AWA’s Board Vice Chair Kate Marshall-Flaherty generously shares this about our strategic retreats:

Although I have been a Board member for over four years, this is my first “Bulletin from the Board,” a brilliant idea that came out of last year’s Board retreat, when we met online to discuss and dream, to ponder and plan, to affirm and activate… 

The Board has met once a year for five years to develop and deepen a strategic plan for AWA. Two years ago, the intrepid Carol Good lead us in an in-depth exploration of our immediate annual and longer-term five and ten-year goals. After two days of writing and listening, brainstorming and sharing, we came up with a short- and long- term strategic plan and a number of committees you all recognize well by now—the MORS (Membership Outreach Retention and Support) committee, the WAW (Write Around the World) committee, the Education and Training committee, the AWA Press committee (including Peregrine, our literary journal), committees for Social Media and Communication, Scholarships and Bridge-Building, as well as the annual Retreat… The seeds were already planted, and we watered them and gave them sunshine and good soil.

About Appreciative Inquiry (A.I.)

Last year, Michael Dodds, former HR head at the YMCA and frequent flyer of my StillPoint AWA workshops, guided us in an Appreciative Inquiry (A.I.) retreat. What is A.I. you ask? (It is not artificial intelligence, but rather real, grounded, organic wisdom 🙂

Back in the silo 70’s David Cooperrider, the founder of A.I., noticed that many communities and institutions spent so much time trouble-shooting that they oftentimes got stuck in “putting out fires” mode, and rarely had the energy or resources to move forward with creative imagination and “planting new seeds” mode, which resulted in widespread burnout.  He likened that problem-solving method to seeing a company or organization as a “machine to be fixed,” which focused on mending moving parts rather than regarding the community as an organic whole. He asked the prompting question, “What would if feel like if we looked at our organization, not as a series of problems to be solved, but rather as a mystery to be embraced?” Each time he asked this question he saw shoulders release, tension subside, and communal exhalations let go.

Our Experience with Appreciative Inquiry

This is exactly what happened last year at our Board  retreat! As we began, we all spoke of the projects with great potential, but expressed how frustrated we felt we couldn’t do more, or how guilty we felt we had not gotten further in our plans, or how overwhelmed we were with all the work to be done, or how burned out we felt with so much work and so few people on the Board spreading ourselves too thin. There were audible exhalations when we pondered this question, “What if we looked at AWA as more of a mystery to be embraced?” (rather than a series of things to plan, fix, accomplish …)  A collective release, and even tears, resulted.

What if we were to start with looking at what we HAD done well, what we HAD accomplished to date, how things that HAD gone well looked, and, in short, “shared stories about what the best time we experienced in AWA looked and felt like.” The fire ignited, and for the rest of the retreat the list of accomplishments and successes combusted into a constellation of passions; the best practices we reviewed in our stories caught fire into action plans … and we began to FEEL Appreciative Inquiry in our bodies.

How Appreciative Inquiry Connects with AWA

In many ways, it seems that Pat Schneider herself was at the table when David Cooperrider brought A.I. to life—the AWA Method and A.I. model speak the same language—in honouring unique voices, affirming best practices, focusing on what is working, and what might make a good piece even better … both create a safe container in which to take risks, and both create a circle of equality, not a pyramid of power, in which diversity is honoured and celebrated …

Look at the similarities in his words, We find the power of our own unique voice, bequeathed at birth, with Pat’s, We are all born with our own unique voice, given to all!

Appreciative Inquiry is a Strengths-Based Model:

  1. It searches and appreciates what is BEST in people and groups.
  2. It sees systems and communities as an organic living whole, not a machine with parts to be fixed. 
  3. It focuses on storytelling, asking questions and deep listening.
  4. It embraces the MYSTERY of an organization rather than focusing on problem-solving.
  5. It utilizes the act of prompted questioning, which directs the growth.
  6. It celebrates diversity.

The AWA Method does the same, as a Strengths-Based Method: We ask in an editing circle “How can we make this good poem even better?”

  1. It recognizes and values what is working in a piece of writing, what is moving, memorable or meaningful.
  2. It sees the session as a circle, not a triangle, where every writer’s voice is valued, the guide is part of the safe circle and takes the same risks, no one is the expert.
  3. It too focuses on storytelling, deep listening, mirroring the best.
  4. It too sets out each prompt as a means of possibility and potential that opens to the mystery of what writing ends up on the page, organically and creatively.
  5. It upholds a safe container in which to take risks, and to keep the tellers and listeners safe as well; it also respects and supports diversity.
  6. It also employs “deep listening” … with a mind and heart open to listening without preconceived notions or judgements … “When listening in an AWA workshop we enter the universe that the writer has created and leave our assumptions behind. We are asked to leave behind our own expectations and experiences. We listen for and notice what works. We listen for and notice the choices a writer has made that help to create success in the writing. We listen without preconceived ideas about what the story should be about, how the poem should sound, or what we might do differently.”

BOTH embody “deep listening,” the sixth principle we have added as essential to the AWA Method. A.I. utilizes interviews where each partner in the pair or member in the group asks evocative questions that stimulate stories about what it looks and feels like when things are at their best.

There are four phases to Appreciative Inquiry:

  • Discovery—Where we look at what is working, appreciating the good that already exists.
  • Dream—Where we ask how we can get more of this? focusing on what could be.
  • Design—Where we look at best practices and create more, focusing on what will be.
  • Destiny—Where we create doable, sustainable action plans according to our passions and strength, standing on the shoulders of past successes, focusing on mobilizing passions and resources.

The Magic of the AWA Method you all know firsthand. The Magic of the A.I. Method is that by shifting the focus away from the problems, and focusing on strengths and passions, the problems get solved… organically. Just as craft is taught organically without harming the writer’s unique voice, issues are transformed by focusing on passions, unique voices and gifts. 

So, it is very much in the spirit of Pat that we re-visit all of this on March 18th at this year’s Board retreat. Our board has nearly doubled since last year and reached the maximum number allowed in our bylaws. This is due to the many AWA successes and accomplishments, and also in part due to this affirming, strengths-based lens through which to see AWA, which spreads enthusiasm and affirmation like wildfire. 

Parker Palmer says, There is fire when our greatest gifts meet the world’s greatest needs. It is so clear to me that both AWA and A.I. engage passion to share and support the power of story, responding to the deep human need to tell our stories and validate our experience and unique voice. The world needs more of both.

2 thoughts on “Bulletin From the Board: Appreciative Inquiry”

  1. Absolutely! 100%. Beautiful synthesis of AWA, AI, and the ground on which they meet.
    Thank you, Katie.

    Pat and AWA have given me courage, strength, and a sense of well-being from being able to use my writing voice in soul-satisfying ways. I’m grateful to the Board for being sensitive to the need for congruent growth and direction for AWA, so this kind of experience can spread to even more people.


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