Bliss Browne had given up divinity school to work in an inner-city parish, but found so much resistance to her ministry that she moved to Chicago and chucked social service for corporate banking. She would later become one of the first female priests of the Episcopal Church and the very first to preach at Westminster Abbey in London.
But until she felt a change one morning in 1991, she had never done anything so extreme.
The moment came during a corporate strategy meeting at the Chicago bank where she had worked 16 years. "I just felt that my insides had been turned around," she recalls. "And I knew in that moment, for reasons I couldn't defend, that my own integrity depended on being God's friend
in this city.... It was simply a moment of knowing that was like swimming in a clear stream, where you don't know what's ahead but you know you can do no other."
After the meeting, she quit her job on the spot and began nearly a year of searching for direction. Although she knew nothing of it at the time, Ms. Browne was on her way to joining a collection of development efforts based on a thinking process called "appreciative inquiry."
Little known at the time, the movement has since notched success stories around the globe. It has transformed the mental atmosphere of American corporations, nonprofit groups, and poor rural villages. A core belief of the discipline: Instead of looking at what's wrong, people succeed most when they look for what's right.
"We have become so burdened in a deficit consciousness," says David Cooperrider, an organizational behaviorist at Case Western Reserve University and father of appreciative inquiry. "The root metaphor is that our world is a problem to be solved as opposed to the opposite metaphor ... that our world is home to infinite capacity." Appreciative inquiry taps infinite possibility.
If Browne seemed resolute the morning she quit her job, doubts began to creep in when she picked up her children from school that afternoon.
"They all got angry and shook their heads and talked to me like I was a child," Browne recalls. "The first comment was: 'Mom, if you want to be friends with the poor, that's fine.... But this decision isn't going to help the poor. There are going to be more poor, not less poor, because we're going to be poor.' "
Browne tried to reassure them with the story about teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish. "And they shook their heads and said: 'Mom, you are so naive. Do you know how many people have dedicated their life to changing the system? ... What makes you think you can make the difference?' The littlest one said to me: 'Mom, you are not Martin Luther King Jr.!' Here I am driving in the pouring rain, sobbing, listening to these children because they are such articulate voices of my own fear."
But there were enough positive signs to keep her going: a surprise call from the head of Bread for the World, a retreat that inspired her to think of her search as a pregnancy, and an unexpected severance package from the bank that lasted, interestingly, nine months. Even her husband provided an encouraging word at a key time.
So in 1992, she gathered 20 educators, corporate executives, organizers, and other community leaders to design a project she called Imagine Chicago. The idea: get youngsters from all over the city to interview high-level community leaders about their positive experiences improving their city. What Bliss was trying to do was getcivic leaders dreaming about the future of their city. And the best way to do that, she found, was by having those with most of a stake in the future(disadvantaged youth) interview them. The project inspired team members to tell Browne about appreciative inquiry. Browne, thrilled to find an academic who was exploring similar unorthodox ideas, contacted Cooperrider.
Cooperrider, too, had had a moment of clarity in Hiroshima, Japan, as he listened to stories of survivors of the atomic bomb. "It was almost like an atomic bomb went off inside of me," he remembers. "The feeling that came over me was the preciousness of life on this planet. The question that was being born in me was: What was there in human relations that would be as positive in our lives as the atomic bomb was negative?"
It would take another 11 years before that inspiration turned into a doctoral dissertation. By 1992, Cooperrider was eager to find success stories for his theories. Imagine Chicago - especially its use of poor youth to interview top community and corporate leaders about what was good in their community - piqued his interest and he began to publicize it.
Appreciative inquiry began to draw more attention in the mid-1990s because of some high-profile turnarounds. When Avon Corporation of Mexico heard about a particular appreciative-inquiry program, it started its own massive effort. The company let 100 of its employees get training in appreciative-inquiry interviewing. They interviewed some 300 coworkers and trained others to interview. The effort mushroomed. Workers began sharing their success stories of cross-gender collaboration. As a result, Avon began asking men and women to co-chair teams and task forces, the executive committee admitted its first woman, and in 1997, a working-women's issues group called Catalyst named Avon Mexico the nation's best place for women to work.
About the same time, GTE Telops (the bulk of all GTE's employees) began an appreciative inquiry process that bolstered morale, improved union-management relations, and improved quality. In 1997, GTE won an organization-change award from the American Society for Training and Development.
Proponents began to carry the idea into settings beyond corporations. Malcolm Odell, for example, was shocked to return to Nepal in 1994. Compared to his days there in the 1970s, the rural villagers had gained schools, roads, electricity, and were part of ongoing participatory development. But they seemed far less self-confident and more dependent than Mr. Odell remembered.
His employer, the Mountain Institute, had used appreciative inquiry to help the staff. Mr. Odell decided to quit his job and spend a year visiting villages and adapting appreciative inquiry to help villagers. The idea caught on like wildfire.
One village decided to build a new high school on its own, and raised 10,000 rupees from its own people on the spot. In another, women formed a weaving club that, indirectly, led to more than a 500 percent boost in sales over four years. The business annually grosses more than 1 million rupees ($15,000) in a country where rural per capita incomes are less than $100.
"If you look for problems, you find more problems," Odell says. "If you look for success, you create more success - and that's the breakthrough."
Back in Chicago, Browne has now moved to bigger offices and used Imagine Chicago to spawn several innovative programs among the city's poor. For example, to rejuvenate inner-city teachers, she holds quarterly retreats at the Chicago Botanical Garden, using appreciative inquiry. It trains emerging grassroots leaders by offering them a $500 grant to implement a community improvement project, but only if they can offer a concrete plan and recruit at least six other volunteers to help.
Imagine Chicago is also working with parents at eight Chicago public schools, trying to foster a culture of learning at home. So parents visit the Field Museum of Natural History and learn about food by first sharing their stories about the dishes they grew up with and who in the family ate together.
"Rather than saying: 'You should have an open mind, you should read to your children, you should know about this, you should eat right,' what we were doing was bringing to consciousness the many things that they know and connecting them to things they could learn," Browne says. "It is indescribably satisfying to watch these parents come alive." Last year, the program challenged them to start a savings account and put away $50 a month. If they did that and attended a certain number of workshops, at the end of the year the program would match the parents' contribution and use the money to buy their children a computer. More than 70 parents followed through.
"I was looking for any way to help me help my children learn," says Trenette Smith, who completed the program and got a new computer. Since then, her 12-year-old daughter is asking more questions and is more serious about her education, Ms. Smith reports.
"If we can help people recognize that who they are and the gifts they're given and what they're prepared to take ownership for matters ... then maybe it becomes important for people to be citizens, it becomes important for parents to be parents," Browne says. "You can reinstill in life an exalted sense of the individual and their vocation, whatever that is."