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.

    Contact the Author



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