Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

Developing provocative propositions

Provocative propositions are short statements that describe the desired future and help people to stay on track. Some clients may find ‘provocative purpose statements’ or ‘possibility statements’ an easier term to understand.

  • They often resemble a motto or slogan, perhaps incorporating metaphor, and should be easy to remember.
  • They must be so vivid and compelling that people feel inspired to make them happen.
  • They describe the destination, rather than specifying how to get there.

They are generally a product of the Dream stage and may be refined further (or new micro-propositions developed) in the Design stage.

Checklist for provocative propositions

Is your proposition all of the following?

  • Affirmative – it needs to be positively stated, about what you want rather than what you don’t want.
  • Stretching – it needs to challenge people and the organisation to raise their game (hence ‘provocative’), but still be achievable.
  • Stated in the present tense – which makes it easier for people to associate into and imagine.
  • Exciting – this is where many published propositions fall down. To make the proposition statement as exciting and vivid as possible
  • Avoid abstract concepts (such as ‘business benefit’ or ‘stakeholder value’) and jargon verbiage (such as ‘leverage’)
  • Instead, use simple, evocative, sensory specific words so that they form pictures or tell stories
  • Use the active rather than the passive voice
  • Make sure it resonates with the core life-giving factors and values that have already been identified.
  • Grounded in real-life examples of the best of current practice – the proposition is more convincing if you can point to examples showing where it is already beginning to happen.

Examples of provocative propositions



The bishop visited our church today, and she brought her girlfriend with her.


We are easy to get to know.

Mike Sands adds: ‘When I first heard it I was not very impressed. Later I had a chance to work with a group of people in making specific plans to ‘make it so’. It turned out to be challenging, engaging, uniting – simple, elegant, powerful. It uncovered an enduring ideal.’

Our customers have a pleasant experience when they talk to us.

We anticipate their needs and have the information available when they call.

The information we need to answer their questions is available to us with the touch of a finger.

Sue Annis Hammond, The thin book of Appreciative Inquiry

We open doors for children to fall in love with Jesus.

From the All Saints’ Catechesis Program,
shared by Rob Voyle of the Clergy Leadership Institute for Coaching and Training in Appreciative Inquiry

We look after the spare tank.

Shared by Mike Holdstock (

Mike comments: ‘The group were going from being supervised/having a manager to being a self-managing work group. The ‘spare tank’ they were referring to was the (departing) supervisor’s role of ensuring that there was always backup – whether it be paper clips, or people during the holidays. Very special to this group; incomprehensible to anyone else.’

And finally one that didn’t arise from an Appreciative Inquiry process and isn’t stated in the present tense (though it does have a date on it):

...achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

President John F Kennedy, 1961

As we all know, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969.