Active Inquiry in Organizational Change


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An essential part of Edgar Schein's Process Consulting practice model (discussed in-depth in my book) is the use of Active Inquiry. A guiding assumption in Active Inquiry is that an insecure client will not reveal essential facts about the organization's situation. Without these essential facts, the Organizational Change (OC) consultant is placed in a position of guessing. The consultant is then forced to rely on the dubious practice of projecting his or her prior experiences into the client's current situation.

There are four essential elements in Active Inquiry:

1. Build up the client's status and confidence.

2. Gather as much information as possible.

3. Involve the client in the diagnosis.

4. Create a situation that is safe for sharing both facts and feelings.

Schein describes three levels of Active Inquiry: pure inquiry, exploratory/diagnostic inquiry, and “confrontive” inquiry. It is important for the OC consultant to use the appropriate level at particular points in the process. The type of data being sought should determine the level of inquiry.

Pure inquiry, the first level, is designed to stimulate full disclosure. The consultant is simply attempting to get the story in as factual a manner as possible. At this level, “who" and “when" questions are appropriate; “why" questions are not.

Exploratory/diagnostic inquiry, the second level, is appropriate after the whole “factual" story is recorded. The consultant now redirects the client's focus with questions such as:

"How did you feel about that?"

"Why do you suppose he/she did that?"

"What are you going to do next?"

Exploratory/diagnostic inquiry gets the client to explore at a deeper level. At this level, feelings, hypotheses, cause and effect relationships, and forecasted actions can be discussed. This level reveals organizational and client member expectations, perceptions, and values.

“Confrontive” (not “confrontational”) inquiry, the third level, must not occur before pure inquiry or exploratory/diagnostic inquiry. At this level, the consultant interjects his/her ideas about the situation. The goal here is to move the client members from unproductive thinking to creative and critical thinking about the current situation.

Schein's model gives the OC consultant much insight into how to approach clients in a constructive and helpful way. The other important parts of Schein's process consulting model are discussed later in my book, “Strategic Organizational Change. ”

Dr. Mike Beitler is the author of “Strategic Organizational Change. " Read 2 free chapters of the book right now at


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