Appreciative Inquiry

A strategy for change in systemic leadership that builds on organizational strengths, not deficits by Dawna Markova and Bea Mah Holland

“You can find problems everywhere when you start looking. You can thus create a sense that it’s all insurmountable. But if we could construct a world in which something is possible, we can talk about that in such a way that we might be able to achieve it together.” — Kenneth Gergen, professor of psychology, Swarthmore College

“As you reflect back on your years in schools, what is one time when you felt most engaged, alive, committed and proficient, and when important results were achieved? What was it about you—your unique qualities and skills—that made that experience so successful?”

These are among the questions that 31 educators and staff from the central office and nine schools in Lexington, Mass., contemplated last fall as they began a two-day retreat. It was not what any of the participants in the spacious New England Congregational Church hall had expected.

Though Lexington, with its 30,000 residents, touts more National Merit Scholars than any other community in the state, the school district has had nine superintendents in 17 years. Several school leaders expressed apprehension and hesitation about coming to the retreat at all. They just didn’t feel safe or trusting.

Bill Hurley, a 13-year veteran of the superintendency in Massachusetts who’s now serving as Lexington’s interim chief, was seasoned and well-respected, but how could he create anything that would be sustainable or worthy of people’s commitment? Understanding this lack of trust, Hurley invited one of us, Bea Mah Holland, to design and facilitate a retreat that would help reweave the fabric of the educational leader’s community.

Fertilizing Meaning

The stark white walls of the church hall were covered with sayings from Albert Einstein, Peter Drucker, Aristotle, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Browning, Margaret Mead and Helen Keller. As the day began, people were asked to group around the saying that they were attracted to, then to discuss the reasons they chose that particular quotation. Several clusters were formed around the posters, “We are all angels with only one wing; we can fly only while embracing each other,” and “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”

The next two days were laced with questions that generated conversations about what had been possible, how it had been possible, how specific learnings from the past could fertilize a meaningful future for the whole system and what particular actions would translate dreaming into a reality. Starting in pairs, the dialogues grew into discussions by small groups, then by the whole community. Hour by hour, the energy in the room became more vibrant and hopeful. At the end of two intense days, one principal stated, “My hope for us as a school system is renewed because I know now that we care first and foremost about the development of all children. My colleagues genuinely put them first. Now I feel as if I’m in a good position to begin the year.”

Hurley, the interim superintendent, was pleased. “The strategies used in this retreat enabled our administrative staff to begin a process of renewal, hope, mutual trust and collaboration,” he said. “Revisiting the memories of successful efforts has provided not only hope in this endeavor, but a joy in remembering what is best in all of us.”

Maximizing Connectedness

In these fragmented times, a school leader’s survival is directly linked to his or her ability to understand, strengthen and draw upon the school system’s connectedness. We all yearn for our workplace to be one that provides fulfillment, meaning and inspiration, as well as a paycheck, yet we are surrounded by a contagion of extreme cynicism and isolation, often disguised as sophistication.

Systems thinking, at its essence, is understanding and maximizing the natural connectedness within a bounded entity. In essence then, systemic leadership asks us to broaden our periphery and shift from a deficit focus to one that is positive and developmental. This requires a very different way of thinking about problems. Stephen Sokolow, a former superintendent in New Jersey who now directs the Center for Empowered Leadership, put it this way: “We need to be on the growing edge of hope when the culture is at the cutting edge of fear.”

In the recent past, there has been a quiet, profound revolution in several fields, including psychology and sociology, a positive and significant shift in how we think about human beings. In 1998, the president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, initiated a new emphasis in the field of psychology, now referred to as “ positive psychology.” Its focus is on strengths and building the best in life.

This movement has expanded into organizations through the work of David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University, who in the early 1980s realized the power of questions that focused on successes and conceived a new approach to organizational change called Appreciative Inquiry. AI focuses on cooperatively searching for and building on an organization’s strengths and potential. It asks us to heighten our awareness of the value of each person in the system. It requires a shift in perspective from problem solving to building on what we know we can do well.

Cooperrider observed that when attention was paid to what worked, organizations made leaps beyond those where more traditional interventions were employed, interventions that focused on the problems to be solved and processes to be fixed. After extensive use of his approach, he later wrote in Appreciative Management and Leadership: The Power of Positive Thought and Action in Organizations: “Organizations can and do learn from their successes—their positive deviations—times when people, functions and the organization as a whole are at their very best. These positive deviations are best identified when we purposefully ask questions about peak experiences of high points. Such questions determine what we find. They uncover examples … that serve as grounded theories through which the organization can learn and organize toward its peak performance and highest potential.”

AI is based on the assumption that every living system has an untapped richness of positive and inspiring stories, a “positive core.” When linked to any transformational agenda, changes never thought possible are suddenly democratically mobilized.

Cooperrider, who chairs the department of o rganizational behavior at Case Western, and his colleagues believe the questions we ask sets the stage for what we find. AI mobilizes inquiry through crafting “unconditional positive questions” to engage the system and strengthen its capacity to achieve change. “The more you focus just on problems, the more you slow yourself down. The more you seek out what works and create images of where you want to go, the better you’ll be able to keep up with the ever-increasing rate of change,” says Jane Watkins, co-author of Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination.

Positive Questions

The unconditional positive questions that AI poses challenge individuals and organizations to explore the conditions that account for the successes of the past in order to craft a vision for a future they believe is possible. We habitually ask questions and expect specific answers. We are paid to have specific answers to questions that are being asked of us. But as anyone in education knows, in today’s ambiguous world more and more of the questions being asked do not have simple answers. It’s much easier, for example, to answer how many students dropped out of school last year than it is to answer, “What’s the purpose of education today?,” or “What will adolescents need to know in order to be successful adults 10 years from now?”

Appreciative inquiry questions fall in the “simple, but not easy” category because they are non-habitual.

These unconditional positive questions are open, causing one to ponder, muse or imagine. Ask people to tell you three things about themselves and they will most likely rattle off a factual and immediate response. Ask them to tell you three things they like about themselves, and something shifts. Ask them to tell you what personal resource or value always gets them through hard times, and you will know by their response they have to engage in a different way of thinking. Add a follow-up question about how that resource could serve them as they move into the future, and you begin to enter the space evoked by appreciative inquiry.

This strategy is at its most potent when multiple stakeholders from a system are engaged in the co-creation of its future. While there is no recipe for AI intervention, a four-D model—Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny—can serve as a guide to move the organization forward.

The first task is to identify the focus of the intervention: What is the central interest? The Discovery phase, through carefully crafted questions, invites personal, colorful stories of people’s successes and the explication of the who, why, what, when, where and how they occurred. In essence what is being asked is, “What’s been going right, and how do we get more of it?” “What are the root causes of our successes?”

Based on these stories of the positive past, people in the Dream phase then articulate themes that inspire images of their dream-come-true workplace. They carry the energy of these images into the Design phase, where they rigorously create principles that move them toward the realization of their dream. In the Destiny phase, people engage in an action planning and implementation process that incorporates dynamic, ongoing co-creation of their vision.

This asset-focused strategy is based on several principles: Our words create our worlds; inquiry creates change; we can choose whether we study problems or possibilities; images inspire action; and positive questions lead to positive change.

No mere academic exercise, appreciative inquiry has helped organizations as diverse as the U.S. Navy, the BBC and the United Nations discover how to effect strength-based strategic change within large, complex systems with multiple stakeholders.

The three examples that follow all are grounded in open-ended, asset-based inquiry about what is life-giving, generative and important for children and adults. In addition, each focuses on giving youth an opportunity to recognize the impact they can have as the foundation for building a connection between awareness and action.

All three are examples of appreciative inquiry’s action research cycle: Understand the best of what is, imagine what could be and work in partnership with others to create what will be by translating what we value into what we do.

Mobilizing Citizenry

Bliss Browne was a corporate banking executive for 16 years before she asked herself this compelling question: “What might happen if all of Chicago’s citizens were mobilized to give public expression to their imagination about a healthy future for the city as a whole and were invited to claim their role in bringing that vision to life?”

Perhaps it was this question in combination with her background as an ordained Episcopal priest that caused her to leave her career and devote the next 10 years to transforming the city’s future.

At the time, surveys showed that 85 percent of Americans were losing faith in both the future of our cities as well as the institutions that govern them. Browne felt the need to help create an organization that was consonant with her deeply held values and made maximum use of the talents of all. She used Cooperrider’s research on the relationship between positive image and positive action as the foundational approach for Imagine Chicago because it was the most likely to help serve as a catalyst for civic innovation.

“How one conceives of a city shapes how one lives in the city,” she said. “Each and every human being possesses the enormous gift of imagination….The creation of positive images on a collective basis might well be the most prolific activity that individuals can engage in to bring to fruition a positive and humanly significant future.”

The MacArthur Foundation funded the first pilot projects of Imagine Chicago in 1993. Browne and colleagues asked themselves how they could create an appreciative action research cycle with such a large system. They wanted one interview for every household in the city, one million in all. They found the best interviews, resulting in the most inspiring stories, most passion-filled data and most daring images of possibility, were those conducted by children of the city’s elders—clergy, CEOs, school principals, parents, artists, scientists. It was the intergenerational dynamic of the dialogue that made the data-collection project soar.

Each pilot incorporated a combination of reflection and action, skill building and creative analysis. Interviewers were given modest coaching in interviewing skills and equipped with a set of appreciative inquiry questions created by the design team.

Many initiatives grew from the initial pilots, including the Urban Imagination Network; City Dialogues; Reading Chicago and Bringing It Home: a civic literacy program; Creating Chicag A Citizens Guide; Making City Connections; Citizen Leaders and Sacred Places. In addition, a positive contagion is emerging organically on six continents: there now are Imagine Dallas, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Calgary, Chile, Scotland, Nepal and Tasmania, to name a few.

Applying Values

Another example of systemic leadership that used children to translate values into action was initiated by Richard Ford, one of Canada’s most distinguished teachers and by Vicki Saunders, one of the 100 World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders of Tomorrow. Together, they started Impactanation, a Canadian-based organization that designs youth engagement programs and initiatives around the issues of social justice, health and environment.

The question that compelled them was, “How can you give significant leadership opportunities to youth?” From that question in 2003 grew Earthcare, a youth-inspired environmental stewardship program that positively affects individuals, classes, schools and communities.

Saunders said these youth took on serious challenges. “Most young activists have never been asked to come up with creative solutions to some of the challenges they see in front of them,” she said. “Society denies youth any productive role until they are in their 20s.”

Earthcare, an ongoing activity-based, curriculum-aligned program, encourages behavioral change through the completion of quarterly water, waste and energy audits by youth in their schools. By measuring results, mapping successes and sharing positive stories, Earthcare develops new partnerships between facility managers, students, community leaders, teachers and superintendents.

In Ontario’s 76,000-student Ottawa-Carleton School District, $1 million of savings could be attributed to the Earthcare conservation efforts to encourage behavioral change. “If youth know that their community needs them, they will realize that they can be partners in solving some of society’s most vexing problems and perceive that their action will improve the community’s and their own situation,” Ford said.

Identifying Value

SmartWired.org is the most recent of these asset-based initiatives, which began with a question that has been drawing one of us, Dawna Markova, forward for the last four decades: How can parents and guardians lead a movement where each child in the world will be recognized as a valued resource to be developed instead of a problem to be solved?

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Markova was taught to recognize and codify children’s deficits and disabilities. When she began teaching in a crumbling school in Harlem, none of that training helped touch the shining minds that stared up at her each morning. What she needed was an operator’s manual, a guide to what worked. She covered the walls with sheets of newsprint, one for each child. She enlisted parents, siblings, janitors, coaches—anyone who knew anything about what worked with that child—to contribute to “smart guides.” They became an inventory of what was possible for each student.

Markova typed up these operating manuals and sent them home. She used them as the basis for each parent-teacher conference, added to them every quarter and slipped the information into each child’s cumulative folder at the end of the year. Often it was the only positive piece of paper in there.

She continued to create these smart guides for the 14 years she served as a classroom teacher, learning specialist and, eventually, school psychologist. In the endless meetings and conferences Markova attended, she persisted in asking, “Yes, I understand that you think Johnny is [disabled, retarded, gifted, bad tempered, oppositional, dyslexic …], but please, please tell me how he is smart, what can he do well, how does he learn easily?’ Her questions frequently were followed by an awkward silence, the clearing of throats, the shifting of eyes.

She eventually became, to quote author Parker Palmer, an “educator at large,” carrying with her the passion for discovering the gifts inside children and her commitment to foster those gifts so they could be shared with the rest of us. They have been her compass points for 40 years.

A decade ago, Markova recognized the power of evoking what Cooperrider calls “the positive change core” to shift the thinking in large numbers of people when she co-created a little book entitled Random Acts of Kindness. Within a year, it had reached a million people all over the globe and had a life of its own, including raising a great deal of money for AIDS research. She believes the book’s success was due to the need in the world to balance the random acts of violence that were spreading across the globe.

Sensing another moment when the world’s soul is aching for connection and meaning, Markova joined with several of her colleagues in 2003 to create a balancing structure to the deficit focus with which we see children. Ultimately, SmartWired.org emerged, a series of web-based, interactive learning adventures designed with parents, educators and youth. Its function is to help recognize, use and develop children’s natural gifts, talents and strengths.

In essence, SmartWired is those newsprint “smart guides” grown large. Technology now makes it possible to have an ongoing database that tracks the positive development of youth into healthy contributing adults. This facilitates constructive conversations between parents and educators that can increase children’s inherent self-worth and sense of potency by understanding what contribution he or she can make to the community.

SmartWired is being piloted by Royal Dutch Shell for its expatriate families and a pilot is in design for the million and a half children of military families. It is Markova’s intention that SmartWired will one day reach every child on the globe.

Inner Work

Each of these stories involves positively focused systemic strategies. Ultimately, it was the inner work done by the initiators that made the outer work possible.

The greatest challenge is to shift one’s own perspective. As David Cooperrider put it in an article for the OD Practitioner in 2000: “It does not help to begin my inquiries from the standpoint of the world as a problem to be solved. I am more effective, quite simply, as long as I can retain the spirit of inquiry of the everlasting beginner. … The future belongs to methods that affirm, compel and accelerate anticipatory learning involving larger and larger levels of collectivity. … The new methods will view realities as socially constructed. … Instead of negation, criticism and spiraling diagnosis, there will be discovery, dream and design.”

Dawna Markova is co-founder of SmartWired.org and Professional Thinking Partners Inc. She can be reached at 1910 Prospector St., Park City, UT 84060. E-mail: dmarkova@earthlink.net. She is co-editor of Random Acts of Kindness and author of I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Living With Purpose and Passion. Bea Mah Holland is a founding partner of the Center for Empowered Leadership and a consultant in education, business and health care based in Lexington, Mass., where her husband Peter is the district superintendent.