Originally published on March 21, 2017

26th in a series of 50 Knowledge Management Components (Slides 34 and 35 in KM 102)

Appreciative inquiry: asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential — mobilization of inquiry through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question”

Appreciative Inquiry is the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives life to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

As a method of change, Appreciative Inquiry differs from traditional problem-solving approaches. The basic assumption of problem-solving is that people and organizations are fundamentally broken and need to be fixed. The process usually involves identifying key problems, analyzing the root cause of failure, searching for possible solutions, and developing an action plan.

In contrast, the underlying assumption of Appreciative Inquiry is that people and organizations are evolving and growing. Appreciative Inquiry focuses the whole organization on identifying its positive core — its greatest assets, capacities, capabilities, resources, and strengths — to create new possibilities for change, action, and innovation. The steps include discovering the organization’s root causes of success, envisioning bold new possibilities for the future, designing the organization for excellence through dialogue, and co-creating the future.

Use Appreciative Inquiry to help make the corporate culture more positive, get the best out of collaboration and communities, and to evolve from problem solving to innovation. This process can be applied in almost any context, and the philosophy can be applied in communities, training, communications, user assistance, rewards, lessons learned, proven practices, collaboration, and management of change.


1. A cofounder of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University wrote:

In my view, the problem-solving paradigm, while once incredibly effective, is simply out of sync with the realities of today’s virtual worlds. Problem solving is painfully slow (always asking people to look backwards historically to yesterday’s causes); it rarely results in new vision (by definition we say something is a problem because we already implicitly assume some idea, so we are not searching to create new knowledge of better ideals, we are searching how to close gaps), and, in human terms, problem solving approaches are notorious for generating defensiveness (it is not my problem but yours).

2. Jane Watkins defined Appreciative Inquiry as:

A collaborative and highly participative, system-wide approach to seeking, identifying, and enhancing the ‘life-giving’ forces that are present when a system is performing optimally in human, economic and organizational terms.

3. In Appreciative Inquiry and Knowledge Management? No problem. Chris Collison described the four steps of an Appreciative Inquiry:

  1. Discover (Inquire into what works.) This is a filtered process of reflection and storytelling to set the context for what is possible, building a “positive core” from the sharing of stories.
  2. Dream (Imagine how good it could be.) This is a creative vision-building step — constructed by amplifying the reality of the examples from the discovery step.
  3. Design (Agree how good it should be.) This is a prioritization process, finding ways to connect the colorful hot-air balloon of a long-term vision to the ground with some actionable propositions.
  4. Destiny (Commit to what will be.) Identify specific actions and start to plan for success.

An approach which combines Reflection, Storytelling, Visioning, Prioritization and Action and generates positive energy for change? Why would I not want to employ that? So if you’re a knowledge professional who hasn’t considered or explored Appreciative Inquiry, let me commend it to you as a valuable mindset to integrate into your KM toolkit.

4. In Creative Strategic Planning: Appreciative Inquiry, Lynne Levesque listed five steps:

  1. Definition of the focus of the work. What are we exploring or inquiring into?
  2. Discovery, through the use of an interview protocol, to explore the factors that contribute to optimum performance and best individual experiences.
  3. Dreaming of what could be if the exceptional moments identified in the Discovery phase became normal practice.
  4. Designing what specifically will be different in the future.
  5. Delivering those results through a plan to move forward.

Appreciative Inquiry is not only an incredibly useful tool for strategic planning, change management, and resolving challenges. It is also applicable as a good coaching practice. Leaders who use probing questions in an appreciative mode that generates collaborative learning will see long-lasting behavior changes.

5. Patrick Lambe guest blogged the following in Cognitive Edge:

Appreciative Inquiry is an interview/dialogue technique which expresses perfectly the positive deviance principle stating that it’s better to look for what is working rather than what is going wrong. It goes a little further than that by also trying to define the aspirations of the actors in a given situation — i.e., what the desirable outcomes will be.

Dave Snowden is particularly scathing about Appreciative Inquiry as a technique, because he sees it practiced in an (in my terms) apocalyptic/bipolar vacuum, in a “happy-clappy,” “fluffy-bunny” denial of the negative that would correspond to the manic phase of bipolar disorder. There’s no engagement with the real problems of real life, and therefore it can be at best distracting and at worst delusional, magical thinking.

6. In Five Theories of Change Embedded in Appreciative Inquiry, Gervase Bushe wrote that AI is based on storytelling:

The key data collection innovation of appreciative inquiry is the collection of people’s stories of something at its best. If we are interested in team development, we collect stories of people’s best team experiences. If we are interested in the development of an organization, we ask about their peak experience in that organization. If enhanced leadership is our goal, we collect stories of leadership at its best. These stories are collectively discussed in order to create new, generative ideas or images that aid in developmental change of the collectivity discussing them. There is something about telling one’s story of peak organizational experiences, and listening to others, that can make a group ready to be open about deeply-held desires and yearnings.

7. Jackie Stavros presented:

Appreciative Inquiry is the discovery of the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. It is an art and practice of asking the unconditional positive questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate and heighten positive potential. Instead of negation, criticism and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, design and destiny. It works from accounts of the “positive core”. AI links the energy of the positive core directly to any change agenda and changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.

AI is a method which attempts to discover “the best of what is” in any organizational or human system. It is both a theory and a practice.

3 Basic Principles

  1. Appreciate or value those people and organizational systems being researched
  2. Help organizations articulate the best of their past and current reality to construct the future
  3. Collaborative process of open dialogue — equal voice for all

Contrasting Problem Solving and Appreciative Inquiry

1a. Deficit-Based Change

  1. Identify Problem.
  2. Conduct Root Cause Analysis.
  3. Brainstorm Solutions & Analyze.
  4. Develop Action Plans.
  5. Metaphor: Organizations are problems to be solved.

1b. Asset-Based Change

  1. Appreciate “What is” (What gives life?)
  2. Imagine “What Might Be”
  3. Determine “What Should Be”
  4. Create “What Will Be”
  5. Metaphor: Organizations are a solution/mystery to be embraced.

2a. Deficit-Based Thinking

  1. Problems
  2. Glass half-empty
  3. Problem-driven
  4. Scarcity
  5. Competing with others
  6. Transactions
  7. Be taught
  8. Incremental
  9. Resistance

2b. Appreciative Inquiry

  1. Possibilities
  2. Glass half-full
  3. Vision-led
  4. Abundance
  5. Collaborating with others
  6. Relations
  7. Learn
  8. Breakthrough
  9. Energy


  1. Appreciative Inquiry Commons
  2. OvationNet: AI Resources
  3. Knowledge Sharing Toolkit
  4. Coursera Course: Leading Positive Change through Appreciative Inquiry
  5. And Now for the Good News: Appreciative Inquiry
  6. Mary Abraham
  7. Dave Snowden
  8. LinkedIn Topic
  9. Articles and Sites
  10. SlideShare Presentations
  11. Books

Positive deviance: an approach to change based on the observation that in any community, there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge

Positive Deviance (PD) is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach. It enables a community to discover successful behaviors and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.

Positive deviants can be found everywhere. Their special practices, strategies, and behaviors enable them to find better solutions to prevalent problems than their neighbors who have access to the same resources. Study what works and encourage replication by others.


1. Principles and Methodology

PD Guiding Principles: The basic components and ingredients that give the PD approach its name:

  • Collective endeavor: Community or stakeholders’ ownership of the whole process,
  • Social proof: their discovery of existing solutions (uncommon behaviors & strategies via a PD Inquiry) among their peers-people just like them, by people or groups whose behaviors need to change
  • Networks driven: Use of existing and created new social capital (formal and informal networks),
  • Focus on practice: Development of activities and initiatives that encourage practice of PD inquiry findings
  • Collective involvement in the monitoring of the new activities to promote behavior change, and evaluation of the overall initiative to have sustainable impact on the problem.

PD Methodology: Five basic steps which serve as the backbone of the approach:

  1. Define the problem, its causes and common practices, and articulate desired outcome
  2. Determine presence of PDs
  3. Discover their uncommon but successful behaviors & strategies through PD inquiries
  4. Develop activities based on the inquiry findings
  5. Discern (monitor and evaluate) the results

The steps are iterative and a basic template to be adapted to the local or social context. In some cases the steps are repeated on an on-going basis throughout the project.

2. Better Evaluation

Positive Deviance is a strength-based approach based around five core principles:

  1. Communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems
  2. These communities are self-organizing entities with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions to communal problems
  3. Communities possess a ‘collective intelligence’, equally distributed through the community, which the PD approach seeks to foster and draw out
  4. The foundation of any PD approach rests on sustainability and the act of enabling a community to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local “positive deviants”
  5. Behavior change is best achieved through practice and the act of “doing”.

3. In The Power of Positive Deviancy, Jerry Sternin and Robert Choo wrote:

Working closely with the residents of several villages in Thanh Hoa province, we first sought out very poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition. Although the parents in those families had access to no more resources than their neighbors, they somehow found enough food to keep their children healthy. By examining the behavior of these people, the positive deviants in the community, we hoped to find local strategies for combating malnutrition.

And that’s exactly what we did find. It turned out that the mothers in those families were going out every day to nearby rice paddies and collecting tiny shrimps and crabs, which they were adding, along with sweet-potato greens, to their children’s meals. They were also feeding their children three or four times a day, rather than the customary twice a day. The shellfish and greens were both readily available and free for the taking, but the conventional village wisdom held these foods to be inappropriate for young children. It was clear, therefore, that the immediate solution to the malnutrition problem did not require a lot of money or other outside resources; it simply required the community members to change their behavior and to start emulating the positive deviants in their midst.

4. Patrick Lambe guest blogged the following in Cognitive Edge:

Identification and transfer of “best practices” fulfills a classic positive deviance goal, though they might be more appropriately be named “better” or “more successful” practices. Moreover, the adding of a positive deviance frame to “better practice” identification and transfer, gives a greater sensitivity to the context in which the practice is developed and in which it works, and it emphasizes the importance of local origination and ownership of the practice. Not all practices travel well from their native context, and it is this indiscriminate, context-insensitive lifting and re-application that has given best practices in KM their bad name, not to mention the lack of ownership of practice that it instills.

5. Nick Milton blogged about Positive deviance in a business context:

We can apply this approach in business, as part of our Knowledge Management program (perhaps as a KM pilot). It works this way.

  1. Identify your critical knowledge areas, and critical activities
  2. Look for the teams that perform best in these areas (best sales team, best bid team, safest factory, most engaged staff, fastest production, lowest energy use etc etc)
  3. Proactively learn from them. Use interviews, knowledge visits, knowledge exchange etc to understand the secrets of their success
  4. Share these with others (through peer assist, perhaps, or knowledge handover), and challenge the others to deliver the same results


  1. Harnessing the positive deviance approach to solving social problems
  2. The Power of Positive Deviance: Solutions Before Our Very Eyes
  3. Anecdote
  4. Dave Snowden
  5. LinkedIn Topic
  6. SlideShare Presentations
  7. Articles and Sites


  1. The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin
  2. Inviting Everyone: Healing Healthcare through Positive Deviance by Arvind Singhal and Prucia Buscell
  3. Inspiring Change and Saving Lives: The Positive Deviance Way by Arvind Singhal, Prucia Buscell, and Curt Lindberg
  4. Adaptive Positive Deviance: Getting Started: How to make big improvements through small (and maybe a few large) changes by Sharon Benjamin, Jeff Cohn, Laura Gardner, and Irene McHenry
  5. From the Inside Out Learning From Positive Deviance in Your Organization by Joan Richardson
  6. The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World by Sara Parkin

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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