Appreciative inquiry (AI) can be used to identify the strengths, successes and unique attributes of a system or a group of people. Instead of starting from a problem, AI asks what we can learn from things that have worked or are currently working well. It focuses on what the participants appreciate about concrete situations in the past and present, as a basis for building an image of a preferred future. AI was developed by David Cooperrider and his colleagues at the Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s.

At FoAM we found (elements of) AI useful as a warming up exercise to link the topic of conversation to the real experiences of the people involved. We frame the conversation with a question, then ask the participants to think of a situation in which the question was positively resolved. For example, if a question is 'how can we work together on interesting things?', we invite participants to think of a time when they previously worked together on interesting things and to identify the key factors that made this situation possible.

In a short AI 'discovery' session, the participants interview each other in pairs, one at the time, after which the whole group comes together to report insights from their conversations and find common themes. The facilitator summarises and clusters the answers focusing on the affirmative or 'life-giving' success factors or criteria.

AI Discovery



  • Minimum: circle with sufficient amount of chairs and surface to write on (wall, table, notebook)
  • Optional: separate break-out spaces for pairs to conduct interviews


  • Instruction cards or large surface (paper, board) with questions
  • Materials for recording (blackboard and chalk, whiteboard or large paper and markers)

Process steps

  • Frame the exercise and give clear instructions
  • Participants have interviews/dialogues in pairs
  • Report the findings in the group and record the common threads
  • Summarise and share
Before the session
  1. Prepare the questions and instructions. For example:
    • 'The core question of today’s exercise is [e.g. what collaborations would we like to have?]. Think of a time when you [e.g. participated in a successful collaboration]. Find one person whom you don’t know so well and have a conversation about your experiences.
    • Interview each other, one at the time. Take about [e.g. 5, 10 or 15] minutes per person. The interviewee is invited to tell the story, to describe what was happening and focus on what made this situation a positive experience.
    • When you are interviewing your partner, you can ask guiding questions.* While the other person speaks, focus on listening and asking questions, but try to refrain from commenting. When one person has told their story, you can swap roles. After your interviews you will have a chance to share what you heard.'
  2. Make the worksheets for the interviews (including instructions and guiding questions), or if you prefer more free-form conversations, write the questions on a big piece of paper or blackboard. Whichever form you choose the structure of the instruction is the same:
    1. Think of a time when you […].
    2. Describe the situation.
    3. Guiding question 1?
    4. Guiding question 2?
    5. Guiding question 3?

* Note: the guiding questions for the interviews will depend on the themes/insights you are trying to distill. For example: if you are looking to identify actions, emotions and resources, the questions might be 'What did you do? How did you feel? What made this situation possible?', or 'What did you do to contribute to this situation? What were the other people doing? What else was around?', etc.

During the session
  1. Briefly frame the exercise: describe what the purpose is and propose a question; explain the flow and the duration of the exercise.
  2. Provide simple and clear instructions to the participants.
  3. Give each person or pair an instruction sheet (with enough space for their notes), or write the instructions and questions somewhere where everyone can see them (a big piece of paper, blackboard, window…).
  4. While the participants conduct their interviews, offer assistance where needed, remind people of the time when they should switch roles and when the interview time has come to an end.
  5. After the allocated time has passed, ask the participants to return to the group and invite the interviewers to summarise their partners’ stories. Depending on the size of the group and the time available, you can harvest all or just some of the stories.
  6. Record and cluster the key insights into main themes (e.g. actions, emotions, resources; successes, strengths, visions; etc.).
  7. At the end of the exercise, take a couple of minutes to summarise the outcome. Ask the participants for further suggestions, comments and corrections.
After the session
  1. Make a diagram or written summary of the key insights.
  2. Share this documentation with the participants.

Read more about appreciative inquiry: