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From problems to strengths

Be the change you want to see in the world.

— Gandhi

Most development projects are designed and delivered using a combination of participatory techniques—including participatory rural appraisal, participatory learning and action, and various workshop methods—to uncover local problems, resource constraints, deficiencies and unmet basic needs. These approaches encourage participation, emphasize the importance of local knowledge and address real problems, but they often fail to sustain community participation after the implementing organization withdraws.

See Appreciative Inquiry in Action

Generally, development agencies use these approaches to search for and identify community problems. They generate volumes of data that provide great detail on the origins and consequences of local needs and resource constraints. Interventions to address the problems are then developed, usually by consulting with the local community. But at the end of such an approach local people, not surprisingly, often view their community as a place full of problems and needs, most of which require the help of outsiders to overcome. By creating and reinforcing this identity through ongoing exercises during the project cycle, these approaches could have a disempowering effect that contributes to the development workers being viewed as the agents of change in the community, rather than the community members themselves. This viewpoint establishes and entrenches a sense of dependency in the community that the agency must then work to overcome.

These unintended consequences illustrate the need for a shift away from the problem-oriented methods toward processes that build on community achievements, existing strengths and local skills. Development organizations need better methods for engaging local people, so that they can help communities create a shared vision of an equitable and sustainable future and then move toward it through locally initiated and managed project activities. Such methods need to be complemented through capacity-building initiatives at the village level so that community members are able to measure progress toward their vision and to modify their strategies as local circumstances change.

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble... They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This "outgrowing" proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.

— Carl Jung  

IISD believes that focusing on community strengths has the greatest potential to advance sustainable development at the community level. Through nearly a decade of fieldwork in five African countries, IISD has developed a sustainable livelihoods model that builds on local strengths by identifying and reinforcing the adaptive strategies that local people often develop to maintain their livelihoods in adverse circumstances. To enhance its livelihoods approach, the institute is now testing a new community development method called appreciative inquiry.

The simpler way summons forth what is best about us. It asks us to understand human nature differently, more optimistically. It identifies us as creative. It acknowledges that we seek after meaning. It asks us to be less serious, yet more purposeful, about our work and our lives. It does not separate play from the nature of being.

— Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers  

Appreciative inquiry turns the problem-solving approach on its head. It focuses on a community's achievements rather than its problems, and seeks to go beyond participation to foster inspiration at the grass-roots level. It was developed in the early 1990s by David Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University, primarily to help corporations sharpen their competitive advantage. IISD is now applying this approach at the community level in two pilot projects:

  • in Southern India in partnership with MYRADA, a non-governmental organization working to empower the rural poor, and
  • in Northern Canada, in partnership with Skownan First Nation.

The appreciative approach

The appreciated world came into being with the development of man's capability for self-reflection, a faculty encompassing much more than just thinking. It holds the world—the physical, social, and spiritual aspects of man's world—as we view it not just through the understanding that our mind composes of it but through all forms of experience. It embraces our appreciation of what this world can do to and for us, and what we can do to and for it... Thus, the appreciated world becomes the motor for change induced by human action.

— Erich Jantsch  

Appreciative inquiry is a strategy for purposeful change that identifies the best of "what is" to pursue dreams and possibilities of "what could be." It is a co-operative search for the strengths, passions and life-giving forces that are found within every system—those factors that hold the potential for inspired, positive change.

The appreciative approach involves collaborative inquiry, based on interviews and affirmative questioning, to collect and celebrate the good news stories of a community—those stories that enhance cultural identity, spirit and vision. Appreciative inquiry is a way of seeing that is selectively attentive to—and affirming of—the best and highest qualities in a system, a situation or another human being. It involves an appreciation for the mystery of being and a reverence for life.

Local people can use their understanding of "the best of what is" to construct a vision of what their community might be if they identify their strengths, then improve or intensify them. They achieve this goal by creating provocative propositions that challenge them to move ahead by understanding and building on their current achievements. Provocative propositions are realistic dreams: they empower a community to reach for something better, but base that empowerment on an understanding of what gives them life now.

There are four steps to the appreciative approach.

The Appreciative Cycle

The core task in the discovery phase is to appreciate the best of "what is" by focusing on peak moments of community excellence—when people experienced the community in its most alive and effective state. Participants then seek to understand the unique conditions that made the high points possible, such as leadership, relationships, technologies, values, capacity building or external relationships. They deliberately choose not to analyze deficits, but rather systematically seek to isolate and learn from even the smallest victories. In the discovery phase, people share stories of exceptional accomplishments, discuss the core life-giving conditions of their community and deliberate upon the aspects of their history that they most value and want to enhance in the future.

In the dream phase, people challenge the status quo by envisioning more valued and vital futures. This phase is both practical, in that it is grounded in the community's history, and generative, in that it seeks to expand the community's potential. Appreciative inquiry is different from other planning methods because its images of the future emerge from grounded examples of the positive past. They are compelling possibilities precisely because they are based on extraordinary moments from a community's history. Participants use positive stories in the same way an artist uses paints to create a portrait of the community's potential. They think great thoughts and create great possibilities for their community, then turn those thoughts into provocative propositions for themselves.

In the design phase participants create a strategy to carry out their provocative propositions. They do so by building a social architecture for their community that might, for example, re-define approaches to leadership, governance, participation or capacity building. As they compose strategies to achieve their provocative propositions, local people incorporate the qualities of community life that they want to protect, and the relationships that they want to achieve.

The final phase involves the delivery of new images of the future and is sustained by nurturing a collective sense of destiny. It is a time of continuous learning, adjustment and improvisation in the service of shared community ideals. The momentum and potential for innovation is high by this stage of the process. Because they share positive images of the future, everyone in a community re-aligns their work and co-creates the future.

Appreciative inquiry is a continual cycle. The destiny phase leads naturally to new discoveries of community strengths, beginning the process anew.

Why it works

Practitioners of appreciative inquiry believe this approach is true to human nature because it integrates different ways of knowing. Appreciative inquiry allows room for emotional response as well as intellectual analysis, room for imagination as well as rational thought. A successful athlete intuitively uses the appreciative approach when he visualizes breaking a record in his mind to help him break the record in reality. A successful leader intuitively uses it when she paints a picture the community's potential to inspire people to achieve it. The following principles help explain the power behind the appreciative approach:

The constructionist principle postulates that social knowledge and community destiny are interwoven. To be effective as development practitioners, we must be adept in the art of understanding, reading and analyzing communities as living, human constructions. The questions that we ask set the stage for discovering stories from which a new future can be conceived and constructed.

The principle of simultaneity recognizes that inquiry and change are not separate moments, but occur together. Inquiry is intervention. The seeds of change—the things people think and talk about, the things people discover and learn, the things that inform dialogue and inspire images of the future—are implicit in the first questions we ask. The questions we ask set the stage for what we find, and what we discover becomes the stories out of which the future is conceived and constructed.

The poetic principle states that human organizations, including communities, are an open book. A community's story is constantly being co-authored. Its past, present and future are an endless source of learning, inspiration and interpretation. We can study virtually any topic on human experience in any community. We can choose to inquire into the nature of alienation or of joy. We can choose to study moments of creativity and innovation, or choose to focus on moments of stress and failure. Appreciative inquiry chooses to focus on the positive aspects of communities.

The anticipatory principle postulates that current behaviour is guided by images of the future. People project a horizon of expectation ahead of themselves that brings the future powerfully into the present as a mobilizing agent. Communities exist because the people who govern and maintain them share a vision of what the organization is, how it will function and what it is likely to become.

The positive principle states that momentum for change requires positive thinking and social bonding—qualities like hope, inspiration and joy in creating with one another. If development practitioners use positive questions to guide community development they will achieve more long-lasting and effective changes. In many important respects, people and communities move in the direction of their questions. Thousands of interviews about empowerment will lead a community in a much more positive direction than thousands of interviews about poor participation in projects.

IISD and its partners will apply these principles in its pilot projects, then share lessons learned with the development community at conferences, workshops, and through this Web site. We believe that the appreciative approach has the potential to transform development from an act of charity—giving training or material to those less fortunate than us—to an act of empowerment—helping local people identify their strengths, imagine a better future based on their current capacities, and then move toward that future.

This information on appreciative inquiry is based on work by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney. It comes from, among other sources, their workbook entitled, Appreciative inquiry: A constructive approach to organization development and social change, Taos, New Mexico: Corporation for Positive Change, n.d.

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