Dr. Kim Burns

Including people in a decision that affects them increases its potential for success. The same goes for strategic planning. Strategic planning processes that include stakeholders are more successful because we are more likely to support ideas that we help shape. This is particularly pertinent in higher education, where shared governance is a foundational tenet. Faculty and staff expect to be informed and included at some meaningful level about the future direction of the institution. A successful plan aligns people, funding, systems, and structures. This alignment can only be accomplished through an inclusive, systematic, and facilitated process. Iterative conversations with faculty, staff, students, board members, employers, and community partners lead to a shared understanding of the college’s purpose, vision, and future directions.

These iterative conversations can give a great deal of positive energy to the college community. Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an organizational development model for facilitating positive change and can be used for strategic planning. The fundamental premise is that every organization has strengths that can be leveraged to develop hope for the future and a forward-looking strategic agenda.

Appreciative inquiry is about asking those who deeply care about the institution to share their powerful stories. The AI process begins by asking people to share stories about what is working well. While a typical problem-solving approach works well with technical and other nonhuman systems, it does not work so well with people. When people are viewed as problems to be fixed, it results in drained energy and demoralization. Telling stories about what is working well ignites the imagination and inspires stakeholders to communicate hopeful visions for the future. People construct organizational realities together. Sharing stories about what your college looks like at its very best will encourage faculty and staff to engage in self-reflection and generate innovative, results-oriented ideas.

Appreciative inquiry does not ignore problems. Behind every problem is a desire for a different reality. Appreciative Inquiry gets at problems by focusing on what should be different, which inspires a positive image of the future that encourages present day actions. In other words, what can we do now to bring us closer to our desired future? Critical Appreciative Inquiry recognizes the impact of power and systemic discrimination in organizations. The dynamics of power and privilege in colleges often results in stakeholders from nondominant cultures and positions being excluded in conversations about the future directions of the institution. An inclusive process aims to ensure voices of all stakeholders are heard, to value the lived experiences of minoritized individuals and groups, and to create a compassionate environment for planning the direction of the college.

The steps of appreciative inquiry include the following:

1.       Choose the positive focus of the inquiry.
For instance, one library staff chose “best possible experience for patrons” as the focus for their strategic planning process.

2.       Inquire into exceptionally positive moments
Paired interviews provide faculty, staff, administrators, and students the opportunity to share stories that exemplify the college at its best. Through this process, employees discover the organization’s values, their contributions to the organization, and their wishes for the future.

3.       Identify themes
Once the interviews are conducted, employees engage in small groups to identify highlights and themes from the interviews. These data are collected and inform the collective vision for the preferred future.

4.       Create shared images of a preferred future
Small groups create images of their preferred future visually and with words. The words are written in present tense because it is grounded in what is already working.

5.       Design ways to create the desired future
The key question in the design phase is, “how are we going to make this preferred future happen?” This action plan for the future is concrete, outcomes based, and considers the resources needed to make the vision a reality.

Some colleges enthusiastically embrace the concept of appreciative inquiry and leverage it as a focal point of the planning process. Others embrace the methodology and tools but don’t call attention to the underlying theory. Regardless of the approach, implementing an inclusive process that highlights the organization’s strengths can result in a plan that can provide value for years to come.

Interested in learning more about appreciative inquiry? Check out these resources.

What is your experience with strengths-based approaches to strategic planning? Share with me at hello@drkimburns.com or on LinkedIn. You can also sign up for my newsletter.


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