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A Comparison of Appreciative Inquiry
and Solutions Focus

An Overview

Compiled by Kendy Rossi, Tricia Lustig & Mark McKergow (2003), used with permission

Appreciative Inquiry

Solutions Focus

Definition/Primary Purpose


  • A strategy for intentional change that identifies the best of "what is" to pursue dreams and possibilities of "what could be"; a co-operative search for the strengths, passions and life-giving forces that are found within every system and that hold potential for inspired, positive change.
  • A process of collaborative enquiry, based on interviews and affirmative questioning, that collects and celebrates "good news stories" of a community; these stories serve to enhance cultural identity, spirit and vision.
  • A way of seeing which is selectively attentive to - and affirming of - the best and highest qualities in a system, a situation, or another human being; an appreciation of the "mystery of being" and a "reverence for life." (phrases from Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987)



  • An approach to change that focuses on solutions (not problems) and what is going well in order to make positive and pragmatic progress.
  • Stay as simple as possible, find what works and do more of it and stop doing what doesn't work (from Jackson and McKergow, 2002)
  • It is the process of co-constructing "better" rather than right/wrong/good/bad
  • SF recognises the emergent nature of behaviour in complex systems and helps people to take small steps that ripple across the organisation.


Potential Uses


  • Mission Statement/Vision Development
  • Strategic Planning
  • Organisational/System Redesign
  • Process & Service Enhancement
  • Quality Improvement Initiatives
  • Group Culture Change
  • Civic/Community Development
  • Umbrella for Multiple Change Initiatives in a System
  • Appraisals and Performance Management
  • Leadership Development
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Individual Coaching & Development



  • Coaching and professional development solutions
  • Team Solutions
  • Organisational Solutions - large and small scale
  • Strategic Planning
  • Individual self-help
  • Stress Management
  • Appraisal and Performance Management
  • Safety Management
  • Quality/continuous improvement/kaizen
  • Knowledge management
  • Leadership development
  • Facilitation
  • Conflict Resolution


Ideal Conditions for Use

Identified heart-felt need or desire for:
- Enquiry, discovery & renewal
- Positive, grass-roots revolution

Systems & situations in which there is (or are):
- Support for full participation at all levels
- Commitment to change as an ongoing process, not a one-time event
- Leadership belief in the positive core of the system, and in affirmative process as a viable change driver
- Structure/resources to encourage sharing of "good news stories" and to support creative action

Identified need or desire to do something in a better and/or different way

There has to be at least one 'customer for change' - somebody who wants to have something different, AND is prepared to do something about it.

Ideally (but not strictly necessary): Systems & situations in which there is (or are):
- Support for trying something new
- Support for participation
- If the change is to be large and ongoing, commitment to the time and effort needed

Times to Avoid Use

Situations in which:

  • Predictable, linear process & outcomes are required
  • Problem-identification/problem-solving is the preferred method for change
  • There is a lack of support for passionate dreaming & inspired self initiative


Situations in which:

  • There is no 'customer for change'
  • The only 'customer for change' is the consultant (!)
  • A particular outcome is mandated (unless the customer is the mandator, and is prepared to do some work themselves)
  • There is 'solution-forcing' - trying to take a path to solutions before enough people are ready.


Potential Outcomes


  • Change in basic orientation from problem-focused to possibility focused
  • Clarified or enhanced sense of identity, shared values & culture
  • Established climate of continual learning & inquiry
  • Renewal of group energy, hope, motivation & commitment
  • Increased curiosity and sense of vitality.
  • Whole system changes in culture & language (increase in co-operative practises & decrease in competition; increased ratio of positive to negative comments; increase in affirmative questions and/or narrative-rich communication)
  • Improved working relations/conflict resolution
  • Decrease in hierarchical decision-making; increase in egalitarian practices & self-initiated action
  • Successful achievement of intents listed above (see "Potential Uses")



  • In the first instance, progress with the identified issue(s). This is the main criterion.
  • Change in basic orientation from problem-focused to solutions focused
  • Positive and empowering for all concerned as they discover what works and do more of it
  • Establish a climate of small steps for change
  • More using of affirmations, compliments and appreciation in day-to-day work, leading to
  • Renewal of group 'energy', hope, motivation and a "can-do" spirit.
  • Can lead to whole system changes, but equally can lead to changes in the smaller group or system
  • Improved working relationships
  • Awareness of the power of language and conversation to construct futures.


Key Principles and Assumptions

Four Guiding Principles:

  1. Every system works to some degree; seek out the positive, life-giving forces and appreciate the "best of what is."
  2. Knowledge generated by the enquiry should be applicable; look at what is possible & relevant.
  3. Systems are capable of becoming more than they are, and they can learn how to guide their own evolution - so consider provocative challenges & bold dreams of "what might be."
  4. The process & outcome of enquiry are interrelated and inseparable, so make the process a collaborative one.


About Reality...

  • We co-create reality through our language, thoughts, images and beliefs about reality.
  • The act of asking a question influences the system's reality in some way (i.e. questions are a form of intervention).
  • The types of questions we ask determine the types of answers we receive; and "the seeds of change are implicit in the very first question we ask."
  • We manifest what we focus on, and we "grow toward what we persistently ask questions about." (both quotes from Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999)


About Problem-Solving...

  • Ai is distinctly different from problem solving: Ai focuses on a desired future or outcome, built on strengths/passions of the past and present.
  • Problem-solving attempts to analyse deficits, identify root causes, then fix problems or correct errors; because it searches for problems, it finds them.
  • Ai doesn't ignore problems - it recognises them as a desire for something else, then works to identify & enhance the "something else."


Guiding Principles:

  • Change is happening all the time: our job is to identify and amplify the useful change.
  • There is no one "right" way of looking at things: different views may fit the facts just as well.
  • Detailed understanding of the "problem" is usually of little help in arriving at a solution.
  • No "problem" happens all the time. The direct route lies in identifying what is going on when it does not happen.
  • Clues to the solution are right there in front of you: but you do need to be able to recognise them.
  • Small changes in the right direction can be amplified to great effect.
  • It is important to stay solution focused, not solution forced.
  • Keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler - Occam's Razor.


Background model, SIMPLE

  1. Solutions not problems
  2. Inbetween - the action is in the interaction, not in the individual
  3. Make use of what's there - not what isn't
  4. Possibilities -from past, present and future
  5. Language - simply said
  6. Every case is different
(From Jackson and McKergow, 2002)


About Problem-Solving:
Solutions focus is different from problem solving in that it
- it concentrates on what is working (not what isn't),
- it focuses on progress (not blame),
- on influence (not control),
- on collaboration (not expert input),
- on resources (not deficits)
- on simplicity (not complication)
- on actions (not definitions).

Nonetheless the problems become less important and tend to fade from the scene.

Background Theory and Other Influences

Constructionist Principle: we construct realities based on our previous experience, so our knowledge (the way we know) and the destiny of the system are interwoven.

Principle of Simultaneity: inquiry and change are simultaneous.

Poetic Principle: the story of the system is constantly being co-authored, and it is open to infinite interpretations.

Anticipatory Principle: what we anticipate determines what we find.

Positive Principle: as an image of reality is enhanced, actions begin to align with the positive image.

Other related research/theory:Sports psychology re: visualization; educational research re: Pygmalion effect; medical research re: mind/body health, placebo effect, etc.; spiritual practices of meditation and visualization.

  • Story, metaphor, image, and dialogue are powerful change agents.
  • Reveals common ground (shared values & dreams).
  • Ai reveals higher ground (the most compelling, desirable possibilities).
  • Affirmative competence (ability to recognize & affirm the positive) is a skill that can be practiced and learned.



  • After the WWII, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson was instrumental in developing systemic thinking. He and his team studied paradoxes in communication. They connected with Milton Erickson, a doctor interested in how language was used.
  • In 1959 Bateson's team (led by John Weakland and Don Jackson) founded the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California to work further on their study of communication in groups and to extend their work with families.
  • An approach to change stemming from the 'Interactional View' of Watzlawick, Bavelas and Weakland (1967) - behaviour is rooted in responses and context.
  • In the mid 1970's Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg came to MRI. They had a shared interest in language and philosophy and set up the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee in 1978. They adapted and simplified the approach.
  • There are important parallels and learnings from
    • complexity science and emergent systems
    • Wittgenstein and philosophy of language
    • Narrative and discursive psychology
    • Drama and improvisation


But note that understanding these is not necessary to practice SF - if one can stay simple enough.

The approach has been described as a 'grammar' (as Wittgenstein would have used the word) encompassing distinctions in language-in-use, giving prominence to "distinctions, which our ordinary forms of language easily, make us overlook."

Number and Type of Participants

"Everyone" who is within the system or touched by it in some way";

  • those who hold images and have stories about the system;
  • 1 - 2000 or more, involved in interviews,
  • meetings and collaborative actions


Those affected by and prepared to work on the issues (though this assumes a set-piece of work - not always the case). From 1 to a small group or more. Can be taken on by whole organisations, though this is not recommended as a first step - growth by 'rumour and results' is usually preferred.

Typical Duration

Ai Summit: large scale meeting that "gets the whole system into the room;"

  • lasting 1 - 6 days


Non-conference Design: interviews and dialogue that spread "web-like" throughout the system;

  • timeframe indefinite


Can be as little as one meeting, or can be used in every meeting between people (and used by individuals for themselves) until it becomes embedded in the organisation - but note that the main aim is progress with the issues, not progress with taking on SF. 'Guerrilla SF' is also possible - small interventions that move things along, but are not very noticeable.

Process - Steps of Implementation

The process usually takes participants through the stages of The 4-D Cycle:

  • Discovery -- Appreciating & Valuing the Best of "What Is"
  • Dream -- Envisioning "What Might Be"
  • Design -- Dialoguing "What Should Be"
  • Destiny -- Innovating "What Will Be"


Ai Principles are adapted and customized to each individual situation; theFull Ai process typically includes:

  1. Selecting a focus area or topic(s) of interest
  2. Interviews designed to discover strengths, passions, unique attributes
  3. Identifying patterns, themes and/or intriguing possibilities
  4. Creating bold statements of ideal possibilities ("Provocative Propositions")
  5. Co-determining "what should be" (consensus re: principles & priorities)
  6. Taking/sustaining action


At the heart of any Ai process are unconditionally positive questions that assume health and vitality in the system. Common appreciative questions include variations on the following:

  • High point experiences: 'Describe a time in your life when you felt alive and engaged..'
  • Valuing: 'What do you value most about yourself, your work, your organisation?'
  • Core life-giving factors: 'What are the core factors that give life to this organisation? What are the unique attributes of this system, without which it would not be the same?'
  • Wishes for/images of the future: 'What three wishes do you have to enhance the vitality of this system? Imagine this organisation five years from now, healthy and vibrant - what does it look like?'


Note: This process is designed to find what works as simply as possible. That is the goal - if in a particular case the tools below aren't helping, then find new ones that do. The tools may or may not be used in the order given.

  • Establish a platform. Convert the problem or issue to platform to shift your perspective (like Discovery, this is about what worked and how you might have solved something similar before.)
  • Future Perfect. Suppose the problem vanished overnight. How would you know?
  • Scale. If 10 is Future Perfect and 1 is the opposite (as bad as it could ever be), where are you now? How did you get there? What would it take to go up one step?
  • Look at Counters (resources, skills, experience and know-how) - what is already present from the Future Perfect? Even a bit?
  • Affirm what is helping. Unearth and comment on resources and skills.
  • Small Actions. Identifying small actions one could immediately take. These are taken in a spirit of experimentation and exploration, and produce more Counters.
  • Then do more Affirmations, take more Small Actions, find more Counters, etc etc


Creator(s) & Creation Date

David Cooperrider, Suresh Srivastva in 1987 with colleagues from Case Western University & Taos Institute

Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their team who, in 1978, founded the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee. Mark McKergow & Paul Jackson are taking their ideas into the organisational world (The Solutions Focus), Peter Szabo (Weiterbildungsforum Basel) and many others focused around the SOL conferences.

References Used for This Fact Sheet

Cooperrider, David L. & Srivastva, Suresh (1987). "Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life." In Pasmore,W. & Woodman, R. (Eds.), Research in Organizational Change and Development, Vol. 1, p. 129-169. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Cooperrider, David L. & Whitney, Diana (1999). Appreciative Inquiry. In Holman, P.& Devane, T. (Eds.), Collaborating for Change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Hammond, Sue Annis (1998, 2nd edition). The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Plano, TX: The Thin Book Publishing Co.

Holman, Peggy & Devane, Tom (Eds., 1999). The Change Handbook - Group Methods for Shaping the Future. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kelm, Jackie (1998). "Introducing the Ai Philosophy." from Hammond, Sue Annis & Royal, Cathy (Eds., 1998). Lessons From the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry. (p. 161-172). Plano, TX: Practical Press Inc.

Pinto, Michael and Curran, Mary. (1998) "Laguna Beach Education Foundation, Schoolpower." from Hammond, Sue Annis & Royal, Cathy (Eds., 1998). Lessons From the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry. (p. 16 -47). Plano, TX: Practical Press Inc.

Rossi, Kendy (1999). "Appreciative Inquiry - An Overview." Graduate work document posted on Ai List Serve November 1999.

Whitney, Diana & Cooperrider, David L. (Summer, 1998). "The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: Overview and Applications." Employment Relations Today, p. 17-28.

The following references are additional to the references for Ai,

Paul Z. Jackson and Mark McKergow (2002) The Solutions Focus: The SIMPLE way to positive change. London, England. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. ISBN 1-85788-270-9. (The main book so far to address organisational aspects specifically)

Watzlawick, Paul, Bavelas, Janet Beavin and Weakland, John; Pragmatics of Human Communication, WW Norton (1967)

Steve de Shazer (1994) Word Were Originally Magic. W.W. Norton; ISBN: 0393701700

Peter de Jong and Insoo Kim Berg (2001, 2nd edition) Interviewing for Solutions. Wadsworth; ISBN: 053458473X

Evan George, Harvey Ratner and Chris Iveson (2000, 2nd edition) Problem to Solution. BT Press, London

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell (1953)