Inspire Foundation: Appreciative Inquiry Summit

By Lisa Doig  |  May 1, 2018

ReachOut (Formally Inspire Foundation) is an Australian non-profit organisation delivering innovative online programs that prevent youth suicide and improve the mental health of wellbeing of young people. Its unique niche is combining the power of technology with the direct involvement of young people. Since its inception in 1997, youth suicide rates have declined by 46%. Last year alone, its flagship service- attracted 1.3 million visits, engaging an estimated 267,000 young Australians in improved outcomes. 

“The Summit aligned Inspire in a way that can only be described as transformative.”

-Kerry Graham, CEO

In February 2007, Inspire Foundation conducted a three day Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) Summit, with 130 participants, to develop a 4-year strategic plan. The benefits of taking an Ai approach generated significant outcomes for the organisation:

  • Cost and time savings: reduction in strategy development from 3-6 months to 3 days
  • Whole system alignment to new direction – employees, customers (young people), government, technology and research partners, Board Members and Supporters and Donors - in 3 days!
  • Creativity and innovation unleashed – by tapping into the dreams and ideas of the whole system, a desired future emerged (which could not have been surfaced through rational analysis)
  • Leadership thinking transformed – by listening and experiencing the whole system, the leadership team shifted their thinking from an inwardly focused organisation to a new reality where all stakeholders are involved in its future through “communities”
  • Tangible wins: Cultural transformation to an organisation focused on results and facilitating a community to increase our reach and impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing; immediate donations/grant of $250,000 and 1 year on, improved grants of $1million per year.

This paper follows the development, delivery and post Summit analysis one year on, through the following steps: 

Step 1: Defining the Goals

Step 2: Engage the Organisation in the Planning
Step 3: Summit Activities and Outcomes
Assessment – One Year On

Step 1: Defining the goals of the summit

Planning for the Summit began in September 2007. Corporate Evolution, a leadership and strategy consultancy specialising in Appreciative Inquiry, was engaged to conduct an Ai Summit.

  • The CEO’s objectives were to:
  • Create a Strategic Plan, including a review of the Mission, a 2020 Vision, 2012 Goals and Initiatives;
  • Achieve a ‘One Inspire’ focus (instead of each program unit working separately);
  • Support the leadership transition from Jack Heath, the icon Founder, to Kerry Graham, the new CEO;
  • Create organisational confidence and skill in asking critical questions; and
  • Affirmation of Inspire values.

The first step was to conduct a diagnostic review of the key issues facing the organisation. The purpose of the diagnostics was to define the “Ai Topic of Inquiry” which would then inform the design of the Summit. We conducted:

  • Deep structured interviews of the Executive Team, Founder, and Chairman of the Board
  • Values Survey (Corporate Transformation Tools) comparing personal values, to current culture and desired culture values
  • Current and historical business analyses 

The key issues that surfaced - which then became the Topics of Inquiry - were: 

  1. Innovation: As we grow, how do we maintain our entrepreneurial spirit and continue to innovate? 
  2. Infrastructure for Growth: How do we create the organisation (people, systems and processes) that will best enable us to grow? 
  3. Sustainable Resourcing: What is the sustainable model for resourcing this growth? 

We set up a Steering Committee to guide the high level design of the Summit and a Planning Committee, responsible for the day-to-day implementation of project tasks. Importantly, the Steering Committee represented the “whole system” – the CEO, a Board Member, two people from the Executive Team, two young people, and two Supporters.

After robust discussion with the Committees of the diagnostics results, we collectively agreed the Topic of Inquiry for the Summit:

“Propelling Inspire into an Innovative and Sustainable Future”

Critical Success Factor: 

  • Make sure the Steering Committee represents the “whole system”
  • CEO must be highly engaged. Build into the planning stages time to engage the Executive Team in this process
  • Take the time to get the Topic of Inquiry right – it must engage and excite the organisation

Step 2: Engage the Organisation in the Planning

The activities for the next eight weeks included preparing the organisation for the Summit. The way this was approached was an in intervention in itself. It was all done through an “appreciative eye”, valuing and being inclusive of the whole organisation from CEO to frontline and in all discussions with their stakeholders. 

1. Current and Future Trends Research
Research champions led teams on researching and interviewing local and global experts in the areas of technology, young people, youth participation, social branding and social marketing, resource generation, systems and infrastructure. 

  • Teams were briefed on how to conduct Appreciative Interviews. The outcomes of each research team were to produce for the Summit: • 
  • A paper on their research findings which would comprise some of the pre-reading for Summit participants • 
  • Posters and displays that visually represented their findings. This would be presented in the “gallery walk” at the Summit 

We received many comments from the research team saying how uplifting the interviews were with the appreciative questions and they derived more useful information than they would have done through traditional questions. “We were really able to connect with people and establish a common ground. The interviews elicited great content and were ‘feel good’ too. Many of those interviewed went on to accept our invitation to attend the Summit or – later – join the Inspire Community” – Kerry Graham, CEO. 

Values Survey Outcomes: One of the greatest strengths of Inspire is they are a highly values-driven culture. As Inspire moves to its next level of growth, we wanted to check how well people were aligned with the values and, most importantly for the strategic plan, whether there were any gaps or blind spots that would impact performance and health of the organisation in the future. 

Using the Values Centre’s “Corporate Transformation Tools” value survey we saw that the organisation was highly aligned with its values; yet there was a calling for new values in the desired culture around balance, continuous improvement, vision and accountability. The survey also alerted the organisation to stay grounded in solid business practices (levels 1-3: financial stability, relationships and best practice) as they moved to their aspirational levels of fulfilling their vision (levels 4-7).

We debriefed the whole organisation of the values survey results and started dialogue about its meaning and impact for the future. There was cause for celebration around how aligned employees were between their personal values and current culture values. It was also timely to learn what values they desired for the future and what would be required of the organisation. In the lead up to the Summit, large posters were placed around the Inspire office with each desired value – balance, continuous improvement, vision and accountability for people to scribble what behaviours they would like to “start, stop, and keep” to begin to integrate these new values. 

We integrated the outcomes of the values survey into the design of the Summit from beginning to end. Once the strategic plan was completed post-summit, the organisation reviewed the values once again to check whether their current values and behaviour descriptions need to be modified. With this input, the organisation was in a strong position to go on and build systems and processes which reflected those values and behaviours and were welcomed and adopted. 

2. Strategic Planning Model
For the Design and Delivery part of the Summit, we partnered with Duncan Peppercorn, Head of Consulting for Social Ventures Australia, an Inspire Supporter, to lead the framework for the strategic planning model. Coming from a McKinsey and Bain background, Duncan assisted us in developing an innovative approach to the design phase, moving from an aspirational 2020 vision to tangible 2012 goals, realisable initiatives and action plans. 

3. Invitation List of key Stakeholders 
Who should be invited? We went back out to the organisation and asked each department to nominate which key stakeholders should be invited. Each of the Executive Team members were responsible for personally calling each of their key stakeholders before they received the invitation in the post. Consequently, we achieved a high attendee rate by all of the key stakeholders – e.g. major corporate supporters like Macquarie Group, Telstra and Virgin; representatives from Federal and State Government, the most prominent mental health research centres including Brain and Mind Research Centre and Orygen Youth Health; and technology leaders like Microsoft. 

Involve Key Stakeholders 

One of Inspire’s core values is that Young People are at the centre of everything they do. It became evident at the Steering Committee meetings that the two young people we had chosen to be on the Committee were passionate and very vocal about how well we were appealing to young people in our design. So we offered to these two young people, Ingrid and Pauline, to cofacilitate with the “old people” (Lisa and Duncan) during the Summit – which they wholeheartedly took on board. This would expand the scope and training required but it was the right decision and was a fantastic outcome at the Summit. 

Critical Success Factors:

  • Everything done before the Summit is implemented with an “appreciative eye”: interviews, communications and team meetings. Keep the Summit top of mind through visual and viral means at least bi-weekly.
  • Anticipate that not everyone will be on board. Bring their concerns into design meetings and involve them in the process – often they have critical pieces that turn into great ideas

Step 3: Summit Activities and Outcomes

Discovery Phase (Day 1)

“Because human systems move toward what they persistently ask questions about, positive change involves the deliberate discovery of everything that gives a system ‘life’ when it is most effective in economic and human terms"

Discovery Activities:

  • Introduction by Founder and CEO: Presentation showing Inspire’s 11 year history. Each participant stood up when they became involved, to create a sense of inclusion and celebration.
  • Interviews: Each table was carefully selected with a representation from all stakeholders. Each person paired up with a different stakeholder and interviewed them around peak experiences to derive Inspire’s “hedgehog” of strengths (what they are passionate about with Inspire, what they believe Inspire is or could be the best in the world at, what is it that Inspire does well that creates lasting commitment) and their dreams for the future.
  • Table share: Participants introduced their interview partners and shared highlights of their stories surfacing the common themes. Each table created their own “hedgehog”
  • Whole system share and reflection of the common themes. Each table drafted a Mission Statement and then we voted on the best Mission Statement.
  • Expert Panel and Future Trends Gallery: Expert panel of speakers (Executive Director, Brain and Mind Research Institute on mental health; Rebecca Huntly, researcher on youth trends; and Andrew Reid, Bluefreeway on technology trends) and a walk through the Future Trends Gallery displaying the outcomes from each of the research projects. Participants then sat with their stakeholder groups and surfaced the

Discovery Outcomes:

  • Sense of connectedness in the room from the interviews 
  • Clarity around Inspire’s unique strengths and differentiation 
  • Top voted Mission Statement(s)
  • Understanding of future trendsbiggest opportunities.

Dream Phase (Day 2)

“ Link the positive core directly to any strategic agenda, and changes never thought possible are more rapidly mobilized while simultaneously building enthusiasm, corporate confidence, and human energy”

Dream Activities:

  • Individual Reflection: guided visualisation of Inspire in 2020
  • Table share of dreams of the future. Dialogue around common themes and big ideas for the future
  • Develop a creative expression of your 2020 dream and present to the plenary in 3 minutes! The “creative corner” included dress up clothes, craft materials, magazines, etc.
  • Reflect on what is “emerging” from the collective. What are the new sources of inspiration and opportunity that are common across all the presentations?
  • Write a 2020 Vision Statement
  • Vote on the Vision Statement that attracts you

    the most

Dream Outcomes:

  • Vision Statement that captures the essence of the collective desire of the whole system
  • Memorable guiding images of the future created new visual possibilities for the organisation
  • By surfacing the “emergent” themes for the future, a new story and new language begins to replace the “old story” 

Design Phase (end Day 2 - 3)

“Organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting”

Marvin Weisbord

Design Activities:

  • Develop concrete goals – how will Inspire look, sound, feel in 2012 and what is inspiring and energising about this Goal?
  • Overnight the CEO and Strategy Consultant reviewed all the 2012 Goals in light of the 2020
  • Vision and synthesized the goals into the key elements of the new strategy: Reach, Impact, Sustainability and Community (note” “Community” was a totally new innovation that emerged from the Summit)
  • Participants chose Innovation Teams representing 8 dimensions of the organisation (People, Board, Operating Systems, Programs, Business Ventures, Fundraising, Culture & Leadership, External Communications, Partnerships) to brainstorm how to reach the Goals. Each team surfaced their best ideas and innovations.
  • Each team shared their best ideas in a “World Cafe” – a whole system brainstorming. Each participant visits 3 other Innovation Teams, reviewed/commented on their initiatives and workability and added new ideas.
  • Plenary share of all initiatives divided by “Now, Soon, Later” : A visual roadmap of the strategy completed this phase. Sharing each Table’s outputs from Discovery Phase 

Design Outcomes

  • Confirmation by the CEO of the new direction and the key strategic areas for the future
  • Synthesis of all the ideas and dreams up to this point into concrete goals for 2012
  • High priority Initiatives to deliver the 2012 goals derived from a whole system brainstorm

Phase 3: Delivery (Day 3

“When a team or organisation holds a clear and compelling image of where it wants to go, the image “activates” the conversations, choices, commitments and behaviours necessary to get there.”

F Polak, ex-Director of Planning, Royal Dutch Shell

Delivery Activities: 

  • Kick-off of first initiatives. High level scope of each initiative (definition of success, activities, timing, cost, who needs to be involved and next 30 day actions) 
  • Each team displays their scope and action plan as a Gallery Walk. Participants wrote comments on the action plan and volunteered to become involved. 
  • Personal Commitments: Final reflection on the Summit – what you learned and what you commit to doing in the next 30 days 
  • Closing celebration: 5 minute video of highpoints of the summit, based on each of the Inspire values, closing acknowledgements and impromptu and inspiring comments from the Executive Team and participants

Delivery Outcomes:

  • High level scope and cross-functional alignment of near term initiatives
  • New committees set up to progress specific goals
  • Celebration for the significant accomplishment of all key pieces of the strategic plan for 2020!

Critical Success Factors:

  • At critical transition points of the Summit, it requires the CEO to make a stand and validate the new direction
  • Listen and be attuned to any discomfort during the Summit and recognise what is emerging as transformational turning points in the system – from chaos to order, new old to new mindsets, a new story forming
  • Watch where the energy and flow is in the system – be flexible and modify the agenda as required

Assessment - One Year On

Following the summit, a number of wins emerged:

  • Cultural shift: “Before this Summit we were a tribe. And what we’ve seen over the last couple of days is our supporters stand up and stand up and stake their claim on the Inspire “Community” – that’s a profound shift for this organisation” – Jack Health, Founder and Executive Director of Inspire Foundation.
  • Academic recognition: Immediately following the Summit, the CEO attended Stanford’s Executive Program for Nonprofit Leadership course. With a Stanford Professor panel of judges, Inspire’s strategy was voted as the most robust and aligned.
  • Resources to implement the strategy: Immediately after the Summit Inspire was awarded several grants in support of the strategy. Some of these grants were given by organisations and donors who attended the Summit, while others were given by organisations who were drawn to the vision and strength of the strategy and wanted to contribute to the new direction. In September of 2008, the 4-year strategic plan was completed and approved by the Board.

Feedback from Client

Client Feedback

“Corporate Evolution’s breadth of business and executive experience was a critical factor in producing our strategic plan. In February of 2008 Inspire Foundation undertook an Appreciative Inquiry Summit with the objective of delivering a new strategy with full engagement by all our stakeholders. I sought advice from McKinsey and Company and they recommended two things: (1) that I investigate appreciative inquiry as an approach and (2) that I get in touch with Australia’s leader in the field, Lisa Doig. Lisa’s expertise, care and passion in leading us through the appreciative inquiry approach cannot be over stated. The outcome far exceeded our expectations. Following the summit, we had immediate wins through new investment by those attending the summit. Internally, the Summit aligned Inspire in a way that can only be described as transformative. Externally, it created a community that cares deeply about Inspire’s work.”

(Kerry Graham, CEO, Inspire Foundation)


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