Appreciative Inquiry

by Andy Smith

AI group work facilitation tips

Here are some tips for facilitating group work at each stage of the process. You will find more advice in the Alchemy topic on Facilitation.

General points

The following tips apply equally to large-scale AI summits or teambuilding events with small groups.

Room layout and logistics

The ‘non-verbal’ aspects of a summit – such as the room layout and timings of breaks – send a ‘meta-message’ to participants which can support or undermine the way they experience the event. This can make the difference between a successful summit and one that is merely OK.

A cabaret-style (also known as ‘cluster style’) layout with 6-8 people per table works best.

Each table should have a flipchart nearby.

If you are filming or photographing the event, make sure that the film crew are briefed to not disturb participants by shoving cameras in their faces or conferring loudly when you are addressing the room.

Be positive and charismatic

When a group of people come together for any purpose, they are looking for a leader – so if you are leading an AI summit or teambuilding event, that leader had better be you!

More than anyone else, the way that you conduct yourself will influence the ‘emotional climate’ of the room, so you need to be positive, upbeat and encouraging. Reflect a belief that the event will succeed and that everyone has something useful to contribute (so avoid saying anything that presupposes the possibility of failure, such as ‘if this event is successful...’).

Be responsive

At the same time, you have to be responsive to unexpected questions and contributions from the participants, even if these seem to be irrelevant and tangential. Coming across as dismissive is a good way to lose audience rapport and would be contrary to the inclusive spirit of Appreciative Inquiry.

Mix it up

Where representatives of different groups and stakeholders (such as management team, frontline professionals, customers, service users) are participating in an event, it is useful to be able to mix them up so that you have people from different groups sitting on the same table. The dialogue that begins with the Appreciative Interviews will help everyone to understand different points of view.

Avoid ‘energy drains’

If the event involves introductions or contributions from non-AI trained people (such as directors or chief executives of the client organisation), ideally you will be able to brief them to stay positive and upbeat. Where this is not possible, it will be up to you to restore the energy level in the room if their contribution has brought it down.

Tips for ‘table facilitators’

Each table in an AI summit should have a ‘table facilitator’ to keep the discussions on track and positive.

Key points

Two things are crucial to make AI group work successful.

  1. Keep things positive! If you hear people getting into complaining or talking about problems, gently remind them that the purpose of the exercise is to focus on what is working and doing more of that, rather than focusing on problems.
  2. Keep to time! Very often you will have less time than would be ideal for an AI event, so it’s essential that each exercise starts on time.

How you should be

As the table facilitator, you will affect the ‘emotional climate’ of your table, because people will unconsciously be looking to you for clues about how to behave. Therefore it will make a big difference if you are positive, upbeat and encouraging, so that the way you do and say things reflects faith in the abilities of the people at your table to do the exercise well.

If there is a ‘spare’ person when the people on your table pair up, you can pair up with them – but still keep an eye on the other pairs and make sure they stay positive and to time.

Discovery stage

  • Let people work in threes if there are odd numbers.
  • Keep an eye out for ‘saboteurs’!
  • Your lead facilitator will remind you of timings, but don’t leave any pairs sitting idle.
  • Encourage people to summarise their stories in one sentence – with one key value and a wish for the future.
  • Put thoughts on post-its and onto the flip chart.
  • Look together for common ideas and themes.

Dream stage

  • Give people five minutes’ individual time to come up with their ‘dream’. Encourage them to close their eyes if they want to.
  • Ask them to share their individual dreams with the rest of the table.
  • Then (and only then!) bring out the creative materials.
  • Keep things upbeat and enjoyable, but do not force anyone to join in if they really don’t want to.

Design stage

  • Advise people to look at things within their grasp – or within the grasp of other people in the room (ideally).
  • Sometimes things can be improved through relatively minor changes in thinking or behaviour. (Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!)
  • People can drift at this stage and focus on negatives and wider issues beyond their control. Keep them focused!


  • Ensure that action is agreed – ideally by the end of the session and if not ASAP afterwards.
  • Keep delivery plans simple.
  • Keep all involved in the inquiry informed about what has been decided and the next steps.
  • You may want to use AI to further explore and improve some issues.