Appreciative Inquiry: Powerful Tool for Service Learners

Entering any organization, a person is immediately swamped by hundreds if not thousands of seemingly invisible cues concerning “what is going on here.” There are all the content cues, the tasks telling why the organization is in business: “we serve Jewish adolescents and guide them into meaningful Jewish life”; “we teach people to give tzedakah”; “we are the Jewish college address, Hillel”; “we teach about the Holocaust in order to have a better human community in the 21st century”; “we want Jewish families to send their children to our Jewish early childhood program because we will help give this child foundational connections to the Jewish community.” The content includes the mission and vision of the organization. The programs and projects offered by the organization reflect this content. The publicity and marketing materials reflect this content. There are symbols, logos, letterhead, and mottoes all directly part of the content of the organization. Many times the name of the organization itself is a content cue.

At the same time, an organization is more than its name and logo. The organization is people—the people who work there, the people who volunteer, and where appropriate, the members are also the organization. These are the process cues, the relational facets sometimes thought of as the human side of the organization. How people are greeted by the organization, whether over the telephone or entering the offices, is a cue. How welcoming the “peopled” spaces are is a cue, such as bathrooms, meeting rooms, break areas, private offices and even the parking lot.

Each subset of the organization has its own content and process as well. Here I am referring to work teams, administrative helpers, volunteer working groups, committees and the board of trustees. All are parts of the greater whole of the organization. They have a task, which is the content. They have a way of working, behaving, doing their job, and relating, which is the process.

While content and process in organizational life are symbiotic, I believe that one really trumps the other. When the process is working (good interpersonal relationships), the content is much less of an issue. Good people can agree to disagree. But when the process is not working (poor relationships), the content takes over and everything may become a source of conflict. When the process is working, the leadership can vote to paint the stripes in the parking lot purple. When the process is not working, there is a fight to the death over the wattage of the light bulbs in the office.

A powerful tool toward building great process and thereby excellent organization is appreciative inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is the study and the exploration of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best.[1] AI suggests that human organizing and change, at its best, is a relational process of inquiry, grounded in affirmation and appreciation.[2] AI is a conversation methodology that seeks out the “best of what is” to help ignite the collective imagination of “what might be.”[3]

What is so powerful about AI is that reveals what makes the glass half full in the organization and how people can make it fuller. The methodology is asking questions and envisioning the future, a future that wants to grow positive relationships in the organization. People in the organization tell their stories about their connections with others when they have been at their best.[4]

Appreciative Inquiry is an innovative and imaginative process for someone new to an organization and wanting to learn about what processes and behaviors contribute the successes of the organization. In every organization there is something that works. In every organization people are eager to share their positive connections to the organization. In every organization people are comfortable on the journey toward the future when they bring with them the very best of the past. A newcomer gets powerful insights and reflections about the organization. At the same, just asking AI questions of a veteran of the organization begins to build a relationship between the newcomer and the veteran.

Using AI, a person, in this case a newcomer, identifies a veteran member of the organization and sets up a time to meet with the vet and ask the AI protocol of questions. It is fine to ask the questions and also ask follow up questions for more details and clarification. The ultimate purpose is to give the newcomer deep insights into the best of the organization. From there the newcomer has a foundation upon which to build their work with this organization.

Future leaders in service-learning internships could learn a lot by having two or more AI dialogues with professionals or lay leaders in an organization. AI is a deep way to get tutored about the organization they are going to serve and which they are going to learn. I advocate AI as a requirement for the orientation and first encounters with the organization.

Following is an Appreciative Inquiry protocol I created for someone entering a congregation and/or a congregation’s school. I hope that people will try it and use it.

Celebrating Our Congregation’s/ School’s Rich Heritage and Past Successes

Experience with Organization

Please reflect on your beginnings with the school/congregation.

  • What attracted you to the school/congregation? What were your initial excitements and impressions when you joined the school/congregation?

Exceptional Partnerships and Commitment

Organizations, at their best, encourage exceptional partnerships in which all parties have equal voice and share responsibility for co-creating the organization and its future. Partnerships require honesty, trust, respect, a focus on common interest, and a willingness to respect differences and agree to disagree. Exceptional partnerships result when all parties mutually gain from the relationship.

  • Tell me about the most exceptional partnerships of which you have been a part. What values and circumstances were necessary to make it successful? What did you bring to the partnership?

Continuous Transformation

Organizations today must continually change and evolve to provide quality services and secure necessary funding to thrive in this rapidly changing economy. Organizations that have passion and energy for continual transformation display excellence and are distinguished from their peers, leading the way and creating their future, instead of reacting to it.

  • Tell me a time when you were involved with a significant transformation or change effort; a time when you positively influenced the results. What was exciting about the transformation? What did you and others do to make it effective?

Promising Visions and Models for Organizational Growth

Think of another non-profit or business that you admire—one that you either know well or have heard of and one that you feel is not only stable, but is continuing to reach new levels of success.

  • What, in your experience, makes that organization one of the best?
  • Thinking specifically about their model for organizational growth, what do they do that perhaps we could learn to do better? What is the structure of their leadership team? Staff? Volunteers? Clients? Parents? Teachers?

Carrying Forward What We Value Most

Organizations work best when people at all levels share a basic common vision in relation to the organization’s core mission, intent, and direction. When people know the “big picture” they often experience a feeling of purpose, pride, significance, and unity. 

  • In your mind, what is the common mission or purpose that unites everyone in this school/congregation? How is this communicated and nurtured?

Good organizations know how to “preserve the core” of what they do best and are able to let go of things that are no longer needed. 

  • In transforming this congregation what are the three things (core strengths, values, qualities, and ways of working) you want to see preserved and leveraged as we move into the future?

Wake up, it’s 2020:  Your Vision of a Best-Performing School/Congregation

Fast forward . . . it is now 2020 and we were able to preserve our core strengths and transform the congregationexceptional partnerships, shared vision, continual transformation and commitment are the “way we do business.” It is an organization that you are proud to be part of and others want to join and support.

  • What is happening with our congregants? Our board? Our volunteers? Our staff? Our students? Teachers? Parents?
  • Looking back: What are people doing differently in 2010 to ensure this continued success? What was the smallest change that the congregation made which had the most significant impact?

Dr. Samuel K. Joseph is Eleanor Sinsheimer Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish Education and Leadership Development at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

[1] “ The Power of Appreciative Inquiry,” Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2003, page 1

[2] Ibid, page 1

[3]  Appreciative Inquiry

[4] Ibid. Appreciative Inquiry

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