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The Power of Appreciative Inquiry

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom

Here are a few of my notes…

Shortly before he passed away, I met with Peter Drucker and had what I call my Peter Drucker moment. He was interested in hearing about Appreciative Inquiry, and then I asked him a question: “Peter, you have written more on management thought and change leadership than anyone in history. Is there one lesson you can share, something everyone should know?” “Yes,” he said, “and it is ageless in its essence: the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

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To continue to succeed, organizations need more inquiry. They need less command and control by a few and more exploration of possibilities among many. They need less certainty in their usual plans and strategies and a greater capacity to sense and adapt quickly as their world changes. They need leaders who can acknowledge what they don’t know and who will enthusiastically ask provocative and inspiring questions.

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The process used to generate the power of Appreciative Inquiry is the 4-D Cycle—Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny (Figure 1). It is based on the notion that human systems, individuals, teams, organizations, and communities grow and change in the direction of what they study. Appreciative Inquiry works by focusing the attention of an organization on its most positive potential—its positive core—and unleashing the energy of the positive core for transformation and sustainable success.

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Appreciative Inquiry posits that organizations move in the direction of what they consistently ask questions about, and that the more affirmative the questions are, the more hopeful and positive the organizational responses will be.

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As an improvisational approach to change, Appreciative Inquiry is guided by a series of questions: What is your overall Change Agenda? What Form of Engagement will best suit your needs? What is your overall Inquiry Strategy? What steps will you take at each phase of the 4-D Cycle?

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We are not saying to deny or ignore problems. What we are saying is that if you want to transform a situation, relationship, organization, or community, focusing on strengths is much more effective than focusing on problems.

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It builds relationships, enabling people to be known in relationship rather than in roles. As one participant put it, “Appreciative interviews are energizing every time you do them. They build relationships and give you a chance to connect. This tells people that they are important and that they belong.”

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She created a three-week summer camp for students using Appreciative Inquiry. There were three criteria for attending: students had to have failed the proficiency exam three times; their teachers had to believe they had no chance at college; and the students had to freely choose to participate. The process was simple. Students conducted interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, and other people who were academically successful. Their interviews explored how other people study and learn, what kinds of job opportunities exist for college graduates, and what college is like. After their interviews, the students shared stories and data, prepared and made presentations, and taught one another. Thirty-one students were selected; twenty-nine completed the program; and twenty-eight passed the proficiency exam at the end of the program and were determined to go to college. In the process, both the students’ self-esteem and their academic proficiency improved significantly.

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Our book Appreciative Team Building: Positive Questions to Bring Out the Best of Your Team offers specific tools and examples for applying Appreciative Inquiry

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And organizational change occurs through language, storytelling, and human communication.

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Human systems—organizations and people—move in the direction of what they study, ask questions about, inquire into, and explore with curiosity.

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The practice of Appreciative Inquiry is based on the idea that the seeds of change are implicit in the first questions we ask. Given this, in Appreciative Inquiry we no longer concern ourselves with the reliability of a question to produce right or wrong answers. Instead, we consider the direction indicated in the question, and its capacity to enhance lives. As William Martin, modern interpreter of the Tao Te Ching, states: Your conversations help create your world. Speak of delight, not dissatisfaction. Speak of hope, not despair. Let your words bind up wounds, not cause them.

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Based on their research into Appreciative Inquiry in team building, management professors Gervase Bushe and Graeme Coetzer elaborate: The more positive the questions we use to guide a team building or organization development initiative, the more long lasting and effective the change effort.

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The Wholeness Principle leads participants to focus on higher ground rather than common ground. The experience of wholeness and healing emerges not in the discovery of commonalities but rather in understanding, accepting, and enjoying differences. The sense of understanding the whole story—with all its differences and distinctions—brings with it a kind of contentment that does not require agreement. Thus, it creates a context in which people can safely focus on issues of higher purpose and greater good for the whole.

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The Free-Choice Principle posits that people and organizations thrive when people are free to choose the nature and extent of their contribution. It suggests that treating people as volunteers—with freedom to choose to contribute as they most desire—liberates both personal and organizational power.

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Organization development consultant Tom McGehee also emphasizes the benefits of free choice when he describes Creation Companies. According to McGehee, people in Creation Companies join teams and contribute as volunteers, yielding a number of long-term benefits to the organization: Whenever possible, a Creation Company lets people work wherever they want and correct themselves. People usually choose to work for the best leaders and on the best opportunities. This has the advantage of identifying where the best ideas are, the best projects are, and the best leaders are. Think of it as an internal free market.37

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The interviews seemed to encourage people to reinforce success stories about the organization at its participatory best. In other cases, the interviews encouraged people to make positive new meaning of their past experiences.

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The Appreciative Inquiry training provided value beyond the project. It affected how people asked questions, evaluated things, and approached difficult situations and conversations. It transformed the hallway talk in palpable and positive ways. At the same time, camaraderie within nursing increased. The process unleashed nurses’ capability and energy to realize their value within the system. It gave nurses a heightened responsibility for their own satisfaction.

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Facilitate an interview experience. The introduction may be loosely designed around the 4-D model, but always, always include an appreciative interview, however brief. Mini-interviews give people a taste of the power—the affect—and what one executive described as the intimacy of the Appreciative Inquiry process. A tried-and-true approach is to ask people to partner with someone they don’t know well and then answer the question, What was a peak experience or high point in your professional, organizational, or personal life? Experiencing the mini-interview creates both a conscious and unconscious desire to re-create peak experiences—moving in the direction of what works. It tangibly demonstrates the capacity of AI to build relationships among diverse stakeholder groups. The four mini-interview core questions can be found in Figure 8, in Chapter 6.

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For example, when leaders in the Accenture organization took part in their four-hour introduction, two of the ten participants were teleconferenced in to the presentation. We showed PowerPoint slides on the company’s network and on the screen in the conference room. When it came time for interviews, we arranged breakout office space, and four people interviewed four others by phone. Feedback from the virtual interviews was extraordinarily positive, leading to continued exploration of how AI could be used to design the “workplace of the future” in the Chicago office.

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Cross-organization interviews. Some of the most exciting approaches to Appreciative Inquiry come when one organization interviews another. This occurs in benchmarking, partnership and alliance building, and merger integration. We have also used this process with great success in overcoming communication barriers between business units within the same organization. In cross-organization inquiry, a team of interviewers from one organization interviews a group of people from another organization—and then the roles are switched. In some cases, people will interview their counterparts in the other company; in others, they will interview people from other functions to broaden their understanding of the whole business. After the conversations, interview teams prepare feedback reports and presentations, telling their interviewees what they learned.

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So they set aside a day. In that one day they asked the consultants to give them enough of a feel for AI to allow them to see if and where it might apply. The agenda for that day is outlined in Exhibit 1. Exhibit 1. Agenda for the Leadership Introduction Meeting Objective: Provide a basic introduction to the philosophy and practice of Appreciative Inquiry, together with an exploration of possible applications. Opening and Welcome Background on Appreciative Inquiry Paired Interviews (The Four Core Questions) Topic Selection Crafting and Piloting of Questions Interim Summary of Learnings Field Trip to Production Facilities Debrief of the Experience Revisiting of Common Themes Application Conversation Go/No-Go Decision

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We paraphrased their stories to demonstrate an understanding of their concerns for the issue. Then we repeated the Appreciative Inquiry principle that leads to powerful, strategic Affirmative Topics: “Given that organizations move in the direction of what they study, what is it that you want more of in British Airways? In this case, we know you do not want more lost or delayed baggage. But what do you want more of?”

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In the end, the group of forty determined that one thing they really wanted more of was to hear stories of times when customers had an exceptional arrival experience. They wanted to uncover and transport from station to station all the best practices that would support British Airways’ world-class service.

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There are only two decisions to be made during Affirmative Topic Choice, but they are powerful: Who will select the topics? Executives? A core team? The entire organization? What topics will we study? What do we want more of in this organization?

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Affirmative Topic Choice Step by Step 1. Introduce Appreciative Inquiry. 2. Conduct mini-interviews. 3. Identify themes. 4. Share themes and stories. 5. Discuss criteria for Affirmative Topics. 6. Identify potential topics. 7. Share and discuss potential topics. 8. Cluster potential topics. 9. Select topic clusters. 10. Finalize topics.

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Participants then engage in mini-interviews, using four core questions (see Figure 8). Depending on the setting, these mini-interviews require thirty to forty-five minutes per person. This allows time for people to connect, share stories, and delve into their hopes and dreams for the organization. It also gives them an experience of the positive impact of appreciative questions—and the story-based raw material from which Affirmative Topics will be selected.

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Mini-Interview Core Questions

We ask people to conduct these mini-interviews with people who are different from themselves—different functions, levels, gender, age, tenure, ethnicity, and so on. This gives them a chance to form a genuine relationship with someone they wouldn’t otherwise have known.

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Following mini-interviews, we ask people and their original partners to form groups of six or eight. On a round-robin basis, members of this small group should introduce their partners and share highlights from their interviews. As they do the introductions, they focus primarily on great stories and inspiring best practices and ideas that they heard.

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Small groups then continue to share stories and determine the factors that contributed to their high-point experiences.

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After about an hour of storytelling and narrative analysis, small groups join others in a plenary session. Each small group shares one or two great stories with the whole group—stories that represent the essence of what the small group has been learning. As they share their stories with the whole group, the small groups also communicate the themes that emerged over their previous hour of conversation. Often these themes are simply listed on flip chart pages; other times they are drawn or painted on a collective mural or communicated in some other creative fashion. However it transpires, individual groups’ themes are listed and then compiled into a master list of themes. This master list becomes the raw material for the next activity.

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Discovery, Step by Step 1. Craft appreciative interview questions. 2. Develop an Interview Guide. 3. Create an interview plan. 4. Communicate the Inquiry Strategy. 5. Train interviewers. 6. Conduct appreciative interviews. 7. Disseminate stories and best practices. 8. Make meaning. 9. Map the positive core.

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Sample Appreciative Interview Questions

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A comprehensive Interview Guide has six parts that appear in the following sequence:

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We have experienced great success with three- to-four-hour interviewer training sessions. During this time, interviewers receive the following: Background information about the inquiry itself—what we are doing and to what end. Practice interviewing, using the Interview Guide. Guidelines regarding note taking, summary sheets, and quick action sheets, if any. Practice redirecting negative feedback. An interview schedule—who will interview whom by when. Instructions on how to invite others to join in the process, if appropriate.

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The Key Components of Good Appreciative Interviews Several years ago we asked a group of interviewers for tips on conducting great appreciative interviews. Their responses included the following:

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Lovelace Health Systems, introduced in Chapter 4, used a participant-guided process for meaning making during its AI Summit. Prior to the gathering, a three-person “story-collection team” reviewed summary sheets and determined which stories and quotes best brought the original topics to life.

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In small groups of six or eight, participants take turns sharing the most inspiring story they heard during the interviews. As stories are shared, group members listen and together find the meaning in them by naming the root causes of success embedded in the stories. Ideas can be recorded on a worksheet or flip chart page, as in the Excellence in Health Care example illustrated in Figure 11.

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Creative, playful dreaming is not the norm in many organizations. Because of this, we periodically find ourselves faced with questions like these: Can’t we just talk about what we want? Isn’t all this play a distraction from the real work? Our answer is no, this is the real work—of having fun at work, of being creative, of bringing out the diverse strengths of people, and of generating images of a more desirable future. In short, we strongly recommend using experiential approaches to dreaming in even the most conservative environments. Without this temporary shift in energy and approach to knowing, organizations seriously limit their capacities for creating new images and forward progress. If your organization would balk at the idea of dramatic skits, consider drawing or painting dreams. Consider poetry or an awards show. Consider making collages by cutting images from magazines. Or consider building a giant model out of cardboard boxes, egg cartons, and supplies from a hardware store. Whatever activity you use to reveal and uplift your organization’s dream, make it creative and fun.

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Dream, Step by Step 1. Reflect on a focal question. 2. Engage in a Dream Dialogue. 3. Clarify the collective dream. 4. Creatively enact the dream. 5. Determine common themes and opportunities. 6. Create an opportunity map. 7. (Optional) Document the dream.

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How the groups make meaning of their dreams will depend on the question(s) you ask them. Consider and choose among the following questions: What are the three most energizing themes you saw presented in the dream enactments? What are the three boldest opportunities for innovation that you saw presented in the dream enactments? Based on your dream enactments, what elements of your organization—processes, systems, leadership, purpose, strategy, relationships, and so on—offer the greatest opportunities for improvement? What new possibilities presented in your dream enactments best build on the strengths of your positive core?

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Participants had already been reflecting and dreaming in groups of eight. Having all formulated their version of the company’s strategic vision, each small group designated one person as its representative to the whole. Thus, members of a new subgroup of ten seated themselves around a table in the middle of the large group, where they became like fish in a fishbowl: they could talk to one another, but other participants could only listen and take notes. In addition to the ten chairs for designees, this central table contained a single empty chair. This was an open seat, available for anyone in the room, including facilitators, who felt they had something to contribute. The only ground rule was that these “drop-in” participants would empty their seats as soon as they felt they had made their contributions. The people in the “fishbowl” were given the task of crafting a ten-year vision statement for the division that captured the best of what had been discussed and enacted within both the small groups and the whole.

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The purpose of organization design is to give form to the expression of human creativity and values and to enable the realization of human aspirations. Organization designs are expressions of values embodied in structures, systems, strategies, relationships, roles, policies, procedures, products, and services. As a result, organization design requires choice.

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And so the Appreciative Inquiry Design methodology involves people sharing stories of their organization at its best and then writing statements of their ideal organization. These statements are most often called Provocative Propositions but have also been called Design Statements, Possibility Propositions, and Design Principles. At different times we call them by different names, always ensuring that they are Narrative statements, proposing the ideal. Provocative, stretching beyond the norm into novel and more desired forms of interaction. Stated in the affirmative, using vivid positive imagery. Statements of intention, constituting the ideal.

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Design, Step by Step 1. Identify a meaningful social architecture. 2. Select relevant and strategic design elements. 3. Identify organizational design preferences. 4. Craft Provocative Propositions.

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The Destiny phase involves unleashing self-organized innovation, through which the future will be made real. Decisions to be made in this phase include: How will we learn about the gains we’ve already made? Surveys? Appreciative Inquiry? Open storytelling sessions? How will we celebrate? What needs to happen to keep people aware of and excited about ongoing innovations? How might recognition inspire ongoing action? What are our parameters for self-organized action? Time? Resources? Domains? How shall we self-organize? Should we engage existing work groups or form separate AI Learning Teams? How will we support success? What resources, support, and expertise do people need? Who are the best people to provide what’s needed?

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Destiny, Step by Step 1. Review, communicate, and celebrate accomplishments. 2. Generate a list of potential actions. 3. Self-organize for inspired action projects. 4. Support the success of self-organized projects. 5. Begin systemic application of Appreciative Inquiry.

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All too often, after months or years of a substantial change effort, companies’ inner dialogues are full of the message, “All that time and money and nothing changed around here.” A great deal may have changed, but no one knows about it.

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Remember, words create worlds.

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Asking people to respond to “Tell me about all the positive changes that have occurred around here since we began the Appreciative Inquiry” will definitely prompt a litany of successes and good reasons to celebrate.

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Now, in Destiny, consider all the creative ways your ideals might be actualized. Either in an AI Summit or a series of small-group meetings, ask stakeholders “What are all the ideas you have for tangible actions, programs, or processes to bring the design into being?” Ask people to address this question for each of their Provocative Propositions. Encourage them to reflect upon their interviews and recall best practices and exemplary organizations as sources of inspiration.

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Even in the midst of clear and apparent unfolding transformation, we are often asked, “When are we going to create action plans, set priorities, and decide what to change?” Recognizing that all good things in life result from a combination of forethought (planning) and opportunism (improvisation), we often suggest forming Innovation Teams during the Destiny phase of Appreciative Inquiry.

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No matter what project they select, Innovation Teams can benefit by getting off to a good start. We have found that providing a planning framework—in the form of either a worksheet or a flip-chart-sized template—helps get team members on the same page and frees their minds for creative conversations. When creating a planning framework, we consider the organization’s culture and planning needs. In particular, we use a language and graphic style that will appeal to members of the Innovation Teams, including as many of the following categories or prompts as teams have time to meaningfully agree on in their first meeting: The project name or description. The team’s purpose or vision for the project. A list of group members, including a “team lead.” A project overview—what, when, where, how, and so on. Short-, mid-, and long-term actions, help needed, and due dates.

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Everyone participates in round 1 of the gallery walk. Each round is brief—fifteen to twenty minutes at most. During that time, presenters read their plan to each small group of visitors, sharing primary discussion and decision points and answering questions. Visitors then write feedback and comments on color-coded index cards in response to such prompts as “Concepts I love . . .” (white) “Ideas to strengthen the plan . . .” (yellow) “Potential redundancies with other initiatives . . .” (green) “Available resources . . .” (blue) 4. Step 3 is repeated through three or four rounds. 5. When all rounds are complete, people return to their original Innovation Teams to share what they learned from their visits, review and discuss the feedback they have received, and make quick notes about how their plan will change based on what they have heard.

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A week after the summit, more than half of the Action Groups reconvened and began thinking about what they wanted to accomplish. But within days, it became clear to the division’s leadership that some of the groups would need help if they were to succeed. The good news was that groups had been convened by people who were passionate to do something. The bad news was that only some of these people had the background, skills, or abilities to successfully facilitate such a team.

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Each convener/facilitator received four hours of training on facilitation, including guidelines for leading an Action Group. Here are the guidelines that were provided: Clarify what you want your Action Group to accomplish. Recruit two cochampions from the business leadership team to support you in your work. Be sure to recruit people who, because of their function, expertise, or interest, are uniquely qualified to provide meaningful support and insight to your group. Schedule Action Group meetings in advance through production supervisors to ensure coverage on the floor. Members of your group may work up to two hours per week on Action Group–related activities during regular work hours. Members of your group will also be paid overtime for voluntary Action Group work performed during off-shift hours. In the end, your Action Group will develop a detailed proposal to implement your chosen change. Each proposal, including timelines, costs, accountabilities, and so on, will be presented to the Advisory Team for resource allocation and support. Action Group cochampions attended an hour-long training, where they learned the importance of guiding, supporting, and helping the teams to succeed in their chosen task.

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Sometimes the Advisory Team point person happened to be serving already on an Action Group, either as member or cochampion. In other cases, he or she was simply an interested third party whose job was to do the following: Keep up with what the group was doing. Keep the Advisory Team informed about where the group was heading. Keep the question of resources and support in front of division leadership as necessary.

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Appreciative Inquiry has helped community leaders address three questions that are essential to successful participatory planning in community settings: 1. How do we build leadership alignment and engage large numbers of people who live and work in the many varied subcultures and groups that constitute the community? 2. How do we ensure that everyone in the community has the opportunity to be involved and to be heard, so that the resulting plan is truly the community’s plan? 3. How can our planning set the stage for inspired action and noteworthy results while building and strengthening relationships and the sense of community wholeness?

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“We imagined the city as a giant web, with influential individuals residing at crossover points. These were the people who knew people—who, if engaged in the process, would attract attention and influence others to join. These were the people we wanted to help us get others to the table later in the process.”

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Finally, a group of community members conducted what they called best-in-class interviews with other cities to learn about practices that might be adopted or adapted by Longmont. They identified 159 comparable cities across the nation and decided to visit four. Each of the four was a known leader in an area related to one of Longmont’s four Appreciative Inquiry Affirmative Topics:

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The plan outlined strengths and goals and prioritized activities that would give rise to “vibrant communities in which we all age well.”

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As you think about your community and its potential use of Appreciative Inquiry, we encourage you to start small. Find a community issue, project, or goal that requires widespread engagement and input, and use it as your ground for learning. Review this book with your project in mind. Invite other concerned community members to join you in your experiment. Now you have your core team and are ready to go.

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Personal and organizational power is unleashed when certain essential conditions are present for people within organizations. Our research suggests that there are at least six of these conditions, which we call the Six Freedoms: 1. Freedom to be known in relationship. 2. Freedom to be heard. 3. Freedom to dream in community. 4. Freedom to choose to contribute. 5. Freedom to act with support. 6. Freedom to be positive. Any one of these Six Freedoms can significantly alter people’s perception of their power within an organizational context. Because individuals learn and are motivated differently, we believe initiatives that provide the opportunity for people to experience multiple freedoms have the potential to make the greatest impact on the largest number of people—and ultimately on the organization as a whole.

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In work settings, people are often known in roles rather than in relationship. They are vice presidents and operators, doctors and nurses, employees and customers—in short, they are perceived as what they do rather than who they are. However, human identity forms and evolves in relationship.

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Much has been written on the act of listening, but surprisingly little has been written about the experience of being heard. A person can listen without truly hearing or understanding the person who is speaking. To feel heard, the speaker must recognize that the person listening is attentive, is listening with sincere curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to learn. It requires the listener to hear a person’s story and words. In other words, the experience of being heard requires a relationship between speaker and listener.

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