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Deborah Grayson Riegel is the president of and Elevated Training. Her clients range from Jewish day schools, federations and synagogues to Fortune 100 companies and entrepreneurial start-ups. Deborah’s style combines her background in behavioral and cognitive psychology, adult learning, and improvisational comedy. She is a visiting professor of executive communication for the Beijing International MBA Program at Peking University, and writes the “Success without the Tsuris” column for the New York Jewish Week.

Deborah Grayson Riegel

Medieval Rabbi Yonah tells the story of an elderly sage who was walking along a path with his student when they passed a dog’s rotting corpse. The repulsed student yelled, “this corpse is disgusting!” His Rabbi answered, “but what lovely white teeth it has!”

I could use this Rabbi’s perspective every time a teacher at my kids’ Solomon Schechter school pulls me aside to say, “I wanted to tell you something about your child.” I instinctively brace myself for the bad news (sucking in my stomach, as if that would help), and I must admit, nine times out of ten, the news is delightful.

Every day in our schools and in our lives, we have the opportunity to choose our focus: do we concentrate on what’s distasteful, difficult, or what we want to eliminate – or do we focus on what’s working well, what’s delightful, or what we want more of? Do we expect the worst or do we expect the best? Traditional methods of dialogue, strategic planning or running meetings tend to lean into problem-solving around what’s broken (remember the “weaknesses” and “threats” from a typical SWOT analysis?). Appreciative Inquiry turns tradition on its end, by focusing people, teams and organizations on their positive qualities, leveraging those qualities to grow the group, the person or process, and is – at its most basic level – the study of what works well.

In my session at the North American Day School Conference, we used the challenge of day school affordability as our topic for an Appreciative Inquiry approach. Titled, “Shifting the Conversation from Cost to Value,” this session’s objective was to help school leaders shift their focus from the barrier (cost) to the opportunity (value).

With this goal in mind, started with the the Four D’s of Appreciative Inquiry:

  • Discovery: Appreciate the best of what is
  • Dream: Imagine what could be
  • Design: Determine what should be
  • Destiny: Create what will be

At the core of all of these is the “Affirmative Topic” – a positive, appreciative focus for the conversation that drives the process in the direction you want to go. Think about the difference between traditional topics like “Conflict Management” and “Overcoming Donor Objections” and affirmative topics like “Fostering Respectful Relationships” and “Delighting Our Donors”. Don’t the latter make you feel more positive and enthusiastic? Our topic was “Shifting the Conversation from Cost to Value of Jewish Day School Education”. With that in place, we took the topic through the 4 D’s.

Discover: Appreciate the best of what is

In their book, “Switch: How to Change things When Change is Hard,” authors Chip and Dan Heath call this approach “focusing on the bright spots”. Participants were asked to think about a time when they felt like day school education was truly valued, honored, supported and appreciated. What were the conditions that contributed to this? What were they doing? What were others doing? Answers included engaging in community-wide events, press coverage, at a holiday program for parents and grandparents, when the students won awards, and when graduates came back to share how their day school education had prepared them for their futures. While the answers were varied, the mood was uplifted.

Dream: Imagine what could be

Theodore Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But before we could “will” the shift in focus from cost to value, we had to dream it. I asked participants to think about this: “if you had three wishes for how people felt about Jewish day school education, what would they be?” Dreams included “a given”, “highly valued”, “competitive”, “inclusive”, “worth every penny”, “the investment of a lifetime”, “cutting edge” and many more. I used this opportunity to point out that this list of “dreams” allowed us to see what we didn’t have enough of (a sense of value, reputation as cutting edge, etc.) without having to focus on the weaknesses.

Design: Determine what should be

I asked participants to imagine that it is five years from today, and that they had just won a prestigious award for Jewish Day School Recruitment. They were asked to consider what they are celebrating and what they have accomplished, how they have transformed their school, their community and the world, what exists now that didn’t exist in 2011, and what other institutions are looking to learn from them. This gave the participants the change to think about certain “design elements” that might need changing, such as systems, structure, policies, processes, technology, leadership and brand – as well as what was working and should be continued.

Destiny: Create what will be

We saved the best for last. I broke the participants into two units, a “Heaven” group and a “Hell” group. The first group was asked to brainstorm on this: “Imagine you had no limitations of time or money to get people excited about day school education. What would you do?” The list included subsidizing Israel trips, developing staff on a regular basis, high-level recruitment of faculty, technological overhaul of the schools. The second group considered this challenge: “How could you guarantee that nobody wants to enroll in Jewish day school?” This list included focusing on cost (including raising tuition), defacing the schools, recruiting weak faculty, never investing in new technology, etc. Both groups offered a keen insight into what could be possible (even if scaled down to take time and money into consideration) as well as what “sins” they might already be committing that could be driving people away, such as unkempt property and poorly trained teachers.

At the end of the session, participants were excited on two levels: 1) They were energized by the new focus on what was possible rather than on what the problems were, and 2) They were eager to bring the Appreciative Inquiry methodology back to their classrooms and boardrooms to apply this process to a range of conversations.

If you would like more information on Appreciative Inquiry, or how to facilitate an A.I. process in your school for any topic that you have been “challenged” by, please email me at