Think positively

“If I could ask one thing in any situationÉit would not be
‘what’s wrong and what will fix it?’ but ‘what’s possible here and
who cares?'”(1)

Picture a failing social services department. Employees are
demoralised and weary; morale is low. Staff are leaving; those
remaining feel undervalued and isolated from the department, from
colleagues and from the service users. The outside pressures to
improve services threaten and divide.

Now imagine walking into this department a year later and
discovering a complete turnaround where resignation and defeat has
been transformed into communication, learning, commitment,
responsibility, partnership and accomplishment.

This is what happened in a Head Start pre-school programme in
Denver, US. Head Start aims to foster healthy development in
children from low income families through services to encompass
each child’s development and learning.

Nine months after turning to appreciative inquiry (AI), the
programme had startlingly positive results and there was new hope
for the service as staff enthusiasm grew.

Could this method do the same for social services in the UK?
Certainly, policymakers, regulators, managers and practitioners
could take a new look at how to improve the performance of

AI is a strengths-based approach to creating positive change for
organisations and individuals. It engages people with what already
works well in their situation and helps them to build on this for
the future. Service users, staff, councillors and partners are
invited to recall the times when their organisation was at its
best. Working together, they turn their understanding of this into
a shared plan or vision for the future.

This approach challenges traditional problem-solving methods
that “fill the organisation with stories, understandings and rich
vocabularies of why things fail”.(2)

Focusing on problems draws attention to breakdown rather than
the strengths of the system. It encourages a blame culture and
creates an emphasis on looking good rather than being good. As
Cooperrider observes: “A compulsive concern with what’s not
working, why things go wrong and who didn’t do his or her job
demoralises members of the organisation, reduces the speed of
learning, and undermines relationships and forward

Is this familiar to departments preoccupied with performance
assessment and star ratings?

AI invites us to understand the impact of labelling performance
and how we handle interventions. Building on acknowledged strengths
creates enthusiasm and commitment, and change becomes

Anne Radford describes AI as “the art and practice of asking
questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to discover and
develop its potential”.(4) AI follows five distinct stages within
this framework:

  • Definition – decide what to learn/inquire about.
  • Discovery – explore, inquire.
  • Dream/imagine – picture what may be possible; create shared
    images for a preferred future.
  • Design – find innovative ways to create that future.
  • Delivery – sustaining the change.

It can be used with whole organisations, partnerships, teams or
individuals.(5) Methods vary according to the size of the inquiry.
Everyone might work through the process together over two to four
days. In large inquiries, interviews are carried out across the
organisation over several weeks before bringing together the
findings for further work.

A social services team might decide to inquire into its
performance. Having defined what they wish to change, team members
use specifically worded interviews to discover and explore their
strengths and resources. They talk about the times when they are at
their best, saying what they value about the team and identifying

They then work together to understand the features of these
times, and how the team would look if these things were always
present. They create images and statements to describe this scene
succinctly. In the design stage they look closely at what needs to
change to make this happen, including personal offers and
commitments to specific actions.

On a larger scale, an “improving” authority might arrange for
its staff to interview each other about times when the authority
was at its best. This might be done by everyone or by
representatives of the whole organisation. Hundreds of staff can be
asked what they think works best in their authority.

The design stage leads to concrete action plans for improving
the organisation in specific ways and further inquiries will
stimulate momentum.

In both examples, the process is participative, creative and
focuses on increasing best performance. This approach immediately
affects the way performance is described and addressed. For

  • The language of “failure” is rejected. Strengths of the people
    and the organisation are highlighted and celebrated.
  • Interventions are mutual; facilitators work collaboratively
    with the whole system, including service users, councillors and the
    staff who will achieve the organisation’s recovery.
  • Participants develop a shared view of the changes needed to
    improve their organisation. Specific actions are developed for real
    situations. Everyone is involved in and committed to the
    organisation’s recovery.
  • Energy and enthusiasm for change are created, together with
    commitment to take forward the changes in practical ways. Changes
    achieved under these circumstances are more likely to be

The success in Head Start has many parallels for services here.
More public and private sector organisations have used AI to engage
staff, service users and the public in creating positive change. UK
examples include work by Hampshire social services in creating and
implementing integrated mental health services; and evaluating the
impact of including lay people in inspections by the National Care
Standards Commission, now the Commission for Social Care

The UK star rating system publicly labels failure. Our
preoccupation with performance targets inevitably focuses attention
on to gaps and problems. Turning this on its head is a challenge.
Appreciative inquiry can give our beleaguered organisations
positive hope for the future.

Imagine what it would be like if people in social services were
talking not about problems and failings but about their
achievements, the things that have gone well. Imagine turning this
into exceptional social services. 

Julie Barnes is an independent practitioner with 20 years’
experience working in Surrey and West Sussex social service
departments and for the Social Services Inspectorate. She is a
qualified personal counsellor and works with groups and
organisations to facilitate learning and change using appreciative


This article invites social care managers and practitioners to
look differently at how we improve social services. Appreciative
inquiry is a way of managing change positively and creatively. It
is a collaborative method for people who care about their services
to explore what works best and to use what they learn to move in
new directions. Applicable to staff and work with service users, it
offers an alternative way to improve services.


  1. M Weisbord, Productive Workplaces: Organising and Managing for
    Dignity, Meaning, and Community, Jossey-Bass, 1987
  2. D Cooperrider et al, Appreciative Inquiry: An Emerging
    Direction For Organisation Development, Stipes Publishing,
  3. ibid
  4. A Radford, AI consulting website
  5. J M Watkins, B J Mohr, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the
    Speed of Imagination, Jossey-Bass, 2001

Further Information

  • For more information on the UK examples of AI mentioned in this
    feature go to Anne Radford’s AI consulting website She compiled the summary document
    Strength-based Approaches to Change and Transformation in Health
    and Social Care Services.

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