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Appreciative Inquiry – putting people at the heart of the future

It is a cyclic, iterative process which means that you continue to capture and use the learning you have as you go forward.

Patricia Lustig Martin Hazell
27 April 2017
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Appreciative Inquiry in Nepal.Appreciative Inquiry is a large group change method which is collaborative, generative, responds to the need for everyone to be involved and have a say and includes the future. It was designed to put people at the heart of co-creating their future. It engages all stakeholders in a dialogue about where the energy for the needed change is and how it will be achieved in order to co-create a positive future. It encourages dialogue not just between the people in the system but also between the present and the future, both tomorrow+ and tomorrow++. This makes it easy to capture learning ‘from the future’.

Rather than focusing on problems and deficits, it collects and celebrates the ‘good news’ and successes which enhances the shared narrative and culture. It is a cyclic, iterative process which means that you continue to capture and use the learning you have as you go forward. It also enables you to identify and capture success (which changes over time) and to build upon it as you proceed.

Each time you go around the cycle, you test where you are and what works well at that moment in time. You know you will test it again and, in so doing, uncover when any particular method stops being fit for purpose. Below are two examples of how we used this method with large groups of people and what it has meant for them.

Together for the future of a village in Nepal

Our work with villagers in the Nepalese countryside helped them to change their narrative from seeing themselves as needy victims of circumstance, to masters of circumstance.  They could and did tell a different story about themselves  and were once again proud of their village and what they had achieved together.

We were invited (with Nepali colleagues we were training) to Phakhel, a village in the Nepalese countryside, that had requested our help. We started by asking them to tell us about a time that they had been proud of what they had achieved together in their village. We asked each group to draw on a piece of paper (most were illiterate).  Separating them into three groups, men, women and children, a facilitator worked with each group to ensure that each group had a voice. After the “prouds”, we asked them to visualise their perfect future and tell us a story about what kind of a village they would like to have for their children and grandchildren. 

When we asked what they could do themselves, however, the energy began to disappear – there was some reluctance to move from victim mode (letting things happen to them) to leader mode (taking responsibility and doing things themselves). 

Then, Mr. Pasang Lama, a subsistence farmer with only a few acres who could neither read nor write, stood up to speak to the village, ‘We have been bloody lazy!  For the past 40 years we have been holding our hands out to receive aid and what do we get?  We get into fights, we can’t agree on anything, we don’t feel good about our village any more, we don’t take responsibility or feel proud.  Forty years ago, we did a lot together because we had to – there was no one to help us.  And we were proud of what we had done, we were proud of our village.’  He paused and there was silence.  ‘Are any of you proud now? Well, shall we work together and be proud again?’

At first there was silence and then the group came alive.  People stood up to offer what they could and would do.  Some offered labour; some offered money – even if in very small amounts; some offered building materials for a school.  It was amazing. 

Over several years, returning a few times a year to work with the villagers, they have accomplished many things – built a secondary school, a health post, a nursery school and a resting place for porters all without asking for outside help. They did receive help from an INGO, but this was offered to them after they had begun – might as well back a winner! And they continued the process on their own with no outside help.

Together for the future of Aruba

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Imagine Aruba. All rights reserved.Imagine Aruba (Nos Aruba 2025) was a process where 60,000 people (out of a population of just over 100,000) participated in developing a vision of a preferred future … and making it happen.

Within the framework of a 2-year Appreciative Inquiry into the future of the Island, we ran a series of open courses in foresight and scenario planning which engaged people in thinking not only about their aspirations, but also about them in the context of different unfolding futures. This led to around 60,000 people being actively engaged in shaping the sustainable development of their island home.

This process not only produced some amazing insights but also spurred attendees to take what they had learned and repeat the process in their communities, workplaces and schools, engaging all ages from primary school to pensioners in a new conversation about the future of their island, and how to improve it for themselves and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Visions of the future were played out, literally, as powerful and emotionally charged plays, music, poetry and art as a means of further engaging others in co-creating their own future.

Additionally, a number of scenarios created from external forces on the island economy were developed so that the robustness of plans as they emerged could be tested, further generating ways that the strengths of the people can be applied in creating a future in which the people thrive, even against adverse external circumstances. 

The implementation of the plans generated by this process are now well in hand. Most importantly, public participation in policy-making is now a well-established process on the island, involving all stakeholders.

In closing

This approach allows people to plan in the face of increasing uncertainty, in a way that doesn’t paralyse them, but instead gives them the confidence to act, and to ensure that each stakeholder has the confidence, knowledge, and skills to act in a way that is aligned with the islands’ sustainable future.

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