Appreciative Inquiry Approaches to Facing “Wicked Problems”

Brad C. Anderson

Wisdom is action-oriented. Taking action requires hope and courage. Thus, we need methods to approach complex issues in hopeful ways.

Though many such methods exist, this textbook will present an approach called appreciative inquiry. Rather than focus on problems, appreciative inquiry focuses on what is working to allow us to strengthen processes that lead to desired outcomes.[1]

The following paragraphs lay out the mindset to approach appreciative inquiry processes, followed by a description of the process itself. It then looks at the Seniors Program from Appendix 1 to see an example of how the appreciative inquiry process worked in real life.

An Appreciative Inquiry Mindset

Appreciative inquiry is a positive approach. If all we do is study our failures, then the only thing we learn is how to fail. To learn how to succeed, we must research and build on positive examples of success.

Focusing on success does not mean that you ignore problems or barriers. Instead, you focus on positive examples of attempts to address those challenges and then build on those successes. You ask, Where do our strengths lie? How can we build on those strengths to address the challenges we face?[2][3]

Appreciative inquiry requires frequent reflection. Through reflection, you think about what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it. You consider what is working and how you might leverage those successes.

An appreciative inquiry approach also requires that we remember the interrelated nature of the world. Every social setting is an open system. Our actions affect others, which in turn has a return effect upon us. As you begin taking action, consider thoughtfully how your actions affect others and how that might impact your continuing efforts.

Elements of The Appreciative Inquiry Process

The appreciative inquiry method includes the following steps:

  • Partner with people/groups with relevant experience
  • Develop good questions. Big questions. Compelling questions. World-changing questions.
  • Engage with the public
  • Build structures supporting change (maintain adaptability and use the power of metaphors)
  • Embrace “wicked problems.”
  • Identify positive deviants

The following sections explain these in more detail.

Pick relevant partners

As with all collective reasoning processes, begin the appreciative inquiry by partnering with people and groups who have relevant experience for the problem you have chosen to tackle. Learn what experts already know about the issue you are targetting. Deepen your understanding of the challenges of solving those issues. Learn about the successes people have already achieved.

Ask big questions

Then, develop good questions. Big questions. Compelling questions. Organization-changing questions. Society-changing questions. Even if the questions are unanswerable, they still guide us. It is through the pursuit of answers that we act and create change.


“Good questions guide us” by Brad C. AndersonDeveloping organizational and managerial wisdomKwantlen Polytechnic University is licensed under CC BY 4.0 / A derivative from the original work.


Engage with the public.

In almost any organizational endeavour, the public is an important stakeholder, be they customers buying your product, taxpayers funding your efforts, suppliers providing you resources, and so on.

Learn what they expect. Discover the wisdom and out-of-the-box ideas that might be circulating beyond the boundary of your organization.

Build supportive structures

Once you have gained insights into appropriate actions to take, build structures supporting those changes. As identified in Chapter VIII, do this by using contextual (cultural) and institutional rationality to create bureaucratic rationalities that support the actions you desire.

Bear in mind, though, that we are often operating in environments of uncertainty and complexity when tackling significant issues. Thus, create structures that are adaptive and flexible so that people can make adjustments as needed.

  • You generate this adaptability by focusing on minimum specifications (or min specs) rather than maximum rules. Rules constrain choices. By avoiding rules and identifying only the minimum specifications that define success, people become free to try different ways to meet those specifications.

A surprisingly powerful tool to establish new structures is to create a metaphor describing it. Humans conceptualize complex ideas through metaphors.[4]

For example, we often refer to organizations as hierarchical. This metaphor paints the image of an all-powerful ruler at the top with layers of subordinates underneath. If you wanted to shift such an organization to one where power is decentralized, we might adopt the metaphor of an organic organization. This new metaphor paints the image of an organization that is flatter, where the center is, perhaps, stationary while dynamic extremities push out, probing the environment.

Embrace “wicked problem.”

These are problems that are complex and defy attempts to reduce them to basic elements. As previous paragraphs advised, when you meet with experts and the public, have them discuss the challenges that make these problems so difficult. Why do they remain unsolved?

During these meetings, listen, but also ask “wicked questions.” A wicked question is one that challenges people’s underlying assumptions and the status quo.

Identify spectacular examples of success, also known as positive deviants.

Then, study those positive deviants to learn what led to their success. Apply what you learn to the problem at hand.

Let’s look at the Seniors Program from Appendix 1 to see how these appreciative inquiry elements fit together in a real-world project.


Examples: The Seniors Program Use of Appreciative Inquiry Methods

The individuals involved with developing the Seniors Program did not intentionally implement an appreciative inquiry process, but many of the steps they took were consistent with this approach.

Partnering with people and groups who have relevant experience

The Seniors Program was developed through a collaboration between two health authorities and a non-profit foundation. This collaboration brought experts in many different areas together, including doctors, medical researchers, senior healthcare administrators, and experts in spreading innovations nation-wide.

Developing good questions

The question the fellowship posed for itself was, “How can we create a population of senior citizens that are healthy and vibrant well into old age?”

This question is powerful. Discovering the answer to that question would not only change the nature of the health authorities in which the fellowship operated but the whole of society itself.

Engage with the public

The fellowship met with groups of older adults to learn about their experiences. Through these meetings, the fellowship gained insight into how to make their program successful.

Build structures supporting those changes

The fellowship engaged their bureaucratic rationality to create documentation, processes, and procedures and roles that guided doctors and coaches to identify eligible seniors for the program and then administer lifestyle coaching that measurably reduced frailty.

As the fellowship sought to spread the program to other jurisdictions, they created further documentation and processes that automated several activities. They also modified roles & procedures by arranging for assistants to work with physicians adopting the program.

Embrace “wicked problems.”

The problems the fellowship embraced were deeply challenging. These problems included, but were not limited to:

  • How do we prevent the elderly from becoming frail?
  • How do we spread a medical intervention across hundreds of healthcare regions throughout all of Canada?
  • How do we implement a program that prevents illness in a healthcare system designed to react to illness?

They met with experts in numerous fields and studied their research to find glimmers of solutions to these problems.

During this process, they explicitly challenged deeply held assumptions people had. Most notably, the medical community (and society) assumes that physical health declines as people age. Because we see so many people become frail as they get older, we believe frailty is inevitable.

The activities of the fellowship directly challenged this assumption.

Identify positive deviants

Appendix 1 introduced Olga, a track and field athlete who competed well into her nineties. A ninety-year-old woman running 100-meter sprints, doing the long jump, and throwing a javelin, have you ever seen such a thing? Without a doubt, Olga was a positive deviant.

An essential facet of her story, though, is this. Olga did not compete against herself. She competed against other ninety-year-olds. She was not some weird anomaly, but rather a member of a population of older adults that maintained vitality and vibrancy well into advanced old age.

How did they achieve that?

Through investigations of this population, researchers have begun to uncover the secret to ageing well. The fellowship incorporated this learning into the Seniors Program.

The result

In the end, the fellowship created a program that measurably delayed if not reversed frailty. Though the program had yet to spread nationally, physicians in British Columbia were beginning to adopt it.

Moreover, the fellowship’s work inspired the author of this textbook to include it as an example. No doubt, some readers, upon reading this example and experiencing the ageing of their grandparents, parents, and themselves might start to make lifestyle changes of their own and encourage their family to do the same.

The big questions the fellowship posed had the power to change society. Even now, years after their work, the results of their efforts still ripple through the populace.


In our discussion of creating organizations capable of handling the unknown, the previous two sections have discussed how to create the capacity for collective reasoning and the appreciative inquiry process. The final element that this chapter will address is developing an organization’s ability to experiment.

Key Takeaways

  • Appreciative inquiry
    • Appreciative inquiry is a positive approach; it requires reflection and awareness of the world’s interrelated nature.
    • Partner with people/groups with relevant experience
    • Develop good questions. Big questions. Compelling questions. World-changing questions.
    • Engage with the public
    • Build structures supporting change (maintain adaptability and use the power of metaphors)
    • Embrace “wicked problems.”
    • Identify positive deviants

  1. Adler, N. J. (2007). Organizational Metaphysics--Global Wisdom and the Audacity of Hope. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 423–458). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  2. Adler, N. J. (2007). Organizational Metaphysics--Global Wisdom and the Audacity of Hope. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 423–458). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  3. Pitsis, T. S., & Clegg, S. R. (2007). Interpersonal Metaphysics--"We Live in a Political World": The Paradox of Managerial Wisdom. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 399–422). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
  4. Duarte, N. (2014). Finding the Right Metaphor for Your Presentation. Retrieved November 8, 2019, from


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Appreciative Inquiry Approaches to Facing "Wicked Problems" Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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