After two years of work on a sexual harassment problem at a Fortune 500 company without producing the desired results, an organization development consultant specializing in gender issues and conflict resolution sought help from David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and the originator of the methodology known as “appreciative inquiry.” Reaching him by phone, the consultant told Cooperrider that, confounding her firm’s best efforts—including extensive employee workshops—every chartable measure indicated accelerating harassment rather than abatement. The situation had the consultant and her colleagues stymied. They were working hard, going backwards, and asking for help.

“What is it you want to learn about and achieve?” Cooperrider asked. They wanted to “put a dent” in a “huge problem” of harassment, the consultant told him. “Is that all you want?” Cooperrider asked. Pressed, the consultant reached beyond the problem and replied, “We want . . . high-quality cross-gender relationships in the workplace.”

In the resulting model project, employees were invited—as a first step—to write about experiences they had had involving exemplars of healthy cross-gender working relationships. Dozens of responses were anticipated and hundreds arrived, each full of stories about employees working together creatively and happily. From these stories a program evolved that transformed the corporation.1 Executives at Avon Mexico heard of the project’s success and hired appreciative inquiry (AI) practitioner Marjorie Schiller to lead their whole corporation in an “inquiry” based on the same model. As an initial step in that process, 300 one-on-one interviews were conducted, resulting in a flood of stories about “achievement, trust building, authentic joint leadership, practices of effective conflict management, ways of dealing with sex stereotypes, stages of development, and methods of career advancement—all focused on high-quality cross-gender work relationships.”2 Eventually the company won the 1997 Catalyst Award as the best place in Mexico for women to work.

The methodology that led to these remarkable events was spawned in the early 1980s when David Cooperrider—then a student at Case Western University—was trying to figure out why the health clinic he was studying didn’t have any of the problems he had been trained to “fix.” What he learned from his own exploration of this question later upended the organization development profession and revitalized hundreds of different kinds of communities around the world.

Re-Grounding Relationship

As a 1980 doctoral candidate in organization development doing fieldwork at the Cleveland Clinic, Cooperrider backed into the idea of inquiring into what people most appreciate and value rather than into a problem to be fixed. He had been asking, “What is wrong with the human side of the Cleveland Clinic?” But he found little malaise and was impressed by the organization’s flexibility, innovativeness, openness, and egalitarian spirit. So, instead of studying what didn’t work, he inquired into what worked best for those at the clinic. He asked about its sources of vitality and about its highest hopes for its future. What he learned transformed the academic/professional organization development community in the United States and abroad. Now more than 20 years since the Cleveland Clinic project began, thousands of appreciative projects around the world have joined the search. Whatever the corporate arena, each project begins by identifying a positive goal and its context. Then participants ask themselves—one-on-one at first—what do we most value in the given context, what works for us when we are at our best, and what are our highest hopes for the future? Following this “discovery” process, AI goes to work with what’s been learned, nurtures the growing enthusiasm, and opens the way to “co-create the future.” It is always collaborative work generated out of strong relationships.

Problems are not exactly ignored in an appreciative environment, but, rather than addressing them head on, appreciative practitioners help reframe core issues, however troubled and complex. AI projects with Cairo garbage collectors, Chicago revitalization, and Islamabad interfaith groups indicate that problems are not being ignored so much as reframed in ways that empower people (engaged communities) to make a difference. The reframing turns away from understanding what’s wrong and shifts almost exclusively to seeking the light, moving toward the best opportunities at our disposal, however hard our circumstances.

In the case of the sexual harassment project at the Fortune 500 company mentioned earlier, the goal of putting a big dent into a huge problem was reframed as an inquiry into high-quality cross-gender leadership. Reframing instantly changes the tone and attitude around any subject, great or small, and the door opens on the most underexamined set of issues in our culture-what we most value and yearn for in life, whatever the context. A number of choices contribute to reframing:

  • Regardless of the subject at hand, deficit-based language explaining what is wrong is replaced with asset-based language identifying what is right and what the individuals involved want to generate. People are asked to think beyond difficulties and their causes (e.g., a sexual harassment epidemic) to discern, study, and empower the positive values they want embodied (e.g., high-quality, cross-gender leadership teams).
  • Giving everyone’s story a place in the discussion and shifting from evaluation to valuation brings a shift in spirit, with significant increases in trust.
  • In the reframing and developing dialogue, considerable attention goes to imaging and ruminating on a community’s “positive core,” listening to its members’ highest aspirations and hopes, and empowering people to self-organize around the issues that most matter to them. As Cooperrider has written, “Full voice, convivial community, rigorous inquiry, shared speculation and dreams, articulation of things that matter, improvisation—these are ingredients that ensure that AI praxis does not devolve into sterile happy talk.”3

In the appreciative inquiry process, problems tend to dissolve rather than be solved, to the amazement, I confess, of someone who spent years writing about the myriad problems pastors are asked to solve in today’s church. Cooperrider and company are opening the way for people within any community—even those that are deeply conflicted or subject to the harshest conditions—to learn to trust each other when the right questions are asked and answered in a safe place and then acted upon.

Most people are surprised to discover how satisfying and joyful it is to reframe issues and then to ask and respond to appreciative questions that give themselves and others the space to talk about what is most important to them. For the past five years I’ve watched thousands go through “appreciative interviews” (one of the first steps in most appreciative agendas), and the consensus seems unanimous—the conversations are deeply moving and often transforming.

Appreciative questions call for answers that reveal appreciation, achievement, success, and important experiences, big or small, rather than breakdown and failure. They seek the commendable and steer away from judgment. They attend to memories, feelings, and imagination as well as analysis and opinions. Appreciative interviews allow people to safely pour out their hearts about what is good in their lives, and the result is new, often unexpected relationships and a shared energy that discourages quarrels and undercuts fears of inadequacy. Because people have so much difficulty at first talking about success and achievement without a counterpoint of problems and breakdown, practitioners learn to listen with enormous pat
ience and to keep reframing the situation, always moving away from “understanding the problem” and toward “co-creating a transformed future.” Appreciative interviews achieve these remarkable outcomes by establishing higher ground for the dialogue, a place where what is most important to us allows the irritations and arguments of life to fade into perspective or just disappear. A safe personal discussion of our most cherished values and experiences, focused on matters transcending disagreement and conflict, bonds people. This bonding may not solve disagreements, especially at first, but it definitely changes people’s feelings toward one another. With this kind of interview we immediately start to see the other person as a person, not an opponent or competitor. Even in conflicted communities it is difficult to spend two hours sharing with others what one most appreciates and values without emerging from the session with a friendly, even trusting, relationship. Observing this over and over again finally disabused me of the long-held notion that trust requires years to establish. The alchemy can happen in a few hours, and the results deserve to be called miraculous. People become aligned with each other on the basis of their shared, reanimated primary commitments. Participants quit treating issues like wrestling matches and begin collaborating on what really matters.

Photo by DMCNeil


1. Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard J. Mohr, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 123ff.
2. David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2000), 12-13.
3. Watkins and Mohr, Appreciative Inquiry, xxix.

AL256_SMOriginally published in a guide to resources for building congregational vitality
edited by Richard Bass

As a companion to the groundbreaking Congregational Resource Guide, an online resource produced by the Alban Institute and the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, this book is an invaluable resource for congregational leaders. It puts the rich array of important congregational resources into context by examining the key books, organizations, Web sites, and people that will help leaders gain an understanding of important issues facing their faith communities.


The Power of Asset Mapping: Acting on Your Congregations Strengths

by Luther K. Snow

Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.

Additional Resources on Appreciative Inquiry

Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Book) Mark Lau Branson, Author. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a powerful tool for strengthening congregations. Mark Lau Branson offers an account of how one Presbyterian church used AI to understand its history, encourage its members to discover and pursue their dreams, and call a new pastor who could help make those dreams reality.

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change(Book) Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom, Author. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003. Drawing on years of experience in applying appreciative inquiry (AI) to organizational change, Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom present both the principles of AI and case studies that demonstrate how AI works.