I knew nothing of the business initiative called Appreciative Inquiry when Liza Fisher Norman of Turnaround Marketing Communications (and InspirED) suggested the process as a low-cost way for me to start gathering data to create a branding strategy. Appreciative Inquiry was developed in the 1980s as a way to change a corporate culture from one that breeds negativity and isolation to one that encourages cooperation and inclusiveness. It certainly seemed magical, but how would this translate to our small school that was not in dire need of a new corporate culture, just new brand messages? I bought the book by the movement’s guru, David Cooperrider, and read it cover to cover.
We saw a very clear picture of the life-giving forces that make our school attractive and compelling to parents seeking both an outstanding education for their child and a community for their family.
The cornerstone of Appreciative Inquiry is that everyone in the community is heard. Not just presented with an option to give an opinion, as in filling out a survey or claiming the leadership’s door is always open, but actively and systematically seeking out each individual to offer the opportunity to be heard. The beauty in it is the way the questions are framed. Working with the model outlined in the book, we developed four questions. Each interviewee and focus group participant was asked the same four questions:
- What would you describe as being a peak experience or high point as a member of the administrative team/faculty/board/parent community at this school? This would be a time when you felt most alive and engaged.
- Without being modest, what is it that you most value about yourself and the nature of your work, as it relates to this school?
- What are the core factors that give life to this school without which this school would cease to exist?
- What three wishes do you have to enhance the health and vitality of this school?
Note that each question was framed with a positive or appreciative focus. Interviewers and focus group leaders were oriented to keep the conversation positive, and ways to re-direct conversations to positivity if in danger of going astray. As a result, we saw a very clear picture of the life-giving forces that make our school attractive and compelling to parents seeking both an outstanding education for their child and a community for their family. I’d like to think that our community usually feels positive, but the energy in the building perceptibly changed the evening we held the focus groups.
Through this process we interviewed approximately 60% of parent community members, which includes trustees and 90% of the faculty and staff. Participants happily joined focus groups or attended their scheduled interview. Every year prior to this one, we surveyed our community with an online form consisting of more than 40 questions to take the “climate” of the community. We could expect between 40% and 60% participation after pleading, bargaining, and cajoling. A cloud of negativity would descend with the release of the survey. And why not? Sitting alone with a computer reading a barrage of questions about every aspect of the school and being asked to rate them from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” is asking for trouble. Just seeing the words “strongly disagree” 40 times is, well, disagreeable. The Appreciative Inquiry approach is the polar opposite of the online survey, and while we still heard many wishes to enhance the health and vitality of the school, they were wishes, not criticism. The distinction for the speaker and the listener is monumental, and it has the power to change and uplift a community’s self perception and spur it to action for change. The very best of what our school does for students and offers to families came out in this process, which is in fact, our brand.