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Making Magic Happen with Appreciative Inquiry

by Heidi Holtz
Stillwork Consulting Group

“I wish I had a magic wand.” How many times do you or others say that, especially if you work in the nonprofit sector? The truth, however, is that we’re really all Muggles, not Harrys or Hermiones. But there is a way that even Muggles can explore transformation. A strengths-based approach to change can unlock organizational as well as individual potential in magical ways.

Only a few times in my life have I been fortunate to have one of those head-smacking, magical moments where a process blends seamlessly with a philosophy. You know the feeling – you talk the talk, and you even walk the walk – but how do you help others to “get it?” That moment emerged when I was fortunate enough to receive training in Appreciative Inquiry Facilitation. Now as a private consultant I am reminded again and again how valuable this technique can be in all stages of engagement. This article is adapted from one written two years ago, which was a summary of the approach. I have updated it with examples of successful application.

Simply put, Appreciative Inquiry (or AI) is a strengths-based approach predicated upon the idea that organizations thrive when they continually ask themselves about, and focus on, their own existing success. It explores what works in an organization or situation rather than what is not working. Positively framed inquiries and interviews help discover times and conditions when the organization or individual felt most successful, valued and fruitful.

My clients, whether nonprofit organizational leaders, board members, or individuals I am coaching, often struggle to articulate their needs. They know something’s not working well, or could work much better, but even when they can pin it down, they often dwell on the mistakes and who to blame. In my meetings I help them reframe and get “unstuck” by asking a couple of very simple questions: “Think of a time when you and/or your organization were at your most successful and impactful. What was the specific situation? Tell me the story of a moment during that time.” Most become immediately silent as they ponder something they’ve never even considered. Others wince and find the question almost too hard to answer.

Once a pattern of positive moments emerges, participants can begin to dream – to imaginatively envision what their organization or situation might look like were the defined discoveries always present and even enhanced.

The possibilities are brought to life with specific commitments and actions. Innovation and initiative are encouraged, as is the idea that the action steps be owned by the individual or those in the room. The entire process celebrates diverse opinions, self-awareness, vision and actions.

Appreciative Inquiry is also invaluable in helping individuals make choices, whether professional or personal. A good friend was weighing two nonprofit job offers: a senior staff position at an established and well-known organization that required a commute to the city, or an executive director position at a small but struggling grassroots organization in her community. Both jobs paid the same and meant working with engaging professionals but the work and responsibility differed. I asked her to describe situations or times in her past where she felt happiest in her work, digging deeper with questions to illuminate circumstances, location, etc.

Her story was long and detailed. I pointed out that it was all about her kids, her community and taking risks. She realized that the local, grassroots organization was where her passion and future lay.

“Dude,” she exclaimed. “That’s magic!!”

Yes indeed, my friend. Also known as Appreciative Inquiry.

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