Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith


If what we focus on is magnified by our attention, we want to be sure we are magnifying something worthy.

Sue Annis Hammond, The thin book of appreciative inquiry

The Appreciative Inquiry process starts with defining an ‘affirmative topic’ or topics. This sets a frame for the area to be inquired into, and a direction for what is to be achieved.

The key feature of an affirmative topic is that it is stated positively – the topic is about the desired outcome, rather than the problem.


David Cooperrider was asked by the US Navy to help them with reducing the high turnover rate of its naval officers. Many officers would leave the service at their earliest opportunity, so the US taxpayer did not get an optimal return on the huge amounts of money and time invested in their training.

Apparently, at their first meeting, Cooperrider asked his naval contact ‘Why have you stayed?’ The factors that made people stay, rather than what made them leave, became the focus of the successful Appreciative Inquiry.

So if you’re starting with a problem, ask yourself ‘What do we want instead of the problem?’ The topic then becomes about how to achieve the desired outcome. ‘How can we...?’ or ‘How do we...?’ are good ways to start an affirmative topic.

Examples of how problem statements can become affirmative topics:

Problem statement
Affirmative topic
High level of customer complaints Delighting the customer
Low staff morale Becoming a place where people are proud and excited to come to work
Reports of bullying Harmony among all employees
Losing market share Using innovation to leapfrog our competitors
Poor quality products World-beating product quality

Characteristics of an affirmative topic

It must be positively phrased.

  • The topic should not presuppose a particular solution, as that would rule out other potential solutions.
  • There should be no more than five topics for a project.
  • It must be consistent with the overall direction of the organisation.
  • Choosing the topic should involve representatives of the people it affects – diversity of input is essential.