A mistaken notion about Appreciative Inquiry is that it requires ignoring problems to focus just on good stuff. Not true. Ai can easily work in problem-filled environments.

What differs with Ai is the approach to the problem. We often take a problem-solving approach which is a series of steps that works great for technical problems. A simple outline of such a process is
1. Define the problem
2. Isolate the roots cause
3. Brainstorm solutions
4. Select and implement the solution

These steps work great with mechanical or technical issues such as a flat tire or lack of electrical power. With such issues, there is a root cause and a clear fix. So, problem solving should be used in such situations.

When we take the problem-solving approach into human situations we can have, well, problems. Take the case of low morale. If we put that issue into the problem-solving formula, the second step would be to isolate the root cause. But morale is not a technical issue with a simple cause like a nail in a tire or an unplugged electrical appliance. Morale is a complex issue that arises from a variety of factors.

If someone has articulated the problem of low morale, the direction taken in Ai is to discover when and where high morale exists and find ways to increase the elements leading to the higher morale.

I had a project exactly like this where I was called by a small professional firm with the problem of low morale and high turnover. We approached the issue with Ai by asking questions about what contributed to the morale at the firm that made people want to stay for as long as they were staying. After all, there was some degree of morale there and people were not quitting on the first day, so there wasn’t 100% turnover per day.

The interviews revealed there were many positive things at the firm that could be built on or expanded. Other questions asked people to consider wider sources of information. What had they experienced at other workplaces that contributed to high morale and long-term retention? What ideas had they heard about that could be applied at the firm to boost morale and retention?

The approach avoided the blame and finger pointing that would have come from looking for root causes. Rather, these appreciative and constructive conversations instantly improved the situation. A number of ideas came out of the process and were implemented and when I checked back later, morale was on the rise and turnover was declining.

In summary, remember two things:
1. Distinguish if you have a clearly technical problem. If so, problem solving is probably the best bet.
2. If the issue is more in the human relations or human systems area, launch an Ai effort that looks at the opposite state of what is defined as a problem.

One of my presentation skills participants in a workshop for physicians was struggling.  We’ll call him Joe.  His nerves were obvious and were expressed in slow, stilted delivery, forgotten ideas, and extreme stiffness.

Joe was a real fun guy to talk with.  Like the other participants, I had talked with Joe before the presentation to find out his presenting background and goals for the session.  During that phone conversation and chats I had with Joe at break and as I observed him engaging with others, Joe was articulate, fun, quick, and relaxed.  Then he stood in front of the group for his first presentation and a negative transformation came over him. As it happens to so many, frozen Presenter Joe came forward.

Once each participant had done two medically related presentations, we got around to the last presentation in which they could pick any topic.  I always want people to nail that last presentation with their best performance, but I had never wanted success as much as I wanted it for Joe.  You could feel the whole group was cheering for him.  Joe stood when it came his time, slowly and confidently looked at each face in the group and said, “I have a very important question for each of you.”  He clicked and an image of a Tesla came on the screen.  “What do I have to do to get you in this car?”  And then Joe smiled.  It was big, relaxed, self-assured smile and his colleagues and I gave a deep exhale of relief; Joe was going to be OK.

Joe was more than OK.  He was great.  Joe was energetic, persuasive, fun, and very, very clear.  He didn’t just talk about the car, he talked about the environment and climate change and he talked with passion directly to his audience of doctors and said they were the people with the resources to be early adopters of technology like a Tesla that could help save the planet.  Joe got one of the few standing ovations I’ve seen in a workshop. 

One lesson from this is that Joe, and every other presenter, needs to focus on the person who came through in their best presentation.  Joe needs the confident, eloquent, energetic image to be the one that informs future presentations and this is where the appreciative approach comes in.  Joe and you and I need to appreciate our best moments and clearest examples of our skills coming to the surface.  Joe, like all the presenters in the workshop, had a video of each presentation.  This final excellent example of his best presenter self was the one Joe should watch and sear into his mind.

When we gave feedback, I suggested that Joe always talk about Tesla cars and technology.  I wasn’t saying that he should become a car salesperson and quit his medical practice; I was suggesting he find a way to make Tesla a metaphor for any topic.  If he is talking about new technology in his field, Tesla can be a metaphor.  If he is talking about patient care, he can talk about Tesla customer service.  Quality control, things we can do to make a difference, design, and countless other topics have parallels between medicine and cars.  If Joe uses that Tesla metaphor over and over he will bring patches of passion and comfort into any talk on any subject and his mind will begin to accept how good he really is at presenting.

I use gardening in this way.  When a picture of a garden bed or a plant comes up in my slide deck, I feel a surge of confidence because I know about that area of life and love to talk about it.

What is your Tesla? What is the thing that would be more than just a good topic for a talk but can expand to inform any talk? Find that thing, use it over and over and appreciate it. 

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An appreciative interview is a wonderful way for you to help another person focus on the best they have to offer in the world. The interview can be formal or informal, hours in length, or just a single question.

Whatever form you take, remember to keep the questions focused on the positive aspects of life you would like the person to be able to appreciate more fully and to see appreciate in value.

Sometimes a single question is enough. You meet a person and begin talking about their work as a teacher, musician, parent, furniture maker, physician or whatever. You can ask:

“What do you like most about being a…?”

“Tell me about a time that really stands out as a high point experience being a…”

That might be enough. From there, you let your curiosity find follow-up questions that keep the positive, appreciative focus of the conversation.

Why ask positive and appreciative questions? Why not ask about problems and weaknesses? Because such questions will change the nature and power of the conversation. Most of us spend plenty of time talking about negatives in life and our news is overwhelmingly focused on the problems in our world. View your appreciative conversation as an experiment in what happens when you keep the focus on positive aspects you wish to appreciate in life. I think you will be pleased with what you discover and you will find that people look forward to talking with you.

Keep the focus on two areas:

When are you at your best in life? What are your strengths? What moments stand out in your life? What are some key things you’ve learned in your life and how did you learn these things?

What do you want to see in your life? What do you want to bring to the world? What are your hopes for your family, neighborhood, town, world…?

If you want to conduct a more structured and in-depth interview, below are sets of questions to use with adults. Feel free to copy and print these questions. I only ask that you leave the information at the bottom of the page in full.


Interview Questions for Adults

Opening: I’m curious about the positive aspects of people and the positives influences they have had in life. I have a few questions I would like to ask you. It will take about 20 minutes and I think you will find it very rewarding. Do you want to give it a try?

1. Think about two or three people (other than your parents) who have had a very positive influence on your life. How did the influence occur? What did these people do? How do you feel as you talk about these people?

2. What are some times that stand out as real high points in your life? When have you felt you were most in touch with your strengths, talents, and your best self? What are the circumstances of these times? What do they tell you about yourself?

3. Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself in life? Consider your different roles in life such as community member, parent, spouse, etc.

4. When you feel best about the work you do in the world, what about your work gives you a positive feeling? What are you contributing? What aspects of yourself are you bringing to your work?

5. What lifts your spirits and makes you feel glad to be alive?

6. How was the experience of this interview for you? How did it change your mood and outlook?

Interview Questions for Children

Opening: I’m interested in what you think and have some questions I would like to ask you. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Whatever you say is fine and you don’t have to answer the questions. Ready to start?

What do you like best about being a kid?

When you think of your friends, what do you like most about these people?

What do you like most about yourself?

What’s something you are really good at?

What do you enjoy most about school?

What are some of the best things parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults do for kids?

What are your dreams for the future?

Project Goal
To use Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology to develop a plan and actions for the Success By 6 initiative in LaPorte County. 

Background and benefits
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a powerful change and planning process that harnesses strengths and peak experiences to move groups and individuals forward. Appreciative Inquiry grew out of the work of David Cooperrider and colleagues at Case Western Reserve and has developed into an organizational change and leadership approach that has been applied around the globe in Fortune 500 companies, non-profit organizations, communities, and governments. The approach is based on the observation that groups and individuals tend to move in the direction of their conversations. AI creates positive conversations by leading with appreciative questions designed to discover strengths, assets, and high-point experiences. The approach has been applied to organizational change, leadership, coaching, community mobilizations, performance management, and many other areas. 

Open Space (OS) is a group process that has been used around the world with groups ranging in size from 5 to 5,000. The process allows participants to establish a meeting agenda and participate where they have the most energy, passion, and expertise on a given topic.

These two approaches are ideally suited to bring together community members around Success By 6 goals of, “raising awareness of the importance of early childhood development, increasing access to services, advocating for public policies and improving systems, budgets, laws and supports to improve young children’s lives.” ? (from http://national.unitedway.org/sb6/)

The positive and highly participatory processes of AI and OS will result in a plan with broad community input and a very positive focus. The process will allow participants to develop new perspectives and skills that can be used in future community and group work.

During the process outlined, board and staff members and other stakeholders involved in the planning process will conduct interviews to identify organizational strengths, assets, and possibilities for the future. Each member of the planning team will have in-depth interviews with a number of people (2 – 5 interviews per person is typical) that will establish community linkages and allow members of the organization to engage in conversations that explore the best of the past and possibilities for the future. These interviews provide invaluable information to inform the strategic vision of the organization, strengthen relationships with key stakeholders, and transform the planning process from data gathering to a process of creating a desired future from energetic and positive conversations. This process can be combined with more traditional research and environmental scans to create a strategic plan. 

After the interviews are conducted, the planning group will gather for a two-to-three-day meeting to identify possible strategic actions. The agenda of the meeting will be created by participants around topics that will lead to a dynamic future for Success By 6. Results from the interviews will be used to inform the agenda for the day. The meeting will result in detailed reports from small group meetings that will identify strategic directions and possible actions.

The results from this meeting will be synthesized and presented to the board for approval.

The activities outlined in this proposal are designed to:
A. Give participants an understanding of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

B. Use the AI process to identify current strengths around early childhood development in LaPorte County and possibilities for future action.

C. Help participants understand the Open Space process.

D. Use the AI interview process to get community input, build coalitions, and increase enthusiasm for Success By 6 goals.

E. Use Open Space to generate ideas, identify actions, and create a plan to move the Success By 6 initiative forward.

F. Translate material generated in the Open Space session into a strategic plan to be approved by the board.

Project Outline
The following outlines the key services of John Steinbach during this process.

Initial Meeting with Appreciative Inquiry Planning Team

* This phase of the process includes:
* Preparation of materials for the session.
* On-site meeting with a small group of Success By 6 representatives to craft questions for Appreciative Inquiry interviews.
* Email correspondence and phone conversations to create a first draft of interview questions.

Appreciative Inquiry Training
This session includes:
* Introduction of Appreciative Inquiry to Interview Team (this is usually board and staff members and sometimes includes other stakeholders). 
* A first round of interviews between attendees.
* Feedback on questions.
* Planning of interviews to be conducted in the process. 
* Selecting individuals to be interviewed in the process.

Interview Questions Revision and Support During the Interview Process
* This phase of the process includes:
* Working with the AI planning team to redraft questions after input
* Support for interviewers via phone and email if they have questions about the process
* Preparation for the Open Space planning session

Open Space Planning Session
This one-to-two-day session includes:
* Conversations in pairs and small groups regarding the most significant items heard in the interviews.
* Small group work to develop strategies and actions for implementation.
* Recording of meeting minutes to be distributed to all members at the end of the meeting

Post Session Support
This phase of the process includes:
* Email correspondence and telephone conversations to discuss process results and next steps.
* Assistance in synthesizing results into a strategic plan to be submitted for board approval.

John Steinbach will be the lead consultant on this project and provide all services. John has done training, design, and organizational development work with a variety of organizations for over 20 years. John has developed and presented workshops on topics that include building effective teams, Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning, team decision making, time management, leadership development, quality improvement, conflict management, training skills, and presentation skills. Participants consistently give John high marks for his energy, passion, and subject-matter knowledge.

John has led strategic planning efforts for dozens of organizations and facilitated many organizational change efforts.

Clients Include: General Motors, GE, North American Van Lines, Cummins Engine, Raytheon, Magnavox, Subaru Isuzu, Old Kent Bank, Lincoln National Life, Louisville Gas & Electric, Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Park Center, Inc., Easter Seals ARC, Muncie Childrens Museum, United Way, American Electric Power, Pizza Hut, American Red Cross, GTE, and Verizon. More information on John Steinbach and his company, JP Consultants, Inc., can be found at www.jpconsultantsinc.com.

Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful and positive perspective that can be applied to a variety of situations. This is a positive focused and highly participatory process that will result in action plans for the Success By 6 initiative and increase participants’ abilities to find, highlight, and develop personal and organizational strengths.

View more testimonials

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Focus on Strengths

The initial request was triggered by the exits of some young high-potential members of the firm. The partners had seen these people as future leaders in the company who were ready to rise quickly to the top. The partners were shocked when these potential leaders suddenly left.

After some research,the partners in the firm decided that a mentoring process was needed and I was linked up with them through a local university. In our first meeting, the conversation broadened as we explored why they wanted a mentoring program. The problem of early exits by high-potential employees was identified. The question became, “Why are people leaving and what can we do to keep them?” The thought process changed from a problem with a defined solution of mentoring to a problem with many possible solutions. This opened the conversation to more options and allowed some creativity, but the creativity still focused on a problem and solution. Solving problems creates conversations that highlight the worst of the organization and, in this situation, talking about all that was wrong could have led to more of the problem, which was people leaving. The problem-solving thought process also leads people to a search for root causes which can exist in machines, but not in complex human systems.

After a short explanation of the appreciative approach, the conversation moved toward what the group wanted to see in the future. They wanted people to stay. They wanted potential leaders to stay and develop so they could become partners. They wanted others who weren’t on the way to becoming partners to stay and contribute to the firm.

We had moved from a problem (people leaving) with a single solution (mentoring) to a broader definition of the problem and then to an identification of what the group wanted to see more of in the future. We were at the edge of planning to open some appreciative space.

We designed a one-day session to start the process:

A brief introduction to the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space

Interviews focused on why people come to the firm and stay and what would make them want to stay longer

A short Open Space session on topics that emerge from the interviews

Pairings for the interviews were set up by seniority so that we had the newest employees talking to some of the more senior members of the firm. The paired conversations gave new insight, opened possibilities, and increased understanding and trust.

In a typical Appreciative Inquiry process, we would move from the interviews to discussing what was heard in the process and then move toward creating “possibility statements” or “provocative propositions.” In Appreciative Space, the movement is from the interviews to Open Space.

After explaining Open Space, we opened a session around the topic of, “increasing employee satisfaction and retention.” The interviews became a possible source for posting a topic, but people were not tied to what was heard in the conversations. As often happens, there was some delay before the first topic was posted, but, in time, the flow started. Topics were posted on how to learn different aspects of the firm’s work, how to create an enjoyable environment, starting a mentoring program, and assorted other topics. All topics had an appreciative focus of creating or expanding something desired.

Behind the action items were conversations and relationships from the appreciative interviews. The interviews had opened the appreciative space and now the space was opening further. My contact told me later, “We’ve tried to get people to talk many times and have never seen anything like that.”

The idea for a mentoring program emerged organically in the session, giving the staff ownership of the project because it was truly their idea. Many other first steps for other actions were identified and the day seemed to be a great success.

Like many sessions, I judge the success as much by the process as the product. It was a rainy day and as the interviews were being conducted and the meetings were happening in Open Space, I spent time looking out the windows at the city far below. Then my vision refocused to see the drops of water on the window. A drop would be coming down in a tiny stream on the glass and that stream would find another and merge. The merging would continue and a slightly larger stream would develop and at times they would break and perhaps reform. This beautiful process reflected the natural flow of appreciative space happening in the room behind me.

The interviews, the topics, the actions can all lead to an organization with a more open and positive flow of communication that has the natural ease of rain on a window and I bet that is the type of place where people would want to stay.

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Focus on Strengths

A new year is starting and around the world people are focused on resolutions and fresh starts. Please consider finding ways to highlight and use your strengths as an overarching resolution for 2006 and beyond.

After about 20 years of consulting, I’m seeing, more all the time, that a key ingredient to helping individuals and organizations is to encourage a focus on strengths. Whether it’s an individual, a team, an organization, or a community, it’s bringing forth strengths that is the key to success, effectiveness, and happiness.

Often, we do the opposite: we highlight weaknesses and put inordinate amounts of time and attention into areas where we   aren’t so good. It doesn’t take much thought to see this is absurd. With work, care, and consistent effort, you can use your strengths as doorways to excellence. By helping your strengths flower fully, you can be the best you can be for the world. By pouring time and energy into fixing weaknesses, you walk through a doorway that leads to mediocrity.

A while back, I was ranting about the obsession we have with weaknesses when a workshop participant who had been very quiet spoke up. “What you just said about focusing on strengths and not weaknesses got me thinking about my son. I’m not trying to brag about him, but I was real proud that he just got accepted into a gifted program in second grade. He really excels in math. But he’s really got bad handwriting. My wife and I are always on him about the handwriting and so are his teachers. What do you think we should do?”

Before I could answer, another participant jumped in and she said, “Doctors have terrible handwriting and they do OK in life. Forget the handwriting and let the boy do math.”

Let that advice sink in a little and see how it feels to you. Do you think this father should lighten up on the writing and focus on the math? Does it make sense? Or do you think that the only way a person improves is to face weaknesses and work hard to improve? Do you think you, your team, and your organization should spend energy on highlighting strengths or focusing on weaknesses? Should Michael Jordan have focused his last years of athletic competition on improving at baseball or winning more basketball championships? How do you live out this choice in your life?

Focusing on strengths goes against the way most of us were educated and the way our performance is reviewed by the boss. In most cases, it’s the weaknesses that get the attention. The “F” catches the eye of the parent and the teacher and not the “A;” the bad handwriting gets energy. The “areas for improvement” are the focus of the performance reviews and the strengths are hardly mentioned. Many individuals allow weaknesses to become the focus of their entire life and go to the grave with untapped talents.

What are your greatest strengths? When do you feel you are making your greatest contribution to your organization and to the world? How can you use your strengths and talents more? How can you help those around you focus more on their strengths?

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Creating Union Management Partnerships with AI

Over a number of years, I worked with a major telecommunications company and the two main unions that represented employees in the company. The goal was to use Appreciative Inquiry to form an enhanced partnership between the unions and management. There were many successes: contract negotiations were shorter and smoother, employee turnover decreased, satisfaction went up, and management and union employees tended to be more creative in resolving differences.

Out of hundreds of AI sessions, there’s one memory that stands out that illustrates the capacity of AI to bridge differences. I was presenting a four-hour overview of AI with a mixture of management and hourly employees. The executives in this region of the company were very supportive of the effort and attended sessions whenever possible.

The region president of the company was in this particular session. I had worked with him many times and knew he had reputation as a no-nonsense leader and a tough negotiator on union issues.

Each interview pair was a union worker and a management employee. Time of service was also used in the pairings, with those with the most experience paired with newer employees. The regional president, I’ll give him the name Fred, was paired with a fairly new hourly craft person that I’ll call Joe.

Before the pairs left, Joe came to me and said, “So let me get this straight. I’m supposed to ask him all these questions?”

“Yes, and he will ask you all the same questions.” I responded.

“So, right here, where it says, ‘what do you value most about the union?’ – I’m supposed to ask him that.”

“Yes, and he will ask you the same questions, including what you value about the union and what you value about the company.”

Joe pushed back his ball cap, scratched his head, took a deep breath and said, “OK, this should be real interesting.”

When we got back and I asked about the interview process, Joe said, “I’ve got something I’ve got to tell the group. I talked with Fred and I think you all know he’s the president of our region. I was afraid to ask him what he valued about the union because I figured he’d say, ‘not a damned thing.” But it turns out his dad was a union leader.”

Then Joe looked at Fred and said, “You tell em about it.”

“There’s really not a lot to tell. My dad was a local president for years and I heard about the union all the time. That’s what we talked about at meals. The union put food on our table, clothes on my back, and sent me through college. My dad was a union man to the bone and I very much value the union. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be tough the next time we negotiate.”

You could feel a shift in room as a little tension disappeared and some respect and understanding entered the space.

The next day, I did the same workshop in another town in the region. As people were filing in, one of the guys said, “Is it true Fred’s dad was a union president?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “Where did you hear that?”

“One of my buddies told me after someone in the workshop you had yesterday told him.”

I don’t know how far and fast that story spread, but I heard it many other times in future sessions.

AI is often used as a process to do something. In this case, the something was to improve relationships between the union and management. The magic of AI comes from the simple human interactions that happen in the process of trying to do something. When two people sit down to have an appreciative conversation, we can never know where the process will lead and can have no idea how their exchange will ripple out into the organization. Each conversation, each ripple, will in some way change the whole of the organization.

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Interview with Lenette Freeman , Executive Director Muncie Children’s Museum 
Conducted by John Steinbach

Muncie Children’s Museum (MCM) used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to strategic planning from summer of 2001 until early 2002. During the process, MCM board, staff, and volunteers interviewed dozens of visitors to the museum, staff members, community leaders, young people, and funders to find what people valued about the museum, strengths to build on, and hopes for the future.

By the end of the process, MCM had a plan and a new look with restructured committees that were formed according to areas where board members had passion and felt they could contribute.

Q: When you look back at your experience using Appreciative Inquiry as an approach to planning, what are some of the highlights about the process? In what ways did you find the process different from other planning methods?

Lenette: We focused on the positive at a time when it didn’t feel like we should. The idea that some problems would go away if we turned our energy toward the positive was hard to accept, but that’s the way it turned out. It’s not that all the problems went away, we just changed our focus to what we were good at and excited about and didn’t dwell on issues that tended to bring us down.

Interviewing lots of different people gave us many perspectives on our positive attributes. It wasn’t just the director saying how good we are or a programming person talking about a wonderful thing that happened on the floor. Instead, we got many aspects of the positive. A board member might talk about the economic impact of the museum or a business owner about how important we are to downtown. Those were things we never talked about.

Going out and interviewing lots of people also helped us see how little people knew about MCM. It was clear we needed to get our message out better and that became an important part of our plan, new board structure, and efforts to recruit new board members.

The Appreciative Inquiry approach presented a challenge of overcoming the experience of people who had done a lot of SWOT analysis planning. There was a lot of resistance to a different way and it was hard to get them out of their old box. Once they got out of the box of focusing on completing a plan, the process allowed them to dream about the organization.

To get our plan moving, we invited people to sit on committees where they had passion instead of the traditional “accountants on finance.” We asked, “Where can you contribute?” Now people know they can say where they have passion and be listened to and that has made a big difference in the energy on the board.

Q: Using AI as a planning tool often leads to positive developments within an organization beyond the formal plan. In what ways did you see AI have a positive impact on your organization?

Lenette: We developed an ability to see the positive in other circumstances and in other places way beyond the planning process. We have a greater ability to concentrate on what is important. Sometimes we can get bogged down on complaining. When we start looking at what we are doing, we can move past all that complaining. Instead of focusing on the audiences we are missing, we concentrate on who we are reaching and how to do that best. We can still try to reach new audiences, but appreciating who we are reaching now and what we are doing for them reminds us of the good we are doing.

Once people started to act on positives and move in a positive direction, they saw other areas to impact. Movement was a big thing. Any movement, large or small, has been important. We were asking, “What can we do today?” Starting small helped us get going. We’ve kept working on big and little stuff at the same.

We used to have lots of petty little problems that we focused on. After AI, they didn’t go away – we just didn’t focus on them and give them our energy.

When we reformed committees around where people had passion, it made a real difference. People were freed up from serving on finance just because they were an accountant and were now able to serve where they had passion. Now people know that and pick committees according to what they care about and where they feel they can contribute.

Some very specific things happened; like our planned giving got going. We had talked about planned giving for years, but hadn’t really made progress. I think the positive stories we heard in the AI process gave us the confidence and energy to move forward. A few months after the AI process, we had a celebration to honor our first group of planned-giving donors.

In the museum, AI created an environment where people didn’t hate coming to work. It was draining before. We had so many challenges, they just seemed overwhelming. People got excited with the AI process and started focusing on what we were doing right and possibilities. Working around excited people is stimulating and energizing.

Q: The AI perspective is a wonderful way to work with young people. How has AI influenced your programs and how you interact with young people?

Lenette: The Mayor’s Youth Council is an example. They were a newly formed group struggling with process. And they were working on a really big process with lots of people. When things went bad, they started to attack each other. We used AI to help them see what they have done rather than look at the overwhelming task ahead. AI gave them confidence to move forward.

We all want to climb to the mountain top and if we stop half way up to look, the view is good. Now we stop more and look at the view. I try to use that perspective with all ages.

Q: What did you value most about the AI process?

Realizing we were the ones who could make positive change. Before it all seemed overwhelming. By going through AI, we see all the accomplishments and can keep going. We’re already at mile 20 in the marathon.

Q: How did AI influence you as an individual? In what ways have you seen your leadership style change as a result of AI?
Lennette: It gave me a positive perspective and rejuvenated me as a leader. It reminded me how much results are tied to attitude. Some of our problems weren’t about people not knowing how to do the work, but about being overwhelmed facing obstacles. Now I focus more on helping shape an environment where they can feel motivated.

Q: When you think of AI being used with young people and youth-serving organizations, what are some of your hopes for the future? How do you see AI having a major positive impact on youth work and youth serving-agencies?

Lenette: The way we view young people in general. If we ask “What do you value about young people?” people have lots of responses about energy, passion, and optimism. If we then ask how these qualities might help and is there a role in your organization, we can help the community value youth. We can use AI in youth work in general as a way to approach youth and adult relationships. Instead of stereotypes about each other, we could focus more on what we value about each other. We need to see the values in each other. We have something going on right now with a Veterans History Project that really helps young people value veterans and veterans value young people. We can do a lot more of those types of things to help youth value adults of all ages and adults, and the whole community to value youth. 

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”
– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Interview with  Holly Gillespie, Executive Director Youth Resources of Southwestern Indiana
Conducted by John Steinbach

In March of 2002, Youth Resources of Southwestern Indiana (YR) started a strategic planning effort using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to move to the next level of service to the community.  By January 2003, board and staff had interviewed over 80 people including board members, staff, youth, donors, government officials, adult volunteers, and teachers. Based on these interviews, a plan was developed to guide the organization for the next three years.

Q: When you look back at your experience using Appreciative Inquiry as an approach to planning, what are some of the highlights about the process? In what ways did you find the process different from other planning methods?

Top highlight was how it included the entire community in the process and inspired the community. The process got everyone talking about YR. It pumped up and inspired our board and staff. With other processes, I always walked away worn out and discouraged because of the focus on weaknesses. A problem-solving approach always left me feeling like there was more to do than we could ever accomplish. With Ai, we were never worn out from this process. We were encouraged to dream and think outside the box and our outside-the-box thinking and our dreaming was not seen as a weakness. Other processes are just focused on what to fix and change and that shuts down the dream. With AI, it is “what do you wish for, what do you dream about?” which still leaves you with a lot to do, but you want to do it to move toward the dream.

Since we finished the process and the plan, the board has gotten more done in two months than they had in four years. One board member said they doubted the process at times and that it seemed they were dragging their feet, but found the process ended with the first attainable plan he had ever seen.

The process really involved the youth and gave them a real voice. We have their quotes throughout the plan. We also had around five youth involved in conducting interviews. The people who were interviewed by the youth were so impressed. After the youth conducted the interviews, they talked to other youth and got them energized. The energy just kept spreading. By the end we might not have known where the energy came from, but I’m sure it was AI.

In the end, it was a great fundraising tool. The county made cuts this year and we were the only agency I know of that wasn’t cut. The only contact we had with the county was AI interviews with commissioners. Those interviews are the only way I can explain why we didn’t have our funding cut.

I keep mentioning the energy and that’s hard to explain, but it’s an important part of the process. The energy around the interviews kept having an impact after the process. People who we interviewed often sent donations without us having to call.

Another foundation is now interested in funding us. The whole thing was prompted when they saw our plan that started with, “we asked, we listened.” They were very impressed with the way we reached out.

Q: Using AI as a planning tool often leads to positive developments within an organization beyond the formal plan. In what ways did you see Ai have a positive impact on your organization?

Holly: It had a real impact on development, gave us free marketing and created a lot of energy and excitement. Our board was getting bogged down with two years of reframing the organization and rebuilding around administrative issues. This process put the light back in their eyes. I just can’t put a value on what that change was worth.

We’ve been rephrasing things in the organization to more positive language. We had been doing that prior to the plan from exposure to AI and saw immediate results. Then we saw it at camp where the youth were asking us to reframe questions to be more positive. Again, you can’t put a value on young people having a more positive outlook.

Q: The AI perspective is a wonderful way to work with young people. How has AI influenced your programs and how you interact with young people?

Holly: How we adults approach youth. The language we use. We are really changing the way we approach things and our whole philosophy. To an outside person, how on earth do you change things if you don’t address the problems that need fixing? It is so hard to believe you can get more accomplished and fix more things by addressing issues and the community in an encouraging and inspiring way. That’s hard to get across because there are so many cynics in the world. Once you experience getting things done with Ai, you just can’t go back to all that traditional problem-solving and deficit approach.

Ai has become a thread woven into the agency.

Q: What did you value most about the AI process?

Holly: How many can I pick? That’s hard because there is so much. I’ll pick the top couple.

First, it was so inclusive of everyone. If you do it and do it the right way, you get such a diverse group and great buy-in form the interviewers and interviewees.

Second, the energy and excitement this approach gives people.

It’s almost like the movie Pay It Forward. When people get excited they pass it forward. The energy goes forward and forward and forward.

How has AI influenced leadership style?

Holly: It’s helped me stay away from the burnout syndrome. Going through the process was so encouraging. In our society we don’t encourage, praise and support. When we went through this process and I heard all the wonderful things we were doing, it made me want to do more and more. You can’t place a value on being so inspired. It’s encouraged me to encourage and praise and help staff and youth dream. Even when there is a problem with staff or youth, I can address it in a positive way. “Here is my wish for you, what is your wish?” is a much more encouraging thing than saying, “We have problem.” The way I phrase things has changed. I told a major donor the other day, “Here is my wish” and he said, “I can grant it, Holly.” AI presents a real challenge to our focus on community. Even saying, “What do you wish for our community?” is a different start to a conversation than saying “What are our problems?”

Q: When you think of AI being used with young people and youth serving organizations, what are some of your hopes for the future? How do you see AI having a major positive impact on youth work and youth-serving agencies?

Holly: AI can bring tremendous growth that isn’t possible in other ways. When the young people get excited and the board gets excited and a donor gets excited, you can just do so much more so much quicker. This approach moves people right up the ladder of fundraising.

Probably most important is instilling more hope in kids. With kids going through September 11, a war, and all the other things in our world, this helps them dream and see things in a positive light. This helps them reframe their community. When you help them find a different way of seeing things, you’re changing present and future families. What could be more important than that?

I can’t think of anything else that is a sure-fire way to:

  • Increase marketing for free
  • Increase fundraising
  • Help young people build new skills
  • Inspire people to volunteer

I really hope there is a way to at least test AI in a broader way with youth-serving agencies because I can see this can change the face of youth-serving agencies. There are lots of challenges, but with this approach I think we can meet those challenges. Then, once people get a taste, they will come back for more.

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”
– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Many people view Appreciative Inquiry as a replacement for problem solving. This view misses the fact that AI and problem solving are entirely different thought processes with different applications. AI should not be a substitute for problem solving, but should replace the misapplication of problem solving, which is very frequent.

In general, we can say that problem solving applies to the world of things and technology and AI to the world of people.

Let’s look at the proper home and skillful use of problem solving. When there is a problem in the technical realm, problem solving is a series of logical steps, a disciple of thought, which makes sense and is extremely effective. Problem solving steps go something like this:

Define the problem
Brainstorm possible causes
Identify actual causes (often a single root cause)
Brainstorm solutions for the identified cause
Select the best solution
Implement solutions and monitor progress

Formal problem solving varies in the number of steps and the wording of the steps, but most processes are very close to what is outlined above. These steps are extremely useful and have many applications. If you are driving down the road and your car suddenly has an extremely rough ride, you are confronted with a problem. You pull over and seek to identify the cause of the vibrating and find a flat tire. You quickly run down solutions: get out the jack and fix the tire, leave the old piece of junk beside the road and call a taxi, have the car towed to a station.

You select fixing the tire as the best solution and get out the spare, implement your solution, and drive to the nearest gas station to check the air pressure (select, implement and monitor solution).

With a flat tire, you go through the simple, intuitive, and very appropriate steps of problem solving. This same process works for power outages, car defects, plumbing issues, and other purely technical problems. Individuals and organizations need a good problem solving model to approach these technical challenges and can save time, money, and headaches by applying problem solving appropriately and effectively.

The trouble comes from applying problem solving too broadly. Because most of us know problem solving well and have used the thought process for a lifetime, we apply the same logical process to human situations. We start talking about, “the problem with our schools” or, “the problem with him is.” These phrases are more than linguistic differences; they are indicative of a prevailing thought process that views human situations as problems to be solved. Turning human situations into problems is ineffective, can be frustrating, and often leads to disastrous results.

I know that problem solving leads to these bad things because I spent over a decade of my life consulting with individuals organizations using a problem-solving perspective. I helped organizations find what was wrong – the weaknesses, problems, issues, and roadblocks – and tried to create a better tomorrow by fixing what was wrong. The approach seldom worked well and often backfired.

Here’s a much abbreviated look at applying the Appreciative Inquiry approach to engaging students at school:

1. Define the area for Appreciative Inquiry; “When are students most engaged at school?”

2. Design and use questions in interviews to inquire into life-giving forces,

Questions for students: “Tell me about times at school when you were most excited about a subject? When do you really love learning?”

Questions for teachers, “Tell me about times when you see students come alive with a love of learning.”

3. Dream and articulate possibilities for the future based on interview responses.

4. Design a future based on possibilities.

5. Deliver the future with passion.

Look at the difference in this appreciative approach and the problem-solving outlook that would ask, “What’s the cause of students not being engaged?” I assure you the differences are vast, just as the difference is vast in almost any human situation where AI is applied instead of problem solving.

If the school and student engagement is approached as a problem, you can be assured that defensiveness and finger point will result, morale will drop, and, in the end, the situation might be made worse. By using Ai to focus on what is working best with student engagement and articulating a positive future, hope, energy, creativity, involvement, and passion are released.

This is not meant as a general indictment of problem solving; problem solving has its appropriate place in the world. Think of the flat tire and how useful AI would be in that situation. Standing by the tire and asking, “When was this tire full?” and asking yourself, “What does it feel like to ride on a tire full of air?” is a silly, stupid, and totally inappropriate use of AI. When the tire is flat, use problem solving, get out the jack and fix the tire!

So the basic distinction is this:

Use problem solving for technical issues that have clear causes and effects.

Use Appreciative Inquiry in the human realm to discover possibilities and design positive futures. 

“I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience.”

– Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

Related Topics

Appreciative Inquiry

AI and Strategic Planning with Youth Serving Agency

Ai and Strategic Planning with Children’s Museum

Creating Union Management Partnerships with AI

Focus on Strengths