Conference planning for a ‘Covert Appreciative Inquiry’

Conference planning for a ‘Covert Appreciative Inquiry’

In my last blog I took a rather irreverent (or maybe factual?) look at police conferences and their purpose. How for the most part they have a tendency to run by the same old rules and how generally, they serve only to impart knowledge, understanding and maybe consult to a lesser degree.


Conference delegates in Barnsley getting stuck into one of the workshops – can you spot who is from the service provider world and who is from community?


A couple of months ago I was presented with a conference challenge by Barnsley’s Community Safety Partnership’s (CSP) leadership team. They were concerned as to whether their next CSP Strategic Conference would provide a vehicle for the meaningful change that lay before them for the next few years.

On 15th January of this year 90 members of their CSP attended a community centre in Barnsley for a conference with a difference – one that was intended to be truly collaborative and where Appreciative Inquiry played a big part.


I’ve blogged previously about Appreciative Inquiry and how it can be utilised as a powerful problem solving resource within communities. For those of you who haven’t come across the concept yet, in summary, Appreciative Inquiry can also be a method of enabling organisational change which is, ‘conversation-based,’ as well as being based on, ‘an understanding of organisations as living human systems.’ (Lewis et al, 2011).

The texts on Appreciative Inquiry can be quite heavy going for those who might be more practically minded, with terms used such as, ‘inquiry into the positive core,’ ‘postmodernism and constructivist thinking’ as well as the typical cycle that is espoused for Appreciative Inquiry practitioners and facilitators to follow and explore (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005):

Discovery – Inquiry into the positive core

Dream – Images of a better world (or) strategic vision of the organisation serving society

Design – Crafting provocative propositions and organising principles

 Destiny – Acting to realise the dream in alignment with the principles

While I am a big believer in the use of academic theories and practitioner developed models as tools to enable change and solve problems, I don’t believe their overt use within the workplace is always of service for the stakeholders involved. I can still remember trying to explain a constructivist approach to formative evaluation called Fourth Generation Evaluation (Guba and Lincoln, 1989), its possible application within communities and the role of the ‘hermeneutic dialectic’ in that process to two of my sergeants back in 2006. They both were and still are dear friends, we went through many shared experiences on our journey to making our neighbourhood the safest place it could be, but no matter what respect they had for me as their inspector, their rolling eyes said it all, ‘don’t try to be clever in front of your peers Brendan, you sound like an idiot and no-one likes a sm**t ar*e.’

Since then I’ve utilised such theories in an almost covert way, maybe with a small mention of what the process is based on at an appropriate time for those who do warm to theories and models.

And so a concept for Barnsley’s CSP Strategic Conference was born, it would be a ‘Covert Appreciative Inquiry’ with the title, ‘Creating a Vision – the Future for the Partnership 2016-19.’

As well as doing what was on the side of the tin (Barnsley folk like plain speaking apparently) the conference would also serve as a means of checking the qualitative and quantitative data that would form part of the CSP’s statutory obligations in respect of their Joint Strategic Assessment.

The design, development and the delivery of the process was a fascinating journey where the best of Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development were weaved into a one day conference that was both meaningful for the CSP and of worth for Barnsley’s communities.

If I were to run another similar conference in the future, this is a brief outline of what it would look like:

Preparation phase:

As this model is not an off the shelf cliché of what most conferences look and feel like, those who are involved in the running and facilitation of it require consulting and briefing so that they can understand their role within the Appreciative Inquiry and what they will be enabling. This isn’t a difficult process as Appreciative Inquiry is at its core a mindset shift that appeals to most people’s inherent values (focusing on what is working, what is right and the future as opposed to backward looking at the causes of what is broken and wrong).

Planning ahead for delegates:

To ensure everyone has an equal voice all semblances of perceived power are dropped for the day. So, no uniforms, no lanyards with ID badges, just comfortable every day clothing. In this way delegates are encouraged to bring themselves to the table as a person with unique skills, ideas and knowledge as opposed to their role. Table places are allocated to ensure a good mix of community (yes, they are part of the CSP!) and service providers.

Welcome and introductions:

The Appreciative Inquiry facilitator starts the day off, but with no mention of their background – the facilitator’s role is exactly that, there’s no room for egos!

Start with a story unique to the theme, in the case of Barnsley I weaved a story around the Barnsley Experience (an excellent exhibit of the past and future at their Town hall) – within that story were deliberately placed questions that would help form part of the day’s narrative. This process allows the delegate’s minds to start reflecting at an almost unconscious level on the questions posed. The purpose of this is to set the scene so that they all feel like they are part of the ‘story,’ and to start the process of inquiry off.

Setting the scene:

Conference sponsors (who also sit on the tables as delegates) provide permission for the rest of the delegates to think in ways they would not normally expect at a conference. Again, this is done in a careful and congruent way.

Presentations – Key problems / challenges and the achievements to date in managing them.

Several presentations take place where successes in managing key problems and challenges are shared – as well as information giving this also helps frame the context. The presentations focus on the best of what has been and is by telling a story or account of success in their field. Importantly members of the community with their stories of how they have managed their community issues are also included in this group. The rules for the presentations: 5 minutes, which is timed by the audience, and only one PowerPoint slide (if you need one at all), with a preference for a photograph that helps to tell the story. By doing this the presenter of each chapter of the story is more likely to speak with passion about their subject than if recounting words and numbers from the screen.

Panel discussion:

Those running the presentations are joined by others who have something special to say about their respective themed areas and form a panel with the intention that the rest of the delegates can check their understanding or add to the developing narrative.

Refreshment break:

Icebreaker – For each delegate to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know and to share something about the themed subject or geographical area concerned that they are proud of (depending on the culture of the group there are other appreciative questions that can be asked).

Upon return from their break the delegates are invited to share any powerful examples of what they have discovered from the other person. Capture the examples through picture creation (you need an artist for this who can also tell the story of the day pictorially) or written form. Cluster into themes for facilitator to review and connect for delegates.

Second Icebreaker:

To continue this part of the Appreciative Inquiry journey (the Discovery phase) continue by finding another person you have not met before and asking a further appreciative question to find out more about their ‘gifts’ (using Asset Based Community Development language). Sometimes people find this difficult, as they are not used to talking positively about themselves – to support them there are a variety of short stories and metaphors the facilitator can place into the introduction for the exercise.

Repeat with the sharing of examples and clustering into themes for facilitator review and connections to be made on behalf of all the delegates.

In Appreciative Inquiry all of the above would be known as the ‘Discovery’ phase. The next part is for the delegates to engage in the ‘Dream’ phase.

A vision for 2020 (or any relevant time in the future):

This next stage is known as the ‘Dream’ phase as it is based on creating a future based on the best of what has been and is. The delegates have an opportunity to discuss and dream what their vision of 2020 would look like for their communities (or themed area) if all of their aspirations and wishes were possible. A phrase the facilitator can introduce to help with this process is to mention, ‘concrete wishes,’ as it helps the mind focus on something that is clear as opposed to some woolly concept.

People sometimes have difficulty with this, especially if they are from the service provider world of reduction targets. As an example from a recent covert Appreciative Inquiry I conducted, the group involved wanted a future where in their community there was a smaller % of children starting school with preventable behavioural problems than in the here and now.

In a world where we have become so accustomed to the negative and reduction targets such dreams for the future are hardly surprising. But when challenged with the question, ‘so does that mean in your aspirational future, it will still be acceptable for some children to start school with preventable behavioural problems as long as there are less of them than today?’ the delegate’s minds then start to think in a more aspirational way. With some further questioning this group, came up with, ‘in our vision for XXXXX all children will start school as well prepared educationally and behaviourally as they can be.’ An excellent positive proposition.

What was interesting to note in this example was how there was little passion demonstrated by the delegates with the ‘reduction target dream,’ but when faced with a vision of what could be that resonated with their core as parents and members of a community, a clear passion for this future was revealed by them.

This is the aim of the ‘Dream’ phase, to create an exciting and aspirational concrete vision of what could be based on the best of what has been and what is. The facilitator can support this process through checking in with each of the groups as they go through the exercise and by sharing more short stories and metaphors. For those who have been part of an Appreciative Inquiry with me you’ll know that time travel, starfish and babies feature in many of those stories (now work that set of metaphors out!).

It’s important that each group’s visions in the ‘Dream’ phase are captured for all to share – this can be done in a timely way by using a ‘hot debrief.’


For delegates to once again find someone they haven’t met before and share some of the detail of their group’s dream. For delegates to discuss how their respective visions could be made stronger. Consider use of ‘ideas board’ to capture any thoughts from lunch.

Return after lunch:

Now we have a strong and concrete vision for a positive future it’s time to move onto the ‘Design’ phase, or in plain English:

Organising for Change:

In this workshop the delegates are kept in their groups to ponder and discuss the challenges of how they will design and organise themselves for their future vision of what could be. In any change some or all of the people based structures that exist may not be suitable for the future, so what will be taken out, adapted or created? This is a chance for change to start taking shape from the grass roots and for those who have a part to play in the story to challenge the status quo.

I’ve found the following three questions, borrowed and adapted from the world of Asset Based Community Development (Russell, 2016), to be of use at this stage in any Appreciative Inquiry that involves community:

What is it that the community will be uniquely able to do without any help from service providers? 

What is it that the community will be able to do with some help from outside? The kind that doesn’t displace or overwhelm?

What will be left for the institutional / service provider world? What is it they must do on their own but in an accountable way?

Appreciative inquiry example

These three questions are equally powerful for both community members and service providers. At a recent Appreciative Inquiry event there was a dawning realisation from one service provider that for several years his team had been trying to solve problems that weren’t theirs to solve, and in doing so he had perpetuated a community culture of dependence on service providers. As he leant back in his chair and cathartically said, ‘we need to step back more,’ there were smiles of agreement from community members – a powerful moment in this stage of the Appreciative Inquiry cycle.

Again, all groups have the opportunity to feed into the developing narrative for the day. Once again, to save time the ‘hot debrief’ method can be used.

Once this stage is completed and the delegates have organised what they need to collectively do to achieve their vision there’s only one more stage left, the ‘Destiny’ phase or:

Delivering the Change:

In the final hour of the conference day delegates come together in their groups to discuss exactly what they will need to do to take the next steps to achieve their vision through the new and adapted structures designed in the last workshop. Momentum generating questions from the facilitator are important here, which could also include questions about measurement, ‘so how will you know when you have achieved this?’ This latter question is not about performance targets but is about ensuring there are some outcome measurements. To facilitate the onward journey there should also be consideration for further follow up Appreciative Inquiry sessions with smaller themed groups (with the right briefing these can be self run).

At this point you will hear the most satisfying part of an Appreciative Inquiry – the passion in delegate’s voices. It’s easy to have a passion for the future when you have created what your collective future will look like, as well as the plan for how you will get there and the connections that will enable and create the momentum for your success.

Close of conference:

At this point someone senior in the organisation can close the day by sharing their own powerful insights from the process (as they have been part of the journey also) and to provide permission for all present to make their vision a reality.

And unlike other conferences you will have been to, the biggest problem at this stage is getting people to leave!

Post conference debrief:

This style of conference will generate vast amounts of, ‘calls to action,’ from the delegates. Keeping that momentum going requires a debrief and sense making of all that took place to ensure it is valued and put into practice as part of a problem solving or organisational change process.

What next?

So, here’s your call to action. The next time you’re considering running a conference, just how meaningful and of worth do you want it to be as a demand-reducing problem solving resource? Will ‘Covert Appreciative Inquiry’ be part of your next chapter?


Lewis, S., Passmore, J., Cantore, S. (2011). Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management. London: Kogan Page, p7

Cooperrider, D and Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative Inquiry – A Positive Revolution in Change. Oakland, CA, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p30

Guba, E and Lincoln, Y. (1989) Fourth Generation Evaluation. USA: Sage

Russell, C (2015) ABCD Festival: Cormac Rusell Keynote Speech. Available at: [Accessed 20th Jan. 2016].



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