Appreciative inquiry and planning

I'm just returning from the Texas Library Association, where I presented first with Marci Merola (director of ALA's Office for Library Advocacy) for our Intellectual Freedom and Advocacy Bootcamp, then with Kristin Pekoll (my assistant director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom) on intellectual freedom resources.

I also had a chance to attend former ALA President Maureen Sullivan's session on Appreciative Inquiry and strategic planning. Maureen was great as always: clear, insightful, and representing some of the current best thinking about managerial leadership. Many of us have used the SWOT exercise (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). But there's something better: SOAR. That stands for:
  • Strengths: what works today? What is the best of what is? As Maureen said, even in difficult times, there's always something that's going right.
  • Opportunities: Where are the possibilities not now being pursued?
  • Aspiration: What are our hopes and dreams? What "could be?"
  • Results: What do we we want to accomplish? Where will we focus?
When asked how long this process takes with, for instance, a public library planning group, she said it tended to run about two hours. That's far shorter than older planning models, which could stretch out for months. But I have no doubt that this more collapsed time frame is at least, and perhaps, more effective.

When I consulted with planning groups, I used a different spin on the same ideas. My process, which also took about two hours, went like this:

  • What is the origin of the passion that brings you here? I found that these stories, mostly from board members and senior staff, not only helped the group bond, but exposed some of the key values of the group. It also articulated some of those aspirations.
  • What organizational achievement are you proud of? How did you manage to do it? This lets people brag about what they've done well, and reflect on the processes or attitudes that lead to accomplishment. It affirms capacity.
  • What's the "next level?" That is, as you think about libraries (although this works for other kinds of organizations, too) that are further along or "better" than yours, what do they do that you don't? I find that people do very often know what the next level is. They just haven't said it out loud before. There are indeed distinct stages of organizational development, and we tend to be aware of the next rung when it begins to be within our reach.
  • What steps do you have to take to get there? So if the answer is "the next level up has an internal training department," the steps to make that happen get pretty clear. Budget for a training manager. Bring one on board charged with developing a program.
So my approach was not quite the same as what Maureen was talking about, but it seems to get at the same underlying  principles. Be positive. Build on your assets, rather than focusing on your deficits. Recognize that you already have real skills and knowledge. Often there is more than enough wisdom in the room to identify what needs to happen next. Identifying what it takes to get there, based on the memory of previous success, builds the will to achieve, and lays out an immediate path to results.

Maureen also listed some books I need to track down to further explore these ideas:
  • Mindset: the New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • Humble Inquiry: the Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar Schein
  • The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond
  • The Thin Book of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy by Jacqueline M. Stavros and Gina Hinrichs
Those who plan are more likely to get something done.  And when planning is presented as something that is organic, natural, positive, and not mindnumbingly complex or time-consuming, it's far more likely to happen.  Any group can carve out 2 hours in a year, perhaps at a retreat, for this exercise. I do think facilitators are helpful, though, just to keep everybody on track. Two hours of facilitation is a cheap cost for charting an institutional direction.

At any rate, TLA, under the management of the altogether extraordinary executive director Pat Smith (now retiring), has long offered one of the premier library conferences. I was sorry to have to leave it just as San Antonio's Festival was beginning!

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