Each Question

is an Intervention ... The Power of Appreciative Research

Red Slide in the Sea

In a few months I will teach social informatics at Furtwangen University. The university invited me to a talk and asked me to reflect on my favourite subject in research and development. So I decided to introduce the audience to appreciative inquiry - being well aware that some of them may already know this philosophy and concept in organizational development.


Appreciative Inquiry

In sociology the field is the area where researchers work, for instance we perform research in a company. If you go into the field and leave behind the question "What is the problem?" you have the opportunity to discover a huge amount of resources in a group, a company or other organizations.


In the 1980ies David Cooperrider helped a colleague, Al Jenson, in his PhD thesis. The thesis dealt with physician leadership of top tertiary care medical centers. David noticed that centers where the physician leaders worked cooperative and with respect for their colleagues and the whole staff, the center’s performance was very good - economically and medically.


David told the adviser of his own PhD thesis, Suresh Srivastva, that he would like to examine, what would happen if he worked with hospitals and other companies with a positive approach, exploring resources and opportunities instead of problems and challenges. The adviser accepted David’s proposal and from here the story of Appreciative Inquiry took off.


5 Principles

Together with some colleagues David defined 5 principles with a systemic and constructivist background.


Constructivism means: Our believing represents "the" truth and takes influence on our thinking, emotions and actions. We know that "the" truth does not exist. People construct by their actions their environment, for instance the company they work in. If you see Furtwangen University as a dynamic and innovative university with very good conditions for learning, teaching and research, your actions will support this reality. The university becomes such a university.


The next principle is simultaneity. In the moment you watch a system - may it be a single person, a group or an organization - the system changes. This was discovered in the Hawthorne plants during the 1920ies. Some sociologists explored the working conditions and asked how these could be improved. They realized that during their observations the behavior of some staff members changed. In some cases they worked faster. In other cases they worked slower. They didn’t wanted to arise their working volume.

So we have to keep in mind: In the moment we explore the field changes and - this is from Kurt Lewin - in the moment we enter a field we become part of the field. So did the scientists in the Hawthorne plants.


The third principle is poetic. We create and express our identity by telling, hearing and internalizing narratives and sagas. This is the oldest way how people transfer facts, knowledge, experiences, conclusions and recommendations to other people of their own age and to their children and grandchildren. You can say, the stone age people built their corporate identity with sagas. And so we do still today.

"Yes, in the beginnings, in the first days, when the school started as a school for clock and watch makers in the 19th century, or later when we became a public school of engineering in 1947 and then finally in 1971 a university of applied sciences, times were tough and similarly inspiring. Do you remember how the first management board struggled with xy and got it done?"


The fourth principle is anticipatory. Our ideas and concepts of the future influence our actions and behavior. For instance: if you want to become an astronaut, you will care for your physical and mental health and for your education. Or if you assume that you will fail an exam you will not work hard enough or you will not be cool enough during the exams, and so you will fail.


The fifth principle is positive. Positive emotions and mindsets mobilize energy in individuals, groups, organizations and trans-organizational. Emotions like hope, confidence, inspiration and the feeling to be with like-minded persons and to act in concert with them.
These emotions nurture creativity, openness, flexibility and the solidarity of the involved parties. Dealing with conflicts and with fear becomes easier.
Perhaps you know the film "The best exotic Marigold Hotel"? The young manager of the hotel tells a guest: "Every thing will be alright and if it is not alright it is not yet over." So for instance, if you believe in the success of your project you will do everything to reach the goal - together with your colleagues and other stakeholders of the project.


These 5 principles build the foundation of Appreciative Inquiry. The focus lies on processes. From processes you learn the most about social structures, relationships and actions.


The client is the expert

I mentioned Kurt Lewin, a psychologist, who is a very relevant researcher in group dynamics. In the 1930ies he had to leave Germany - to escape the Nazi Regime - and went to the United States, were he finally worked at the MIT. Kurt Lewin detected some very interesting aspects of group dynamics and he coined the sentence "the client knows the answer".


If you go with this approach into the field, you have a very good basis for your work. The topics range from sociological research to software development and right up to the work of consultants.

For instance in software-engineering you say: "I will not tell the user, what she or he has to know about an application. Instead I will ask the user: Who are you? How do you work? And what do you need? And - most important - what are your ideas on this application?"

Staff members are experts for their work and their company.



The approach of Appreciative Inquiry consists of 1 plus 4 steps in a cycle. After you identified the topic in the step define, the cycle starts with discover, proceeds with dream, design and the invitation to take action. This last step is named destiny.

  • Discover: What do we do best? - Staff members find answers in interviews and dialogues.
  • Dream: How will we perform in ten years? - Staff members tell stories.
  • Design: How can we achieve it? - Staff members design a social architecture of their organization. Parts of the social architecture are stakeholders, leadership, communication, business models, new products and much more plus the topic of the current ai-process. Then staff members formulate provocative propositions. These shall extend the status quo, for instance: "Every person in our company has comprehensive access to information, knowledge and is free in her or his decisions."
  • Destiny: Who will do what? - Staff members commit themselves to actions in the ai-process, for instance small groups commit themselves to perform concrete steps.

Appreciative Inquiry works


  • the future is built upon existing strengths and conditions in an organization,
  • the inclusion of nearly the whole staff plus external stakeholders is possible (you never reach all),
  • and topic, scope and speed can be tailored to the needs and capabilities of the organization that goes through an ai-process.

Appreciative Inquiry is not day-dreaming. It can support the work on tasks and the solution of problems. We can use the appreciative inquiry approach for research and development in computer sciences and especially in social informatics.

The step "discover" consists of interviews. The other three steps in the cycle take place in workshops. Let us have a closer look on the interviews.


The Interview

Interviews are a very strong tool in qualitative research. The strength of semi-structured interviews is, that you can get comprehensive understanding and new insights in a pretty short time. This is possible, because (a) the interviewer is aware of the topics, and (b) the interviewee has the opportunity to talk freely on a certain point. The interview guideline consists of a catalogue of questions and follows an arc of suspense.


A major challenge in these interviews is a negative attitude of the interviewee. You can listen for a while and then re-frame the statements or you can ask the interviewee to try again to formulate positive experiences and approaches. Mostly it works.



The ai-process requires a certain attitude. An attitude of openness, curiosity and empathy. We all know that children show this attitude when they ask: "Grandpa, please tell me a story ..." The film "Honig im Kopf" (honey in your brain) tells how such an attitude can mobilize energy. An old man with Alzheimer’s disease learns from his granddaughter how to live a decent life, because she is able to ask the right questions.


Working Materials and Further Readings

If you are interested in performing an ai-interview I recommend the book of Cooperrider and colleagues or you can visit my blog, where I stored some materials on Appreciative Inquiry, including an interview guideline.



Weßel C. Elche fangen - Basiswissen Consulting für Berater und Führungskräfte. Frankfurt am Main, Weidenborn Verlag 2017 - Band 1 bis 4


  1. BERATEN - Philosophien, Konzepte und das Projekt
  2. MENSCHEN - Lassen Sie uns zum Äußersten greifen ... reden wir miteinander
  3. WERKZEUGE - Von 8+1 W bis Smarte Ziele
  4. ENTDECKEN - Beobachtungen, Interviews und Fragebögen kompakt und kompetent angewendet


19.02.2016 Wertschätzende Erkundung ausprobieren ... Das Interview
04.08.2015 Wertschätzende Erkundung ... Wie Veränderung aus dem Vollen schöpfen kann
23.07.2015 Der Klient kennt die Lösung ... oder: Was Beratung und Action Research miteinander zu tun haben (können)


This talk


References on appreciative research (Lewin, Cooperrider and company)


More on qualitative research and the application in computer sciences and consulting you can find in my books and my blog. This talk you can find in my blog also.

Furthermore I mentioned some authors. The references are listed in the section Ressourcen

I thank you for your attention and I'm looking forward to your questions and ideas.


Christa Weßel - Saturday, 21 Jan 2017


postscript: there is another talk at Furtwangen University. The other talk deals with citizen centered web-based information systems ...


blog sections organization development and social informatics


< Sozioinformatik      today   Arbeitet weniger >