New Systems Thinking Tool: Appreciative Inquiry

This post is a part of a blog series in which we’re introducing and sharing guidance for using different tools to support systems thinking and practice.

This month, we interviewed Stephen Downs, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to discuss his experience using Appreciative Inquiry with his colleagues.

Hi Steve, thanks for joining us to talk about your experience with appreciative inquiry. To get us started, could you tell us about why you decided to use appreciative inquiry?

One thing I really like about using appreciative inquiry is that it helps get a group to “gut-level truth.” In so many difficult areas where we’re all trying to make important change, we have a tendency to really intellectualize the work. When we think in terms of programs, interventions, and policies, we often disconnect the work we’re doing from our own relevant experiences. Appreciative Inquiry is a tool for helping you clear away some of that detached thinking and reflect on a more personal, gut-level understanding of an issue. That different way of getting at the issue often brings new perspectives and insights.

That really rings true to our experience with AI. Can you tell us a bit about how you used appreciative inquiry with your colleagues? What did you hope to accomplish?

I used AI with my colleagues at the Foundation to reflect on what made a healthy childhood. The Foundation is doing a lot of work around helping children grow up in healthy ways and at a healthy weight, so for this meeting we wanted to get back to the core of what it means to be a healthy child. The question for this appreciative inquiry was, “Think of a time you felt alive and healthy and thriving as a child.” This session was the beginning of a longer appreciative inquiry—we only used Phase 1 of the 4 phase process—so we were very focused on the initial step of getting in touch with our feelings and how we connected to the issue.

How did the activity go? Did anything surprising come up?

It was really interesting: while everyone had different experiences as a child, the themes that came out were pretty universal. There was a lot of discussion about play, being outdoors, time with family and friends—time when you didn’t feel limited. We had a diverse group at the session, and it was remarkable to see the resonance among all the people who participated. While there was definitely variation, folks were struck by the degrees of commonality.

The exercise also allowed for different things to come up, rather than just programs and policies. It was really great to get in touch with the personal experiences that we all had, what made those memories special, and what made us feel healthy. It helped us look at our strategy in a new way, to understand the extent to which our approach to the work reflected our own experiences and the common themes that we identified in the session.

We started our conversation talking about what unique value you see in Appreciative Inquiry and you spoke about getting to “gut-level” truth. Do you think the session you just described got there? Was it helpful?

Yes, I definitely think so. Appreciative Inquiry provided important grounding for us. Getting everyone’s own experiences on the table helped us understand where each of us was coming from.

One thing we often don’t talk about in work like this is that each of us has a story. That story influences who we are, how we think, and how we see the world. We’re often taught to try to be more objective, and separate that personal experience from our professional judgement. This meeting was a good time to get in touch with our own stories and reflect on the circumstances that enabled those experiences.

Appreciative inquiry is also an opportunity to reflect on your own biases, which some of us did in this meeting. You can see the perspectives your colleagues come from, and you understand better what might shape their views on something.

In addition to FSG’s Appreciative Inquiry tool, did you use any other resources to inform the Appreciative Inquiry process?

We used a number of other tools, including actor mapping and trend mapping. Using the tools together, you can look at the actor mapping and trend mapping exercises through the lens of the insights generated through appreciative inquiry, which might lead you to look at them differently.

For example, one theme that came out of the Appreciative Inquiry was outdoor play. So, you might look at the trends around outdoor play, or ask, “What factors allow for kids to play outside?  How could we integrate/consider these factors in our actions?” There’s definitely value in making those connections.

What advice would you give others using the “Guide to Appreciative Inquiry,” or other systems thinking tools?

The main advice I have on these tools is to know the purpose going in and determine what you’re trying to accomplish early. Then, design the experience making sure it’s connected to your overall purpose.

The other thing, it sounds obvious, but you have to go in the exercise feeling open. You don’t use a process like this to confirm a direction or set up a case you know you want to make. The value you get out of a process like this is the willingness to open yourself up and hear the insights from others, rather than have it bolster a narrative you’ve already created. If all the decisions have already been made, it’s not a good time to use appreciative inquiry.

Download the “Guide to Appreciate Inquiry” > 

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health.



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