Appreciative Inquiry & Open Spaces

When you issue an open invitation and gather together a large group of self-nominated passionate stakeholders from a broad cross-section across a system or organization and ask them to vision your shared ideal future, anything can happen.

Truly, Anything.  I discovered how powerful an experience this can be last spring when I chaired the  committee that organized the “Make a Positive Impact” event for our District.  We used an “Appreciative Inquiry” approach to the event and our format was based on “Open Spaces”, which resonates strongly with the current “unconference” format for large, participant-driven gatherings.

Appreciative Inquiry

“Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strength-based, capacity building approach to transforming human systems toward a shared image of their most positive potential by first discovering the very best in their shared experience.  It is not about implementing a change to get somewhere; it is about changing … convening, conversing, and relating with each other in order to tap into the natural capacity for cooperation and change that is in every system.”
–Barrett and Fry, “Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity”

There are 5 key characteristics of Appreciative Inquiry, as outlined below:

  • Every organization, group or system has strengths. Appreciative Inquiry aims to discover and celebrate those strengths. Participants in appreciative inquiry are asked to search out the practices and potential that enable the organization or system to be at it’s best.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is an artful search. It aims to uncover the best of what we do and to create the conditions under which the very best can be shared and nurtured across the organization or system.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is collaborative. Appreciative Inquiry asks participants to be open to learning together. Through this approach, participants work together to spread the seeds of best practices across the organization or system.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is inclusive. It invites participants from across the organization – from every corner – to become involved in discovering and articulating the potential already present within the organization or system.
  • Appreciative Inquiry is productive. It aims to create the conditions in which stakeholders can come together to redefine the culture of the organization or system. (Barrett and Fry)

Begin with the Question:

Appreciative Inquiry starts with a carefully worded question.  For our “Make a Positive Impact Event”, we decided to ask,

“What are the conditions in which creativity and innovation can flourish within the District?”

Articulating a question that focuses on positives, we cue participants to focus on productive, positive outcomes.  The act of asking the question is an integral part of the process.  According to Barrett and Fry, “inquiry is intervention.  The seeds of change are planted with the very first questions we ask.”  We asked participants to focus on discovering and discussing the positives in order to draw them in, to secure collective commitment to pursuing the shared and co-created vision for our future.

An Appreciative Inquiry can happen in a number of ways.  We performed ours through a bus tour, where we sent 80 individuals — parents, teachers, custodians, Educational Assistants, Principals, Trustees, Office Administrators, Librarians, etc… — to visit a number os sites across our District.  Participants were in 6 groups, with each group visiting 3 or 4 schools or sites over the course of a day.  We then came together for an Open Spaces meeting to discuss what we had discovered.  Appreciative Inquiry can be done as part of a staff meeting, a school council meeting or to wrap up a conference.

Building Cooperative Capacity Through a Co-Constructed Vision

“The experience of doing an Appreciative Inquiry with multiple stakeholders of the same system creates both positive affect and relational “knowing” that reveals shared, co-constructed realities; these social constructions in the form of provocative propositions or aspiration statements then attract participants to find new ways to work together for a common purpose or dream.  Their cooperative capacity — their conversational skills and imaginative potential — is ignited and transformed.”  Barrett and Fry

Sir Ken Robinson (back row 5 from left) with Make a Positive Impact participants

Following our “Make a Positive Impact Event”, we had an incredible opportunity present itself.  Sir Ken Robinson, who was in Ottawa to keynote our Spring Leadership Conference, agreed to come and spend the morning with our participants.  We gathered as many of our participants as could make it on short notice.  Sir Ken spent time with us as we revisited the positives that we had discovered and discussed through our Appreciative Inquiry.  He then led us in a brief visioning session in which we identified several key practices that foster creativity and innovation in learning across our District.  They included the following:

  • Making our schools welcoming to parents so that they may become more meaningfully involved in the education of their children.  Be sensitive and inclusive.  Consider babysitting, translation, timing and dietary needs for in-school events.  Use a broad selection of communication methods to get information to parents.  Don’t underestimate the value in parents knowing their Principal’s voice – through the use of blogging or the synervoice call out system for announcements.  Survey parents to find out what their strengths and interests are so that you can invite them to share their talents and interests with students.
  • Use technology to facilitate greater collaboration.  Web 2.0 tools, such as google docs, blogging, skype and others can be used in the classroom to expand learning opportunities for students.  Students need more learning experiences that encourage them to engage with each other and co-construct knowledge.
  • Celebrating the talents and interests of students and staff.  Provide opportunities for all individuals in the system to explore, share and harness their passion.  Instructional practices that encourage students to take risks and take leaps in their learning uncover abilities and interests.  All members of the school community have something unique to share and inviting this in will make the learning experiences richer.

Open Spaces

Participants post their conversation topics to a wall

To wrap up our Appreciative Inquiry, we used an “Open Spaces” meeting format.  Open Spaces is akin to the “unconference” model and the idea is said to have originated in response to the notion that for many of us, the most memorable moments of a conference take place through the “coffee break” interactions on the fringe of the main event.  It is through small group or one to one conversations that we consolidate and contextualize our new learning, within our own stories and experiences.

There are five key characteristics of Open Spaces events, as outlined in the Wikipedia article:

  • a broad, open invitation that articulates the purpose of the meeting;
  • participant chairs arranged in a circle;
  • a “bulletin board” of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
  • a “marketplace” with many breakout spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they “shop” for information and ideas;
  • a “breathing” or “pulsation” pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions.
  • Participants grouped for discussions

    At the “Make a Positive Impact” Open Spaces wrap up session, participants brought forward ideas stemming from the Appreciative Inquiry.  Each person wrote their idea for a conversation on a sticky note and posted it on the wall.  Next we grouped similar topics and formed our break-out sessions based on the grouped topics.  The individuals who suggested the topics chaired the break out session and someone in each group took notes for reporting purposes.  Honouring participants within an open setting disrupts the traditional hierarchical models around which organizations and systems are typically structured.

    Because participants in an Open Spaces event are encouraged to wander from conversation to conversation, there is ample opportunity for cross-polination of ideas.  This is very much in keeping with the spirit of the “coffee break” where we self-select the conversations in which we participate.

    Barrett and Fry remind us that within these structures, “most members rely on a select few “experts,” waiting for direction or answers, rather than asking their own questions or proposing their own initiatives.” (Barrett and Fry)  When diverse members from all divisions of an organization or system drive the agenda, they will step up and take responsibility for their ideas — a culture of distributed and shared leadership is born.


    Barret, Frank J. and Ronald E. Fry.  “Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.”  Taos Institute: Ohio, 2005.


    1. What a magnificent way to focus an educational community on building cooperative capacity! I am intrigued by the possibilities for appreciative inquiry in my own school and plan to share your words with my colleagues in order to dream and plan together about the potential for our school. I also plan to read Barret and Fry’s book. Please do consider posting updates on your district’s progress. I’d love to learn more from your experience!

      March 13, 2011
      • Shannon said:

        Hi Shira,

        I would gladly share more about what we did with the Appreciative Inquiry. You can get in touch via email at shannon.smith(AT)


        March 13, 2011
    2. Jack Hill said:

      Appreciative Inquiry:

      The basic idea is to build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t.

      Organization development (OD) is a concept, organization-wide effort to increase an organization’s effectiveness and viability.

      The basic philosophy is also found in other positively oriented approaches to individual change as well as organizational change.

      Appreciative, Applicable, Provocative, Collaborative

      I want to learn more. Great ideas – community building.

      March 13, 2011
      • Shannon said:

        Would love to chat about AI anytime, Jack – you can DM me on twitter or email as above.


        March 13, 2011

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