The 5 Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

Group © Erik Back 2011

About ten years ago I discovered appreciative inquiry. I have studied the concept and used it since then. I have also studied the philosophy behind and all related concepts. But somehow I was distracted and moved in another direction.

For a couple of years I almost forgot about appreciative inquiry and recently I was reminded of the power of the concept.

Over the years of exploring philosophy and theories I have developed and refined the concept. Now that I return to the basics of what I learned ten years ago I realise how much better I understand appreciative inquiry and its principles.

I will use these principles as a part of my series about the mechanisms behind personal change.

Appreciative inquiry builds on five principles:

1. The positive principle

This is the core principle of appreciative inquiry.

– Seek and you will find. (Matthew 7:7)

If you look for problems, if you focus on problems then you will find problems. Problems are negative; problems make you unhappy, problems dissatisfy you. Do you really want to spend your life focusing on problems?

For every problem that you encounter in life there is a vision of something better. Therefore, problems have a positive angle. Discover the good experiences of your problems, those will be your positive resources for your future.

You cannot fix a problem, because the problem will still be there or there wouldn’t be a problem to fix.

The positive principle is about acknowledging the situations in life that makes you unhappy and discovering the good aspects that will help you get what you seek.

If you ask for bread, what will you get?

If you ask for money, what will you get?

If you ask for a lift, what will you get?

You get what you ask for, so why not look for your dreams instead of your problems? Do your problems deserve all that attention?

2. The constructionist principle

A society is made of individuals, who all think, feel and communicate with each other. In other words, a society is a social construction.

Your ability to activate your imagination and to combine it with reason is the most important resource for generating personal change. Use that resource and communicate it, in a positive language to your network.

There is a clear connection between communication and change. That is why you can use your language to construct the life you want.

3. The principle of simultaneity

To create change you have to ask questions to investigate and to generate reflection.

If you can make people (or yourself) reflect on how you are doing things, then you will initiate change.

The principle of simultaneity means that the second you ask a question to someone you have made an intervention that will automatically start a chain of reactions.

This chain of reactions will eventually lead to some kind of change.

4. The poetic principle

We all belong to different groups and organisations, e.g. work, school, family, sport etc.

In these groups and organisations we tell stories. We tell collective stories that become part of reality in that specific group or organisation.

According to the thought leader of appreciative inquiry, David Cooperrider, we can change the stories we choose to tell.

Your groups and organisations are constantly being co-authored and it can be read and interpreted like poetry.

The poetic principle is about choosing moments or parts of your social circle to study and understand and maybe even add a new chapter by telling new stories.

5. The anticipatory principle

The anticipatory principle is about having visions about the future; and it says that groups and organisations only exist because people share a projection about what a group or an organisation is.

The collective imagination is a very important resource that is driven by the positive principle.

It is important to do positive networking to create a common positive vision about the future.

If you have a clear vision about the future, whether it’s a personal or collective vision, you are more likely to succeed in creating change.


  1. Hi Erik, I do think we can get constrained in our thinking by focusing on a difficulty or problem.

    I think often blocked feeling is the best resource for personal change (though it does need to be directed by imagination and rationality).

    I’m not sure that an intervention always lead to change. I think there are questions of skill involved (and maybe systemic issues – and maybe some luck too).

    My guess is that the new story we need to tell is about people experiencing wholeness, responding flexibly and skillfully to their environment individually and collectively, so that we co-create a sustainable lifestyle and a more rich and beautiful planet. I see no technical impediments to utopia.

    • Thank you for your comment Evan 🙂

      I have been thinking about what you wrote about intervention leading to change.

      Doesn’t the change depend on your expectations? Maybe you don’t notice the change because it is very small or because the change happens somewhere else than you expected?

      Maybe you change by the intervention?

      Could it be that an intervention is like a seed that needs time, water and nurture to grow?

      Btw. I like the thought of utopia – a big topic!

      • Hi Erik, sometimes the intervention is a seed that with nurturing grows and grows. However sometimes we are surprised – our expectations aren’t confirmed by reality (for good or bad). So the outcomes isn’t entirely dependent on our expectations (which is something of a critique of a hardline constructivist position).

        • You are right there are different views on this topic – I guess we have to choose what feels right for us.

          The principles of Appreciative Inquiry belongs to the social constructionism and I’m not sure the critique of social constructivism applies.

          • I guess it depends how hard line we want to be. Is the social construction (only) intentional. If so it is hard to see how it could give an account of surprise.

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