In 2011, ICMA, along with co-authors Margaret Henderson, Sallie Lee, Gordon Whitaker, and Lydian Altman, released the InFocus Report Positive Problem-Solving: How Appreciative Inquiry Works. Timely then (the country was experiencing economic downturn), the report can serve a purpose now for local leaders – offering key practices for times of uncertainty – which can strain our ability to provide services to those who need them in our communities.

The report provides a framework for exploring the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach – which enables public officials and organizations to recognize and build on their strengths to meet the challenges of uncertainty. The intention was to introduce readers to three key practices that define the AI approach: (1) focus on strengths rather than weaknesses, (2) ask powerful, positive questions, and (3) use positive images of the future to motivate positive action. Each of these practices can strengthen relationships and decision-making every day, as well as in large-scale planning or organization change efforts. Here’s how.

Key Practice 1: Reframe to Focus on Strengths

Asking, “What are we doing right in the community?” generates a very different conversation than “What are we doing wrong?” A negatively-framed discussion can easily generate reactions of fear, accusation, defensiveness, and shutting down. In contrast, the report says that inquiring about the circumstances or strategies that lead to excellence is energizing and more likely to stimulate positive actions of sharing, support, and community-building.  Taking a positive frame to focus on successes and strengths leads us through a very different planning process and accesses very different knowledge than our usual problem-solving methodologies.

Leadership Tip: Appreciative leaders have the capacity to “see positive potential, and they invite it to come to life by asking positive questions.” They listen carefully to when others are complaining or describing problems, ask questions to discover what is really desired, then summarize that desired state into a short phrase or topic.

Key Practice 2: Ask Positive Questions

Questions create attention and focus us. They are our most readily available and powerful tool to impact our circumstances, our conversations, and our stories. Asking appreciative questions helps people develop more effective working relationships and can help your group work together and what they want to accomplish in the future.

Leadership Tip: Begin to create very powerful, strength-based questions and maximize the potential for success by ensuring that your questions are:

  • Open: inviting the unique opinions and experiences of the individual
  • Inclusive: relevant and appealing to people of nay position or experience in the group or team
  • Challenging forward thought: requiring that the respondent stretch from “what is” to “what might be better.”

Key Practice 3: Jointly Develop a Positive Future

The more people share the same positive image of the future they want, the more probable that future becomes. The process of drawing ideas from everyone involved builds buy-in. There is no need to sell people on the vision because they helped create it. Especially in times of uncertainty, it is beneficial to tap the power of the whole group – their wisdom, desires, and motivation to move towards a better future.

Leadership Tip: To ask about people’s desires for the future of the organization, considering asking the following: (1) what are innovative ways we can do our work together better and more efficiently? (2) how do we define and see success in five years from now? (3) if you could have three wishes granted that would create greater efficiency and effectiveness among our organization, what would they be? (4) what do we need to do to be an effective and impressive organization?

Additional resources on managing uncertainty:

What if Uncertainty Is the New Normal?

Seven Strategies for Managing Uncertainty

Career Compass No. 88: Leaders Are Dealers in Hope


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