqueline, Godwin, Lindsey, & Cooperrider, David. (2015). appreciative inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. In Practicing Organization Development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th Edition), William Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Jacqueline Stavros (Eds). Wiley

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