Collaborative Consulting: The Inquiry Phase

“The most important thing we do as consultants is inquiry.  The key point is that the way we know is fateful.  The questions we ask, the things that we choose to focus on; the topics that we choose determine what we find.  What we find becomes the data and the story out of which we dialogue about and envision the future.  And so, the seeds of change are implicit in the very first questions we ask.”  —David Cooperrider

The Inquiry Phase, also known as the ‘Discovery and Dialogue’ phase of collaborative consulting, follows the Entry and Contracting phases. It presents organization development consultants with two main approaches to consider.

Inquiry Phase: In Context

Entry Establish a relationship with the client
Contracting Agree on a focus area, mutual expectations, and how to move forward
Inquiry Determine what change is needed in relation to the focus area

Inquiry Phase: Two Approaches

  “Traditional” or “Modernist” “Post-Modern” or “Social Constructionist”
Premise Organizations are living systems – if we can understand the interdependence between all parts of the organization and its environment, we can identify how it all ought to work together to produce the best outcomes  Organizations are meaning making systems – understanding the organizations strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities requires understanding how meaning is constructed and negotiated
  • There is a single reality
  • It is comprised of objective fact
  • It can be discovered using rational and analytic processes
  • Reality is socially constructed
  • There are multiple realities
  • They are socially negotiated
Implications for Inquiry
  • Collecting and applying valid data using objective problem-solving methods leads to change
  • Inquiry as data collection, diagnosis, and prescription – identify the problem or the truth
  • Raising collective awareness and generating new possibilities and social agreements leads to change
  • Inquiry as raising the collective awareness of the multitudes of perspectives at play in the system and/or the meaning-making process itself
Implications for interventions
  • Emphasis is on changing behavior
  • Use of leadership and org level interventions to align the parts of the system to the desired results
  • Emphasis is on creating containers for greater total system awareness and self-organization; intervening in the meaning making process is the objective
  • Use of large group techniques to seek and achieve common ground

Inquiry Phase: Requirements

Decide what you want to learn from whom

  • Choose methods for learning what you want to learn
  • Use methods that are easy to use and for the client to understand.  If the client doesn’t understand what you are doing, chances are he/she will not believe the data that comes out.
  • Involve the client in deciding what you want to learn and choosing the methods – use this as an opportunity to build trust
  • Build out bias – Inquire in a way that does not bias the response you receive
  • Focus on the client – what is important to them and the organization
  • Get past what the client figured out ahead of time and into what is really going on
  • Try to avoid the desire to interpret the data during the middle of inquiry


Further reading in the nature of inquiry in organization development consulting includes: