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Using Appreciative Inquiry in extension

In this episode, we’re going to discuss AI… not Artificial Intelligence, or even Artificial Insemination, but the other AI, Appreciative Inquiry! We want to unpack what Appreciative Inquiry is and how might we use it in our role as enablers of change. 

As enablers of change, we often face complex and uncertain situations that require us to adapt and innovate. Our role may involve highlighting solutions to technical problems for farmers, such as pest and disease outbreaks, extreme weather events, or our role may find us working out how to get more people along to our events. How can we approach these challenges in a positive way, rather than focusing on the negative aspects and trying to fix them?

One possible answer is Appreciative Inquiry, a collaborative, strengths-based approach to change in organisations and other human systems. Appreciative Inquiry was developed by Cooperrider and Srivastva (1987), as a response to the traditional problem-solving methods that they saw as limiting and ineffective. They argued that by asking positive questions and engaging in dialogue, we can discover what’s good about our current situation, imagine what the future might look like, and work together to create the future that we want.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on five main principles. These are constructionist, simultaneity, poetic, anticipatory and positive. Let’s go through each one. The constructionist principle highlights that the way we understand and interpret reality is shaped by the language and stories we use, and we can create new meanings and possibilities through dialogue. The simultaneity principle focuses on how, in the moment we ask a question, we begin to create change. And the type of question we ask influences the direction of change. The poetic principle is where we can choose what we focus on, and whatever we focus on will grow. This means we should focus on strengths and potentials rather than weaknesses and problems. 

The anticipatory principle is where the images and visions we have of the future guide our actions and behaviours. We can create positive change by envisioning and affirming our desired outcomes. Finally, the positive principle is where positive emotions and relationships enhance our creativity, resilience, and well-being. We can generate this by asking positive questions and appreciating the best of the current situation.

Once we know and understand the principles behind Appreciative Inquiry, we then follow a five-step process. This can be applied to any situation or system that we want to improve or transform. The steps are as follows:

  1. Definition: We decide what we want to study or inquire about, and define the scope and boundaries of our inquiry. We should choose a topic that is relevant, meaningful, and positive for us and the system we are working with. So picture this: we’re in a meeting with farmers, and instead of diving into problems straight away, we start the conversation by asking about their success stories. The Definition stage encourages us to identify and highlight the positive aspects of farming experiences. By doing so, we set the stage for a more constructive discussion, fostering an environment where farmers feel valued for their achievements. We might consider sharing stories of farmers who have successfully implemented innovative practices, showcasing the positive impact on their farm business. This not only motivates others but also helps us understand what works well in different contexts.
  2. Discovery: We explore and appreciate the best of the present, by asking positive questions and sharing stories of success, achievement, and value. We identify the strengths, assets, and resources that we have, and the factors that enable us to perform well and thrive. As enablers of change, we often find ourselves uncovering the hidden gems of knowledge within the farming community. The Discovery phase of Appreciative Inquiry encourages us to explore these further. For instance, it might be exploring how a particular farming family has excelled in sustainable production methods or how a group of farmers has effectively collaborated to overcome shared challenges. By understanding and celebrating these successes, we not only strengthen the sense of community but also gather valuable insights that can be shared.
  3. Dream: We envision and imagine the ideal of what might be, by asking questions that generate and create images of the future that we want. To do this, we need to stretch our imagination and challenge our assumptions, and align our visions with our values and aspirations. In the Dream stage, we can encourage farmers to draw a picture of their ideal farming future. As enablers of change, our role is to facilitate these discussions, helping farmers articulate their aspirations and goals. It’s about fostering a collective vision that inspires action and innovation.
  4. Design: We define and plan the dream more clearly, and discuss the steps and strategies to realise it. We co-create and agree on how to describe the ideal state, as well as the actions and structures that’ll support it. The Design phase is where we, as extension practitioners, collaborate with farmers to develop practical strategies. This is the nitty-gritty phase where ideas are transformed into plans. The key is to ensure that the plans are realistic, attainable, and resonate with the aspirations of the farming community.
  5. Destiny: We implement and sustain the design, by taking action, experimenting, learning, and adjusting. Supporting the implementation process could involve providing ongoing guidance, connecting farmers with relevant resources, or facilitating collaboration between different stakeholders. We celebrate our achievements and monitor our progress, and we continue to ask positive questions and appreciate the best of what is. 

We found an interesting article published recently by Arnold et al. (2022), researchers in a health service in the UK. The authors reflected on their challenge undertaking interviews with an Appreciative Inquiry framework, in that it wasn’t just about asking different questions, but it required a change in their thinking and perspective. They found that they needed to carefully consider their words when framing questions, in order to truly probe and reflect. They needed to develop a genuine curiosity about what was being said. They suggested, especially for those undertaking Appreciative Inquiry for the first time, that it was a good idea to seek an experienced Appreciative Inquiry facilitator as a mentor and to support your learning and development. 

In conclusion, Appreciative Inquiry offers us a powerful and positive way to engage with ourselves, our colleagues, our clients, and our systems. By using Appreciative Inquiry, we can really explore possibilities, and then design and deliver something useful. We can support and create change that is not only effective, but also meaningful, enjoyable, and sustainable.

We hope you found this episode informative and we invite you to share your comments, questions, and feedback below. We haven’t been able to find much in the literature on using Appreciative Inquiry in agriculture. Have you used it? We’d love to hear from you and learn from your experiences with Appreciative Inquiry!

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Arnold, R., Gordon, C., van Teijlingen, E., Way, S., Mahato, P. (2022). Why use Appreciative Inquiry? Lessons learned during COVID-19 in a UK maternity service. European Journal of Midwifery, 6(May), 1-7.

Cooperrider, D. and Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In R. Woodman and W. Pasmore (Eds.), Research in organizational change and development, Vol. 1, pp. 129–169.

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Jeff Coutts
27 days ago

Very interesting article. Being the evaluation area, I have always been aware that simply by asking questions in a survey we can prompt thinking and action. It’s not a neutral information gathering exercise. Thanks for sharing the article.

Noel Ainsworth
Noel Ainsworth
27 days ago

I can see how appreciative enquiry could be used to focus on the positive sides of agricultural decarbonisation, so I think I will give it a go!

Darren Hickey
Darren Hickey
27 days ago

This is really interesting and reminds me straight away of a critical principle in the other AI you mentioned, Artifical Intelligence. As AI technology grows and grows (Generative AI that is), the ability of users to ask the right questions of the AI model is critical. So as your article points out, this has principle has been in place for decades, ie asking the right questions with the right words to get the outcome required. It just has a new name now (provided to us by AI model developers and engineers) “prompt engineering skills’.

Last edited 27 days ago by Darren Hickey
Rachael Young
Rachael Young
27 days ago

A really interesting article and approach outlined – I look forward to applying elements to my work. I found the AI acronym a stumble to reading and enjoying this article more because it is so widely used as artificial intelligence and I had to go back a few times to remind myself what this new AI was. For clearer communication it would be great to not use this acronym.

Phil McKenzie
26 days ago

Great to have Appreciative Inquiry covered here. Something that I use on a daily basis to drive my work and personal life. I find it is always a refreshing change to use with farmers who have perhaps become a little cynical with traditional approaches, or their lot in life in general. Everyone finds it very energising, and it is cumulative over time, so builds enduring and positive connections. A couple of other links covering the use of AI with farmers covers the approach and outcomes.


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