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Appreciative Inquiry and Strategic Planning at a Children's Museum

Interview with
Lenette Freeman ,
Executive Director
Muncie Children's Museum
Conducted by John Steinbach

Muncie Children’s Museum (MCM) used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to strategic planning from summer of 2001 until early 2002. During the process, MCM board, staff, and volunteers interviewed dozens of visitors to the museum, staff members, community leaders, young people, and funders to find what people valued about the museum, strengths to build on, and hopes for the future.

By the end of the process, MCM had a plan and a new look with restructured committees that were formed according to areas where board members had passion and felt they could contribute.

Q: When you look back at your experience using Appreciative Inquiry as an approach to planning, what are some of the highlights about the process? In what ways did you find the process different from other planning methods?
Lenette: We focused on the positive at a time when it didn’t feel like we should. The idea that some problems would go away if we turned our energy toward the positive was hard to accept, but that’s the way it turned out. It’s not that all the problems went away, we just changed our focus to what we were good at and excited about and didn’t dwell on issues that tended to bring us down.

Interviewing lots of different people gave us many perspectives on our positive attributes. It wasn’t just the director saying how good we are or a programming person talking about a wonderful thing that happened on the floor. Instead, we got many aspects of the positive. A board member might talk about the economic impact of the museum or a business owner about how important we are to downtown. Those were things we never talked about.

Going out and interviewing lots of people also helped us see how little people knew about MCM. It was clear we needed to get our message out better and that became an important part of our plan, new board structure, and efforts to recruit new board members.

The Appreciative Inquiry approach presented a challenge of overcoming the experience of people who had done a lot of SWOT analysis planning. There was a lot of resistance to a different way and it was hard to get them out of their old box. Once they got out of the box of focusing on completing a plan, the process allowed them to dream about the organization.

To get our plan moving, we invited people to sit on committees where they had passion instead of the traditional “accountants on finance.” We asked, “Where can you contribute?” Now people know they can say where they have passion and be listened to and that has made a big difference in the energy on the board.

Q: Using AI as a planning tool often leads to positive developments within an organization beyond the formal plan. In what ways did you see AI have a positive impact on your organization?
Lenette: We developed an ability to see the positive in other circumstances and in other places way beyond the planning process. We have a greater ability to concentrate on what is important. Sometimes we can get bogged down on complaining. When we start looking at what we are doing, we can move past all that complaining. Instead of focusing on the audiences we are missing, we concentrate on who we are reaching and how to do that best. We can still try to reach new audiences, but appreciating who we are reaching now and what we are doing for them reminds us of the good we are doing.

Once people started to act on positives and move in a positive direction, they saw other areas to impact. Movement was a big thing. Any movement, large or small, has been important. We were asking, “What can we do today?” Starting small helped us get going. We’ve kept working on big and little stuff at the same.

We used to have lots of petty little problems that we focused on. After AI, they didn’t go away - we just didn’t focus on them and give them our energy.

When we reformed committees around where people had passion, it made a real difference. People were freed up from serving on finance just because they were an accountant and were now able to serve where they had passion. Now people know that and pick committees according to what they care about and where they feel they can contribute.

Some very specific things happened; like our planned giving got going. We had talked about planned giving for years, but hadn’t really made progress. I think the positive stories we heard in the AI process gave us the confidence and energy to move forward. A few months after the AI process, we had a celebration to honor our first group of planned-giving donors.

In the museum, AI created an environment where people didn’t hate coming to work. It was draining before. We had so many challenges, they just seemed overwhelming. People got excited with the AI process and started focusing on what we were doing right and possibilities. Working around excited people is stimulating and energizing.

Q: The AI perspective is a wonderful way to work with young people. How has AI influenced your programs and how you interact with young people?
Lenette: The Mayor’s Youth Council is an example. They were a newly formed group struggling with process. And they were working on a really big process with lots of people. When things went bad, they started to attack each other. We used AI to help them see what they have done rather than look at the overwhelming task ahead. AI gave them confidence to move forward.

We all want to climb to the mountain top and if we stop half way up to look, the view is good. Now we stop more and look at the view. I try to use that perspective with all ages.

Q: What did you value most about the AI process?
Lenette: Realizing we were the ones who could make positive change. Before it all seemed overwhelming. By going through AI, we see all the accomplishments and can keep going. We’re already at mile 20 in the marathon.

Q: How did AI influence you as an individual? In what ways have you seen your leadership style change as a result of AI?
Lennette: It gave me a positive perspective and rejuvenated me as a leader. It reminded me how much results are tied to attitude. Some of our problems weren’t about people not knowing how to do the work, but about being overwhelmed facing obstacles. Now I focus more on helping shape an environment where they can feel motivated.

Q: When you think of AI being used with young people and youth-serving organizations, what are some of your hopes for the future? How do you see AI having a major positive impact on youth work and youth serving-agencies?
Lenette: The way we view young people in general. If we ask “What do you value about young people?” people have lots of responses about energy, passion, and optimism. If we then ask how these qualities might help and is there a role in your organization, we can help the community value youth. We can use AI in youth work in general as a way to approach youth and adult relationships. Instead of stereotypes about each other, we could focus more on what we value about each other. We need to see the values in each other. We have something going on right now with a Veterans History Project that really helps young people value veterans and veterans value young people. We can do a lot more of those types of things to help youth value adults of all ages and adults, and the whole community to value youth. Related topics.

"I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience."
- Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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