Focus on Strengths Not Just Weaknesses – the Value of Appreciative Inquiry

I always enjoyed the message from the featured image above. As a management consultant, validator, and assessor I am often engaged by organizations to analyze their operations and systems to identify opportunities for improvement. I have also spent a couple decades on advising on how to implement better practice methods and processes around various disciplines (project, programme, portfolio, risk, business case etc.). I learned about appreciative inquiry several years ago, and have added it to my tool kit to supplement the root cause analysis technique. I and my clientele have benefited significantly from the employment of this approach.

Root Cause Analysis

One of the common approaches that I frequently used in the past was to conduct a root cause analysis during the entry, diagnosis and action planning phases of the consulting process:

As outlined in the diagram above, the typical root cause analysis (RCA) process involves:

  • clearly defining the problem (Entry)
  • gathering data / evidence (Diagnosis)
  • identification of issues that contribute to the problem (Diagnosis)
  • finding root causes (action planning – ideas)
  • developing solution recommendations (action planning – decision)
  • implementing recommendation (Implementation)
  • Observe solution for effectiveness (withdrawal)
  • May be some level of iteration in resolving issues

Another perspective is outlined below:

This was an easy choice, as many of the methods and better practices had maturity models and lists of recommended focus areas.

One of the challenges with root cause analysis though, is that organizations often focus on omissions or problems which paradoxically becomes part of the problem.

Appreciative Inquiry

Another approach to add to your toolkit is the realization that organizations can learn more from that which already works, than from that which doesn’t work.

Particularly when implementing better practices or transformations, first focus on what organizations are already good at and want more of. Since what organizations focus on becomes reality, it is more effective and efficient to pay attention to this perspective first and foremost.

The difference between deficit based change (root cause analysis) and strength based innovation (appreciative inquiry) is outlined below:

The Appreciative Inquiry approach is a problem solving method pioneered by David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s. Appreciative Inquiry is a strategy for purposeful change. It identifies the best of “what is” to pursue dreams and possibilities of “what could be.”

How does this help sustainable project management?

When we go in to advise organizations and project teams on sustainable project management, they frequently are already doing many things well. If we take the time to explain the why and what of the sustainable project management practices and not just the how, we can uncover many existing practices that can be leveraged elsewhere in the organization. Often making a few minor improvements on existing practices, as well as raising the profile and importance of these practices, can make the world of difference for more empowered, energized, and successful project delivery teams.

In a curious way, this helps engage the populist trends in society. As opposed to the elitist not invented here “best practices” imposed from on high, by recognizing that what we are doing already works and that we are leaders in makes the few changes that may be required minor. Plus the organizational subject matter experts are recognized and rewarded for their investment and insight and can advise others.


AI for Inclusion-Discovering our inclusive best, D.LaCour Associates, Baltimore, MD, Jun 3 2009,

Appreciative Inquiry Commons. David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry at Champlain College in continuing partnership with Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management.

Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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