Martin Seligman, the leading figure in the positive psychology movement, has described Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as the most significant and powerful organisational intervention currently available.

AI has significant implications for our improvement work in health, particularly in our efforts to increase the numbers of people involved in improvement and in engaging our wider local communities.

Appreciative Inquiry is both a philosophy and a methodology. It sits along other strengths-based approaches in being concerned with discovering what is happening when an organisation is at its most effective and joyful.

With these discoveries on the organisations most trusted past in place it then envisions an ambitious preferred future, designing the way forward and planning for sustainable improvement.

November saw the first ever World Appreciative Inquiry Conference to be held outside of North America. David Cooperrider is the founding pioneer of AI and his opening address placed great emphasis on a dispersed model of leadership, describing leaders as “anyone who wants to make a difference at this time”.

He quoted Peter Drucker as describing leadership as “creating an alignment of strengths in ways that make the system’s weaknesses irrelevant”. This sits in stark contrast to our habitual mode of thinking (according to Gallop research) which is to “fix what’s wrong and let the strengths look after themselves”.

A recurring theme was AI’s focus on change at the “scale of the whole”. AI interventions start with as much of the relevant system in the room as possible to explore and hear stories from the widest range of participants; including, for example, end-users and suppliers.

As the philosopher Ronald Marstin said: “Justice is fundamentally a matter of who is included and who we can tolerate neglecting”.

This was modelled in the process of the conference with the President of Nepal, Dr Ram Baran Yadav, and the final day exploring Nepal’s peace process with all the major protagonists there on stage telling their stories about what was working.

In summing up the session Cooperrider described a need to learn from the best of both top-down, bureaucratic, control-orientated leadership and bottom up, grass roots activism, alongside “leadership of the whole” based on the sorts of “powerful configurations of the whole” described by Justice Albie Sachs who was there to give his account of the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Such a very public process involving a wide range of protagonists creates a shared experience of deep humanity that feeds our most powerful visions of the future.

Cooperrider referred to three pillars for change at the scale of the whole: positive human experience, positive human strengths and traits, and positive institutions. It is these positive institutions on which AI is primarily focused. Such institutions are “capable consistently of elevating human strengths and then refracting that out into the world”.

Bliss Browne described the regeneration work that had been undertaken in Chicago, using AI. She was particularly passionate about the undermining quality of cynicism as something that limits imagination. She highlighted the cultural challenge of our prevailing problem-orientated, deficit-based culture, with its preference for experts and answers, as well as the way, cynicism so often passes for sophistication.

Browne advocated inter-generational work, for example involving young people as leaders, to disarm cynicism and activate hope.

The AI process used in Chicago was summarised as:

  • Understand - the best of what is
  • Imagine - what can be - the possible, while being specific and hopeful
  • Create - what will be - making it practical, visible and organised

Jane Watkins’s discussion of the effective role of a consultant itself resonated with descriptions of effective leadership. This included the need to:

  • understand and act congruently with the values and beliefs of good organisational development
  • have a deep understanding of systems.
  • know how to transfer that knowledge of wholeness
  • know how to enable people to be effective improvers
  • help the system become aware of itself
  • be prepared to step aside and ultimately to be invisible

Seligman and David Cooperrider seem set to lead a movement towards a world where more people are “flourishing”- experiencing positive emotions, social connection, a sense of meaning and good personal relationship. In fact Seligman set the specific target of 51 per cent of the world’s population flourishing by 2051. Peter Drucker was quoted as saying that “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.

I left Kathmandu with a real sense that AI and other positive strength-based approaches would be aligning their shared strengths to create very significant global benefit.

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