David Cooperrider and Appreciative Inquiry

Big Takeaway: Focus on and appreciate function within a system versus picking apart what is not working.

Editor’s note: This post is one in a series authored by ALP’s Katy Fodchuk entitled Change Leadership: Helping, Mastery, and Appreciative Inquiry, in which she revisits the work of her “guru guides” whose practices and research in numerous organizations have been key drivers in her approach to educational leadership consulting.

In my first two articles I described key approaches to building helping relationships (Schein, 2013, 2014) and the importance of personal mastery in an organization’s vision for change (Senge, 2006). In this final installment on my series on change leadership I reflect on the work of organizational development guru, David Cooperrider by describing a framework for facilitating positive organizational change design and implementation.

Twelve years ago, I took part in a professional learning event that profoundly impacted my approach to leadership consulting. In collaboration with colleagues from Beijing Normal University, we had a paper accepted to a conference jointly hosted by the United Nations Global Compact and The Academy of Management (AOM) hosted at Case Western Reserve University. The conference theme was “Business as an Agent of World Benefit.” On the first day, I found myself in assigned seating at a table with a past president of AOM, a high-ranking official in the UN Global Compact, an accomplished management consultant from McKinsey, and little old me – a lowly doctoral student. This experience left two impressions on my approach to change in education systems:

  • We can learn more by focusing on what is working than picking apart what is not working;
  • Students need to be at the table!

Positive Focus on Change Increases Momentum

Regarding my first conference takeaway, it is noted that organizational change efforts often focus on problems that need to be “fixed” by some change initiative. During that memorable conference, David Cooperider, third “guru guide” in my series on executive consulting and father of an approach to organizational change called appreciative inquiry, lead a three-day conference within a framework for finding ways to appreciate what is working and amplifying it. From micro-financing women in developing countries to technology advances that support sustainable growth, appreciative inquiry was the framework that guided some of the best business minds to consider change for good.

In contrast to other organizational change approaches, appreciative inquiry takes a positive perspective to organizational change and development by focusing on, leveraging, and amplifying an organization’s strengths (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005). While focus on problems is sometimes necessary, a sole focus can sap momentum and energy that change leaders bring to the table. Focus on problems also tends to be “past-oriented” while a focus on strength and vision development examines current reality and dreams for the future.

Initiating the Inquiry and the Four D Cycle

Ai begins with “initiating the inquiry” which involves determining the subject of change. At ALP we facilitate this work with change leaders and to help refine and identify some guiding questions. We use appreciative inquiry with teams and community members across a district to facilitate deep considerations about the direction and momentum of change. The following include some inquires from work we have done:

  • How do we nurture a learning environment of diversity and inclusivity?
  • How do we align our values and learning models among our district’s various divisions and departments as well as our external community?
  • What are our strengths in promoting our teachers’ accomplishments and how can we amplify their voices further to build a broader and stronger professional learning community?
  • How can we align our individual and team professional learning and growth goals with the district’s strategy?

Appreciative inquiry then breaks down into what is called the “4-D cycle” (depicted below) and includes the following phases:

  • Discover (“the best of what is”): This phase involves participants describing their “peak experiences” and best practices as they relate to the inquiry of focus. Here they can tell their story including: who was involved? why was it so memorable? Why does it make you hopeful/excited about the future? What are images, metaphors, quotes that come to mind? The facilitator then records these peak moments to create a “database” of “quotable quotes,” images, and metaphors from the group’s experiences.
  • Dream (Imagine “what could be”): In this phase participants create a bold vision for the future. Assuming peak experiences are the norm group members flesh out what personalized learning could look like in “the best of all worlds.”
  • Design (Determine “what should be”): Design phase defines what organizational structures, processes, professional learning, resources, etc. need to be in place and/or obstacles that need to be removed to realize the vision described in the Dream phase above. An application of the Design phase is offered below and connected to Senge’s practice of anchoring a shared vision to governing ideas.
  • Deliver/Destiny (Define “what will be”): Deliver or Destiny phase involves specific implementation planning to bridge current reality with realization of the vision. It includes specific timelines, implementation roll out, evaluation points, team member roles, etc.

Bringing Students to the Table

I noted my surprise at being included at the conference table with such a prestigious group including a seminal management researcher, diplomat, and high-powered management consultant. It is important to note that change is best when there is a diversity and representation from different groups within the district’s community. What the conference organizer recognized was that, as a doctoral student, I represented a younger generation who brought valuable perspective and needed a seat at the table.

When our team facilitates a visioning day or leads discovery and design of a district’s learner profile, you will most often find students, parents, teachers, and coaches hashing out those critical competencies alongside district superintendents, directors, consultants, and specialists. When working with change in education (or any organization), it is a critical step to ensure participation from multiple stakeholder groups versus making decisions from the top and mandating change down (Fodchuk, Myran, & Robinson, 2008). Diversity in voices present not only gives multiple stakeholder groups the “buy in” they need to commit to change and go beyond cursory compliance when implementing that change (Meyer, Syrnivas, Lal, & Topolntsky, 2007) but, we find, it allows for more comprehensive and thoughtful decisions that better represent the needs and goals of the entire community.



Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. K. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc.: San Francisco.

Fodchuk, K. M., Myran, S., & Robinson, J. (2008). Momentum for change: Examining the relationships among teacher participation level, commitment to change, and behavioral support for change. American Educational Research Association Annual Conference in New York City, NY. 

Meyer, J. P., Srnivas, E. S., Lal, J. B., Topolntsky, L. (2007). Employee commitment and support for an organizational change: Test of the three-component model in two cultures. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology185-211.

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