Tools of the Trade: Appreciative Inquiry

Development is all about understanding and responding to big messy problems. There are several skills and strategies whose usefulness has bled over into my everyday life. That’s what this series is all about. Soundtrack for this entry found here

No seriously, listen to the soundtrack.No matter what had happened the day before, our meetings always began with the same question. As youth leaders, we dealt with chipped teeth, catty girls and hyperactive boys who just wouldn’t listen. But every week for three years, however much of a disaster we had been through, our debriefing sessions almost always started:

“What went well?”

And it was out of that question that we always got the best stories:
“While everyone else was playing dodgeball I sat and talked with Anne and she really opened up to me!”
“Did you see how Dylan and Jesse were talking? I think they’re finally becoming friends again!”
“We finally nailed the transition between the games and skit!”

It was only this Christmas that I finally fit this experience into a framework: Appreciative Inquiry. A book I was reading featured the experiences of two leaders from Tanzania, Dirk Booy and Sarone Ole Sena, who took what began as a managerial technique and applied it to development. Appreciative Inquiry was founded on the principle that “human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about”. As a result, AI guides groups as they discover what gives them life, dream about what impacts they might have, design an plan and finally deliver change.

Rather than a problem solving approach, AI posits that organisations and communities can be improved by identifying and validating what it is that drives them forward. Booy and Ole Sena entered a community with the questions:

“What do I value most in my community?”
“What has worked well for me and my community and why?”
“What is for life in this community?”

At first, locals talked about a lack of money for school fees and AIDS orphans. Booy and Ole Sena persevered, and write “to our surprise, the mood changed to one of laughter and celebration as the villagers, one after another, narrated the good news stories of the proud people of Kagera”.

It gets me because development is usually all about finding suffering and trying to alleviate it. This approach says find the joy, seek out beauty. It is fundamentally rehumanizing. Of course it doesn’t stop at appreciation. Communities dream about their preferred future, and figure out a plan for getting there. But the metaphor is that of a plant being nurtured, rather than a knot being untied.

If you’ve made it this far, take one more moment and do a 30-second AI. What are you most proud of? What is it that you do that brings life to those around you? How will you move in that direction?

What do you think- revolutionary insight or naive idealism? What could AI look like in your world? Do you like Louis too? I’d love to hear!


2 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: Appreciative Inquiry

  1. While we attended St Jacobs Mennonite Church, this is how they did pastoral “reviews”, and I think it was a positive experience for everyone.

    In general, I think there is a lot of wisdom in the idea, and it’s interesting to think of the variety of places it could be used. In a sense, it seems related to the idea of “The Secret” — that if we spend our energy being thankful, envisioning success, exploring possibility, that we’ll usually end up measurably better off than if we get our tires stuck in the mud of frustration, disillusionment, etc.


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