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

View More Testimonials

Related Topics

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry and Problem Solving

AI and Strategic Planning at Children’s Museum

Creating Union Management Partnerships with AI

Focus on Strengths

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