Using Appreciative Inquiry as a Means to Setting Organizational Goals: Working with the Virginia Mediation Network

As a consultant, I am often requested by organizations to help with strategic planning and looking for ways to advance a group’s objectives. Though various strategies can be used, I tend to use Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as the process of choice. Based on the work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva, AI is focused on utilizing an organization’s “positive core” values and attributes to deal with change and moving forward. A basic primer on AI is here.

VMN board members

I was asked by the Virginia Mediation Network (VMN) – the statewide association of mediators – to assist in developing a strategic plan that would assist the organization in the face of new challenges and opportunities for the conflict resolution community in Virginia.

In advance of the meeting, I asked the attendees to complete a short survey using SurveyMonkey about the issues, challenges, and opportunities facing VMN.

A strategic planning session was scheduled for the VMN board and leadership on Saturday, May 4, 2019 in Richmond. It was held at the offices of CMG Foundation, a Richmond-based community mediation organization. My overall goal was to assist VMN in coming up with a plan of action that would respond to change. At the end of consultancy, I provided VMN with a report of the session and my recommendations. Though the exact nature of the discussion and report cannot be shared, I can provide a picture of how I used AI in this instance.

4-D method of AI

I started the day by asking attendees to set their own expectations for the day. Post-its are good for this. On a post-it one expectation was provided. I then helped sort them into various groups including the “future of mediation,” “policy/practice,” and “outreach.” This was then followed with considering intentions for the day. I asked participants to close their eyes, and consider two intentions: one was to be open, present and allow for creativity, and the second would be personal to each individual. In this way, I brought the focus to the work of the day, and encouraged all to disengage from the outside (I asked participants to stay off their devices except for breaks).

I then talked about storytelling. Increasingly, we are finding in the peacebuilding field that storytelling is an effective and genuine means to sharing one’s experiences. Many mediators encourage storytelling, and it can be used well in AI. A story includes an intriguing beginning, a riveting middle and a satisfying end. This piece is a good primer on storytelling (though in the context of job interview). In an activity I called “The Best Thing” I then asked each to share with a partner in 90 seconds a story about the best thing that happened to them in the past week, personally or professionally.

We then moved to talking about AI. I used the 4-D approach consisting of discovery, dream, design, and destiny (or delivery). Ideally, this method is optimized if it can be used over a longer period of time, for instance, several sessions over several days. I offered some background on AI and show a short video by John Hayes of Aarhus University.


In discovery I asked attendees in groups to consider questions. Here were some of them:

• In what ways do you want to grow as a mediator and member of VMN?
• What are the core factors that make VMN function at its best, when it feels
a great place to be in and without which it would cease to exist?
• What is something that you are excited about sharing with individuals new to mediation?
• What are 2 important strengths of VMN membership and being on the board?
• What is one thing you are proud that of that VMN has accomplished in the
last 1-2 years?
• Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself, your work,
and VMN?
• Why is being a mediator so important today?
• What can you continue doing to keep amplifying the good at VMN?

Then as a group, I asked them to: Share a story of when VMN made a difference in the life of a mediator, a client, or the general public?

We then spent time reporting out the answers from the group and considering their implications.


In dream, we worked collectively to discuss some of the following questions:

• It is now 2029 and you are sitting in this same space. What are mediators
seeking in VMN membership?

• It is now 2019 and you are sitting in this same space. Describe the
demographics of VMN membership.

• It is now 2029 and you are sitting in this same space. What does the
practice of mediation look like?


During lunch, I asked each participant to pair up and share questions taken from an article that Susan Raines from Kennesaw State University wrote for Conflict Resolution Quarterly. These questions focused on how one personally views their work. I wanted the group to not only think about VMN but also have same space consider their own work and practice. The article can be found here. These were the questions:

• How has your work changed others and changed you, if at all?
• What do you like best about your work?
• What is the hardest part of your job?
• Why do you do this work?
• What coping strategies or other advice do you have for those who do work
like yours?
• What advice do you have for others who choose to pursue a career in
conflict resolution or peace work?

After lunch, I shared with the group the results of the survey, which also provided some expectations on how VMN might respond to the future. I also encouraged the leadership to seek out other like organizations that are facing challenges including the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution, the comparable Maryland mediator’s group.


For design, I asked each individual to come up with a request, an offer, and a commitment. A request is something perceived as a need for VMN. An offer is gift that someone can make: time, money, resources, etc. And a commitment is something a participant is willing to do to benefit the effort. They don’t need to align with each other (that is, requests matching commitments), but collectively they allowed us to see how we might structure an effort to seek specific goals.

VMN board members


In the final stage – destiny – the group was asked to think in terms of priorities, needs, and resources in achieving some of the expectations set. This often requires looking at timelines; work plans; and changes in policy, personal, and procedure/policy. Here, we spent time in the nitty gritty of details of where VMN might implement its plan.

In the written recommendations that I provided a few days later, I captured all the ideas from the group (during the session we rotated note taking). I made three categories of recommendations: short term, medium term, and long term. After each recommendation, I gave my own suggestions of the best means to taking it forward.

VMN leadership

The planning session took about eight hours (9-5), including time for lunch. Ideally, more time would have allowed for a deeper consideration. However, even in a one day event, ideas can be uncovered that offer a positive future for a group based on the strengths and assets already present.


Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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