Appreciative Inquiry Summits Print E-mail

Author: Manjunath Sadashiva, CIVICUS

An Appreciative Inquiry Summit (AI Summit) brings together a large group of stakeholders of an organization or a community and engages them in an elaborate four-phase process of collectively and systematically rediscovering their strengths, life-giving qualities and aspirations ultimately aimed at a ‘whole system positive change’. The focus of an AI Summit is on amplifying those aspects that work best for the organizations and communities while building on their positive core, as opposed to the traditional approach of problem diagnosis and solution search. The potential uses of AI Summit are: organization development; strategic planning; public policy formulation; community development; and conflict resolution.

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What is it?

What is it?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was developed during the 80s by David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University, USA, as an innovative method for organizational development and change. AI is based on “whole system positive change”. Cooperrider et al. (2003) describe AI as, “an exciting way to embrace organizational change. Its assumption is simple: Every organization has something that works right – things that give it life when it is most alive, effective, successful, and connected in healthy ways to its stakeholders and communities. AI begins by identifying what is positive, and connecting to it in ways that heighten energy and vision for change. AI recognizes that every organization is an open system that depends on its human capital to bring its vision and purpose to life. AI is important because it works to bring the whole organization together to build upon its positive core”. 

Appreciative Inquiries have four key characteristics (Richard Keel 2008). They are:

  • Appreciative: AI looks for the ‘positive core’ of the organization/community and seeks to use it as a foundation for future growth.
  • Applicable: AI is grounded in stories of what has actually taken place in the past and is therefore practical and applicable.
  • Provocative: AI invites people to take some risks in the way they imagine the future and take actions to bring about desired change. With the security and energy gained from exploring all that is positive about the organization/community, people feel able to respond with ‘provocative propositions’ about the future.
  • Collaborative: AI always involves the whole organization/community or a representative cross-section of members so that all voices are heard and everyone’s contribution valued.

There are five principles that underpin the AI process. They indicate what is distinctive about AI and show where its transforming power comes from (Richard Keel 2008):

  • The Constructionist Principle
    The constructionist principle argues that the language and metaphors people use don’t just describe the world but they actually create the world. Thus what people focus on becomes their reality and that the language people use creates their reality. AI therefore takes particular care to encourage a positive focus and encourages the use of positive language because that will lead people to construct a positive future together.
  • The Positive Principle
    The positive principle is at the heart of the AI claim that focusing on the positive can lead to effective change. The positive principle is expressed in action by always adopting appreciative language when conducting an AI; encouraging and supporting the people engaged in the inquiry; helping members of the organization/community express the best that they have experienced; and building virtuous circles in place of vicious circles.
  • The Simultaneity Principle
    The simultaneity principle suggests that inquiry and change happen together. Just by asking questions, the participants become engaged in a process of change and the nature of the questions affects the nature of the change. Therefore, in AI there is no separate ‘diagnosis’ phase. Instead, the change is seen as starting as soon as the steering group gets together to start asking each other appreciative questions.
  • The Poetic Principle
    Central to poetic principle is the belief that organizations/communities are dynamic and change is happening all the time, even if the large-scale patterns seem reasonably static. AI sees organizations more as a story than a state. The continual conversations and negotiations between people lead to them telling stories about the organization’s past, present and future. Stories are powerful, and both shape those who tell them and are themselves shaped by the storytellers.
  • The Anticipatory Principle
    The anticipatory principle argues that images of the future can affect the way we behave in the present. In particular, if participants have a particularly desirable image of the future, they are likely to behave in ways that will bring it about. Organizations and communities are not “pushed” by their past as much as “pulled” by the collective image they hold of their future.

How is it done?

How is it done?

AI usually consists of four interrelated phases - the 4-D cycle of Discovery, Dream Design and Destiny. The four phases can be spread out over a long period of time, however since the mid-1990s, it has become more common for the entire process to take place at an ‘Appreciative Inquiry Summit’ (AI Summit) - a large group event (sometimes involving hundreds or even thousands of people) typically taking place over a period of two to five days. An AI Summit is chosen as a method of intervention when the task requires high levels of participation and cooperation. In an AI Summit, dialogue is the predominant mode of interaction with all stakeholders participating actively and having equal voice.

Since each organization or community is unique in terms of its internal and external relationships, and cultural and geographical mix of its stakeholders, each AI Summit is also unique in its purpose, design, and the task focus. Nevertheless, most AI Summits follow the four phases of Discovery, Dream Design and Destiny (adapted from Whitney & Cooperrider 2000).

1. Phase I: Discovery

The discovery phase is preceded by pre-summit preparations entailing tasks such as preparation of appreciative interview protocols, training of community members if needed on conducting appreciative interviews, organizing logistics, the summit process plan, mobilization of stakeholders, etc. The Discovery phase aims to answer questions such as:  Who are we, individually and collectively? What resources do we bring? What are our core competencies? What hopes and dreams do we have for the future? What are the most hopeful macro trends impacting us at this time? What ways can we imagine going forward together? Specific activities include:

  • Setting the task focus - Brief introduction to the context and purpose of the meeting.
  • Appreciative Interviews - All participants engage in one-on-one interviews organized around the topics of the meeting (sample questions for appreciative interviews are available at Healthy Kids-Healthy School Project, Richard Keel 2008,  Imagine Chicago, U.S.A)
  • Who are we at our best - Small group recollection of highlight stories and best practices discovered during the interview process.
  • Positive core map – A large group process to illustrate all of the strengths, resources, capabilities, competencies, positive hopes and feelings, relationships, alliances, etc. of the organization.
  • Continuity search – A large group process to create organization, sector specific (industry) and global time lines in order to identify factors that have sustained the organization over time and are desirable in the future.

2. Phase II: Dream

The Dream phase involves envisioning the organization/community's greatest potential for positive influence and impact in the world.  Dialogues are stimulated by questions such as: We are in the year 2020 and have just awaken from a long sleep.  As you wake up and look around, you see that our organization/community is just as you have always wished and dreamed it might be.  What is happening?  How is our organization/community different? Specific activities include:

  • Sharing of dreams - Small group discussions of dreams collected during the interview process.
  • Enlivening the dreams - Small groups discuss specific, tangible examples of their dream and create creative, metaphorical presentations.
  • Enacting the dreams - Group presentations of dramatic dream enactments to the large group.

3. Phase III: Design

During the Design phase, participants focus on crafting an organization/community in which the positive change core is boldly alive in all of  its strategies, processes, systems, decisions and collaborations.  Provocative propositions or design statements are crafted.  They are affirmative statements of the future organization/community, stated in the present tense, that stretch the group toward its dreams. While they are not statements of specific actions to be taken, they are actionable. A sample provocative proposition might be, “in our organization, people have widespread access to knowledge with liberty to make decisions.”  Such a statement, while highly desired, will take a lot of effort to fulfill.  It represents the organization’s commitment to move in that direction. Specific activities include:

  • Creation of the desired design architecture - Large group identifies the design architecture best suited to their organization/community.
  • Selection of high impact design elements - Large group draws on interviews and dreams to select high impact design elements.
  • Crafting of provocative propositions for each design element - Small groups draft provocative propositions (design statements) incorporating the positive change core into the high impact design elements.

4. Phase IV – Destiny

The final phase, Destiny, is an invitation to action inspired by the prior phases of discovery, dream and design. For some, this is the day they have been waiting for, a time to finally get to work on the specifics of what will be done. At this point, personal and group initiative and self-organizing are encouraged.  In this phase, the large group’s commitment to action, and support for those who choose to go forward working on behalf of the whole is demonstrated. Specific activities include:

  • Generation of possible actions - Small groups brainstorm possible actions and share with the large group.
  • Selection of inspired actions - Individuals publicly declare their intention for action and specify cooperation and support needed.
  • Formation of task groups  - Open space groups meet to plan next steps for cooperation and task achievement.
  • Large Group Closing

The 4 –D cyclical process of Appreciative Inquiry Summit

Whitney & Cooperrider 2000 have provided several insights from their experiences that need special attention in the organization and implementation of AI Summits:

  • Holographic beginning: Appreciative interviews in the Discover phase, also known as holographic beginning, allows everyone participating to express their ideas and share their greatest hopes and dreams for the organization early on in the meeting.  Holographic beginning is extremely important since it allows participants to get to know one another and to quickly feel part of the larger group within the first hour or two of the summit process.
  • Continuity scan: It enables large groups of people to co-create an image of their organization and all that has been successful from a historical perspective.  In the process, everyone learns with excitement and the collective intelligence of the organization expands. As history is brought into focus and becomes meaningful, people are more able to imagine possibilities for their collective future.
  • Dislodgement of certainty: AI Summit is based on the premise that change, be it personal or organizational, requires a willingness to let go of certainty and venture into the unknown. To change, one must be curious and open to new possibilities, to new ways and to different approaches. 
  • Narrative-rich environment: The AI Summit emphasizes narrative forms of communication.  Story telling as a means of expressing ideas and interests is highlighted over lists of facts and information, data presentations and either/or descriptions. Narrative forms of communication allow values to be expressed, explored and adapted while igniting the human spirit of curiosity and creativity. They contain seeds of wisdom grounded in experience.
  • From common ground to higher ground: The AI Summit encourages the participants to seek the most moving, the most innovative, the most meaningful ideas and not the most frequent or most common. The logic is that if people get excited and inspired talking about something, they will be excited and inspired to do it.



AI Summit has gained tremendous popularity over the last two decades owing to its emphasis on “whole system positive change”, which is a radical but refreshing shift from the traditional problem-solving approach. Some of the key benefits offered by AI Summit are:

  • The fact that AI Summits can be applied in different cultural and geographical contexts, at various levels (from global to local), and in diverse types of (private, public and civil society) organizations and communities.
  • AI Summits can be used with both small (about 25 persons) and large groups (over a 1000) of participants alike.
  • It can effectively serve multiple purposes such as organizational development, community development, strategic planning, future search, public policy formulation, conflict management and peace-building and action research.
  • It creates an organizational climate characterized by positive energy and cooperative behavior.
  • It fosters empowerment of previously disenfranchised groups.
  • It helps in building and nurturing relationships and cooperation among diverse groups of people involved in high stake, high innovation work.

Challenges and lessons

Challenges and Lessons

The widespread application of AI Summits has generated valuable lessons that serve as a set of critical minimum requirements for success (adapted from Whitney & Cooperrider 2000):

  • Identify a clear and central task focus: During an AI Summit, the task focus serves to organize inquiry and dialogues, and hence to establish direction for transformation. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the task be clear, simply articulated and adhered to during the summit.
  • Get the whole system in the room: It is important to have the entire organization or at least a wide cross-section of organizational or community members at the summit.
  • Choose a gracious and spacious setting.
  • Value all voices and make all data public – It is essential to ensure total transparency in the summit process.
  • Keep the role of the facilitator to the minimum.
  • Ensure full attendance over the entire process.
  • Make strategic use of electronic technologies such as video conferencing, group polling, etc.
  • Abide by a design flow that includes reviewing the past, mapping the present, and planning the future.

Some of the major challenges pertaining to AI Summits are:

  • Dealing with negatives: One of the compelling challenges of the AI process is to deal with participants who may simply refuse to engage with the ‘positive’, owing to a strong habitual preoccupation with ‘problems’ and ‘constraints’ and the concomitant cynicism. This usually occurs in the Discover phase during Appreciative Interviews.
  • Effective adaptation of the AI Summit methodology (originally oriented towards corporations and businesses as a tool for organizational development and change) to serve causes of public governance, such as strategic planning, conflict resolution, public policy formulation, etc. This calls for rigorous innovation and experimentation on the part of AI practitioners. 
  • Sustaining stakeholder interest and momentum in the post -summit phase is crucial. If actions committed to in the summit are not properly implemented, then stakeholders may lose faith in the summit process, reducing the efficacy of future summits. This is more so in government agencies that engage the community at large in the summit process.
  • Most often, AI Summits are conducted and facilitated by hired external consultants and experts, and this can be financially challenging for community-based or voluntary organizations which are usually strapped for funds.
  • Ensuring representation and participation of marginalized groups from the community at large in the Summit process is a continuous challenge, particularly for government agencies.

Key Resources

Key Resources

Appreciative Inquiry Commons
The AI Commons is a worldwide, multi-lingual portal devoted to the sharing of academic resources, practical tools, case studies and audio-visual materials on Appreciative Inquiry and the rapidly growing discipline of positive change. It is sponsored by Weatherhead School of Management at the Case Western Reserve University.

Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, an online journal
AI Practitioner is an online journal founded in 1998 and dedicated to the dissemination of informational resources and research related to Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It is edited by Anne Radford based in the United Kingdom who herself is an accomplished practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry. Both the back and the current issues of the journal contain numerous articles, case studies and references related to AI.

Appreciative Inquiries, a newsletter of the Corporation for Positive Change, U.S.A
The Corporation for Positive Change (CPC) is a consulting firm using Appreciative Inquiry for transformation and innovation in business, government, and non-profit organizations around the world. Appreciative Inquiries is a newsletter of CPC and provides several useful links on the practice of AI.

Aguilar, C.R, Maslowski, L, Mantel, M.J, McDaniel, D, Miller, C.J. The Nonprofits’ Guide to the Power of Appreciative Inquiry. Community Development Institute (2004). Copies can be ordered from:
This practical self-help guide provides guidance for transformative organizational change using Appreciative Inquiries in non-profit organizations.

Appreciative Inquiry Network, Australia

Appreciative Inquiry Network is an Australian portal devoted to all matters relating to AI. The papers, presentations and tools found on this website will bring new life and energy to AI intervention approaches. There is also an audio/visual presentation concerning the application of Appreciative Inquiry to strategic planning.

Barrett, F.J & Cooperrider, D.L; Generative Metaphor Intervention:
A New Approach for Working with Systems Divided by Conflict and Caught in Defensive Perception Generative Metaphor; in Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging Direction for Organization Development, Eds. Cooperrider, D.L et. al. Champaign IL:  Stipes Publishing L.L.C. (2001).

This article which forms chapter seven of the book proposes using generative metaphor, a concept related to Appreciative Inquiry to bring about harmony, synergy and consensus among dysfunctional groups ridden by conflicts.

Bushe, G.R; Advances in Appreciative Inquiry as an Organization Development; Organization Development Journal, Fall 1995 Vol.13, No.3, pp.14-22 Intervention -  Gervase R.Bushe
One of the early works on Appreciative Inquiry, the article provides a concise theoretical background and methodology for applying the AI process for organization development interventions.

Center for Appreciative Inquiry, a programme hosted by Company of Experts, U.S.A.
The Center for Appreciative Inquiry is hosted by Company of Experts, a consulting firm specializing in the practice of Appreciative Inquiry. Their website provides useful information on AI and their training program on skills building for AI.
Cooperrider, D., Stavros, J, Whitney, D. Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: Crown Publishing Inc. (2003) 2nd Edition. Copies can be ordered from:
The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook comes with a CD containing everything needed to launch any kind of AI initiative, from a one-hour introduction to AI to a complete two-day program.

Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. (2005).
This is a short and highly readable offline introduction to the change management approach, written by two award-winning pioneers in the field.  Full of exciting stories that illustrate AI’s many applications and benefits, it is an accessible guide that offers a practical introduction to Appreciative Inquiry.

Cooperrider, D.  Whitney, D. Trosten-Bloom, A. The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. Berret-Koehler Publishers. (2003).
For copies:
The book is yet another valuable practical resource on everything to do with Appreciative Inquiry. 

Elliot, C. Locating the Energy for Change. International Institute for Sustainable Development, Canada (1999)
This is a 300-page online resource book that provides an in-depth description of the Appreciative Inquiry process and its theoretical underpinnings along with several useful case studies.

Hall, J & Hammond, S; What is Appreciative Inquiry; Thin Books.
A concise article that provides useful insights on the application of Appreciative Inquiry process

Houston Independent School District, USA; Healthy Kids - Healthy Schools: AI Summit Participant Work Book
This is an excellent resource on the methodology of AI Summit conducted in February 2009 by the Houston Independent School District towards developing a strategic vision and plan.

Imagine Chicago, U.S.A.
Imagine Chicago is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1992 to cultivate hope and civic engagement in a variety of cross-cultural and intergenerational initiatives, projects and programs. Its website is a rich repertoire of resources including video documentation on Appreciative Inquiry process, particularly its application for community development.

Ludema, J.D, Griffin, T.J, Mohr, B.J, Whitney, D. The Appreciative Inquiry Summit -A Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (2003). Copies can be ordered at:
This offline book is the first comprehensive practitioner’s guide to the AI Summit – the preferred methodology when applying AI to whole-scale change and large groups.  Written by four of the leading experts on Appreciative Inquiry, The Appreciative Inquiry Summit explores the underlying theories of organization change and large-group process and walks the reader step-by-step through planning conducting, and following up on an AI Summit.

Keel, R; Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry, 2008.
New Paradigm is a virtual consulting organization based in the United Kingdom. Their website contains useful information on AI including an introductory article by Richard Seel, the Principal of New Paradigm. Many useful links can also be found on their website.

People and
People and participation net is an online portal on participatory governance tools designed for an audience in the United Kingdom. The portal contains articles and case studies on not only Appreciative Inquiry but also several other participatory governance tools.

SaskCulture Inc. Saskatchewan, Canada
SaskCulture Inc. is a community-driven, non-profit organization that works with members to build “a culturally vibrant Saskatchewan where all citizens celebrate, value and participate in a rich cultural life”. The website contains a very concise article giving an overview on AI summit.
Taylor, J; An Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry; Rolyat Corp Ltd.  &
Rolyat Corp Ltd., founded by Jim Taylor and based in Canada, is a consulting firm specializing in conducting Appreciative Inquiry. While Taylor’s article found on the University of Alberta website is a very informative and concise introduction to AI, Rolyat Corp’s website itself is a rich resource of several free online articles on AI.

The Taos Institute, New Mexico, USA. 
The Taos Institute is a non-profit organization and a community of scholars and practitioners concerned with the social processes essential for the construction of reason, knowledge, and human value. The section on AI on the website provides an exhaustive list of resources.

Whitney, D & Cooperrider, D. L. The appreciative inquiry summit: An emerging methodology for whole system positive change. OD Practitioner: Journal of the Organization Development Network, 32(2), 13-26. (2000).
This article provides a very powerful description of the methodology for AI Summit and forms one of the base documents for this write-up.

Case Studies

Case studies

Appreciative Inquiry in a public policy process, city of Dubuque, Iowa - USA
In the summer of 1999, the Dubuque City Council approved a project to achieve a community-wide consensus on a five-year strategic plan for the investment of over $20 million in federal and other funds for housing, community and economic development. The Housing Department wanted to confront the difficult and controversial housing project and related community and economic development issues by engaging the entire community in a dialogue about the kind of future they wanted to create. They made a commitment to take a “whole systems” view that would include all the customers and stakeholders in the system and would address both public policy issues and internal organization change issues. The City engaged the services of EnCompass LLC, a management consulting firm, to design and guide this work.
The AI process commenced with 60 citizen interviewers who conducted 220 multi-stakeholder appreciative interviews covering a cross section of stakeholders. This was followed by a Housing Summit in February 1999 in which 82 of the participants came together, told stories from the interviews, discovered shared values, and tried to better understand each other and the larger system. The Housing Summit was followed by stakeholder focus group discussions to select the participants for the Action Summit held in February 2000.

A retrospective analysis of this process shows an interesting progression in comparing the visions articulated in the Summit Conference (February 1999), the emphasis of the focus groups (a year later), and the plans prepared in the Action Conference (February 2000). All Summit visions were reflected in different ways in the plans prepared at the Action Conference. By the time of the Action Conference, participants settled on fewer, but more focused, initiatives through which they articulated plans and actions to realize their visions.


United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit
On 24 June 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened the Global Compact Leaders Summit at UN Headquarters in New York. With nearly 500 leaders in attendance, it was the largest gathering ever of chief executive officers, government officials and heads of labour and civil society on the topic of global corporate citizenship. As part of the Appreciative Inquiry process, Summit participants were organized in roundtables followed by a plenary that was addressed by several CEOs. Some of the major outcomes of the Summit include: twenty major financial companies pledged to begin integrating social, environmental and governance issues into investment analysis and decision-making; ten stock exchanges announced that they have embarked on a Global Compact awareness-raising campaign with their listed companies; Mr. Zhang Yanning, Executive President of the China Enterprise Confederation, announced that the CEC will actively work with the Global Compact to advance human rights, labour standards, environmental stewardship, and anti-corruption in China; and The Growing Sustainable Business initiative received the support of more business leaders who agreed to actively work with UNDP to address poverty in the Least Developed Countries. In his closing speech, Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “the leaders had demonstrated that even in an era of uncertainty and fear, the business, labour, civil society and governments could overcome their divisions, and build on what they had in common”.


Appreciative Inquiry Summit helps foster peace in Nepal
Imagine Nepal (IN) is an initiative created in 2002 by AI practitioners who wanted to work towards the restoration of peace in Nepal by focusing on what’s already working in the country. Since 2002, IN has been organizing AI workshops and conferences for Nepali residents from a broad cross-section of society, with a view to encouraging and empowering people to practice the AI approach where they work and in their personal lives. But its most significant work has been through an AI summit in 2005, which it put together with support from David Cooperrider, pioneer of the AI movement and professor at Case Western Reserve University.
The summit brought together a large number of people from government as well as interested Nepali residents with the goal of using AI to develop plans for moving towards peace and equitable development in the country. Together, participants discovered the best of the past of Nepal, envisioned the kind of future they want to see by 2020 and identified 16 initiatives that they wanted to implement at different levels.

Excerpts from:

West Springfield Public Schools Strategic Plan
West Springfield Public Schools (WSPS), a community of nine schools in the state of Massachusetts, USA,  wished to create a strategic plan for the future of education in their community, with desired outcomes such as a co-created WSPS Strategic Plan, initiatives, projects, and action plans that get results; and
mutual respect, open communication, and trust. They embarked on a two-day AI Summit held in September 2002 with more than 650 participants including faculty members, children, parents and other members of the community.
The AI Summit resulted in: shared positive experience; strengthened networks in and across schools; commitment and ownership at the school level to follow-up on projects; community awareness and desire to partner; conversations about hope; dialogue across functions, ages, experiences, and boundaries; and renewed energy and commitment to the schools and to the children.


Additional case study resources

World Vision AI Summit, June 2004

Citizen Leaders – Imagine Chicago Initiative

Using Appreciative Inquiry in Rural Indian Communities: MYRADA and DFID, 2001

A I Summit in United Religions Initiative

AI Summit in U.S. Navy


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