PART I: Frames and tools
1Reflexive inquiry principles for consultancy practice
2Reflexive inquiry tools for coordinating conversation
PART II: Working with reflexive inquiry
3The monks' tale: a community learning to co-exist
4Reflexive inquiry for organizational development
PART III: Reflexive inquiry as a qualitative research tool
5Constructing a research lens for reflexive inquiry
6The peace builders' story: a problem of strategic coherence
PART IV: Conclusions and developments
7Reflexive strategies for critical consciousness


As an organisational consultant drawing on systemic traditions I aspire to help organisations create coherence between their vision, strategy and action. By the same token, coherence is an important context for my own practice. I find myself comparing, connecting and distinguishing my experiences as a consultant, moving between frames, tools and practices and back again and developing a thread of narrative as I go. This book on reflexive inquiry (RI) represents an attempt to articulate that narrative and will hold value in so far as it can inspire others to act productively in specific situated moments. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a pattern of my experience. In taking up this opportunity, my own practice, at least, has developed.

Reflecting on the theme of coherence, I realise the usefulness of experiences of incoherence to my own learning as a practitioner in organisational contexts. I have attempted to cultivate the ability to notice points of disconnection and to connect them to wider contexts that help disconnection to make sense. This consciousness has facilitated the potential for new frames and tools, providing, in turn, contexts for future dissonances. My work with appreciative inquiry (AI) is an example where an experience of incoherence has been fruitful in helping me challenge and change my frames and practices to construct (from where I stand) a more coherent pattern. I am grateful to writers and practitioners of AI who have inspired these developments (Anderson et al., 2001; Barge and Oliver, 2003; Cooperrider, 1998; Cooperrider and Whitney, 1999).

AI has become a prevalent consultancy methodology discourse for working with organisational change and, for some, has become aligned with systemic practice (Anderson et al, 2001). The impetus for this book comes from both the practical development of this methodology in my work as a consultant, and the translation of that work in teaching and writing contexts – teaching on the MSc in Systemic Organisation and Management at Kensington Consultation Centre, London, writing various papers for conferences and publication (Barge & Oliver, 2003) and two recent chapters on AI in edited books (Oliver, 2002 in Meisner & Voetmann, Oliver, in press). An increasing need to develop AI methodology to fit the contexts I work in helped me to understand some theoretical (and practical) disconnections implicit in the methodology itself. I moved through various representations (for example, Critical Appreciative Inquiry, Oliver, in press) to a position of thinking that reflexive inquiry could provide the possibility of both transcending the polarisation of positive and negative embedded in appreciative inquiry while incorporating something of its value. RI will thus be employed as a set of principles and tools in presenting my particular approach to consultancy in working with organisational development.

This approach is inspired by systemic practice in psychotherapy and organisational studies. While a systemic account encourages the practitioner to engage with and develop the complexity of life and not marry one’s hypothesis, I detect a discomfort in some representations of systemic thought with the critical and the decisive voice, privileging the empowerment of the voice of the other in a way that can create systemic imbalance (e.g. see Anderson et al, 2001). My own 1996 paper Systemic Eloquence, was an attempt to posit reflexivity as the core practice, with systemic eloquence as the space in which situated decisions could be made about the appropriate form of communication required, whether appreciative, challenging, critical, decisive, supportive or inquiring. My thinking now is that paper did not go far enough in making a case for reflexivity as a core practice. This book offers more of a basis for that position where it connects a related set of principles to a repertoire of practice.

In developing the methodology of RI, I will be offering models and tools constituting practical theory in my work with organisations. In using the term practical theory I am moving away from the traditional academic dualism separating theoretical constructs from their applications. Instead, I am aiming to demonstrate the opportunities for organisation development and learning which arise from examples of RI theory-in-practice.

In Part 1 of the book, the RI frame will be set out. Five core principles will be offered to set a theoretical and ethical context for the tools for constructing and coordinating conversation that can be said to make up RI practice.

In Part 2, these principles and tools will come to life when enacted in organisational and community development contexts. Work will be described with a religious community and in a non-governmental organisation (NGO) where the development of reflexive practice became vital for existence. All organisations embody unique patterns of meaning and action thus the learning from work with one can never be translated ‘lock stock and barrel’. However, the methodologies and tools which are set out in Part 1 will be shown in action in case studies. This will demonstrate the potential for these tools to construct new patterns of feeling, meaning and action that provide scope for ways forward in complex, uncomfortable and sometimes stuck situations.

Part 3 will draw out some implications of the principles, arguments, models and tools presented for undertaking research. It will be argued that RI provides unique possibilities for research. A case example will be offered which shows a rich connection between consultancy and research processes.

Part 4 will conclude and look to the potential for future development. In particular, it will share recent ideas in development about looped patterns.


Anderson, H., Cooperricler, D., Gergen, K. J., Gergen, M., McNamee, S., & Whitney, D. (2001). The Appreciative Organization. Taos, New Mexico: Taos Institute.

Barge, J. K., & Oliver, C. (2003). Working with appreciation in managerial practice. Academy of Management Review, 28(1): 124—142.

Cooperrider, D. L. (1998). What is appreciative inquiry? In: S. A. Hammond & C. Royal (Eds.), Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry. Piano, TX: Practical Press.

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Oliver, C., & Barge, J. K. (2002). Appreciative inquiry as aesthetic sensitivity: co-ordination of meaning, purpose and reflexivity. In: C. Dalsgaard, T. Meisner, & K. Voetman (Eds.), Change: Appreciative Conversations in Theory and Practice. Denmark: Psykoiogisk Forlag.

Oliver, C. (2005). Critical appreciative inquiry: reworking a consultancy discourse. In: E. Peck (Ed.), Organisational Development in Healthcare. Oxford: Radcliffe.


"Reflexive Inquiry" offers a way for us, as organisational members and consultants, to handle the tensions of a life immersed in organisational relations, structures, rules, policies, and procedures. This book provides us with an array of practices we might use with client systems seeking development while avoiding the urge to prescribe a new method for consultancy. Oliver has struck a chord identifying reflexive inquiry as the centerpiece of our work. When we invite our clients (as well as ourselves) into the sort of relational examination that reflexive inquiry spawns, we give full attention to the communication practices that create our identities, our organizations, and our lives. I am sure this volume will be rich with resources for us all. Sheila McNamee, Professor of Communication, University of New Hampshire, USA

All of us who are working with systemic, communication, and constructionist ideas will welcome the publication of this book. My term-of-choice for the framework presented here is "maturity." It brings together several strands of work (appreciative inquiry, systemic practice, CMM), productively extending them in a practice centered on reflexivity. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book is that it both extends the work of the community of practice in which it is located and is accessible to those not already involved in it. Readers new to this community of practice will find a high ratio of new information and ideas, but the information is presented in an engaging manner with sufficient illustrations from actual cases to enable comprehension and adoption of new ways of working. W. Barnett Pearce. Professor, Human and Organization Development Program, Fielding Graduate Institute