“Everything I’ve ever done has ultimately failed”

One of the positive experiences to come from the pandemic is the chance to connect with people across the world with common interests in systems change.  In many webinars and video conferences, it’s pleasing and affirming to find that there is a similar passion to do things differently and to experiment with different ways to tackle some of the more intractable issues faced by public services. 

A recurring refrain is the importance of foregrounding learning. This suggests significant changes to how we think about evaluation, untangling it from the trap of performance management that undermines useful data and ‘corrodes learning’. In parallel, there is a need to think differently about accountability. 

Nobody I’ve heard is arguing that accountability isn’t important – after all, we are talking about spending public money, but true accountability requires learning.  In a recent Centre for Public Impact/ANZOG webinar Dr Subho Banerjee, a former Deputy Secretary in the Australian Public Service, suggested that being reflective and having data feedback loops produces better advice.  He suggests a better form of accountability than targets and outcomes would be to ask, “did you learn anything?” acknowledging along the way that the ‘politics of experimentation are murderously difficult’.  Getting to the point where this kind of question can be asked is not easy, but it’s worth thinking about how we might begin to answer. This would require a narrative or explanation for the decisions we make as we go along, how our original assumptions are being challenged or affirmed, what differences this makes to our actions and with what results. 

I call this action inquiry, an embedded evaluative learning practice.  It is not simply reflection on our experience, but a more ambitious and challenging reflexive process of thinking with others about our own ways of thinking, our assumptions, purpose, values and actions.

Resisting the notion that ‘it’s not the proper work’, we need to create space and time for very different forms of learning practices, as an integral part of our experimentation. Toby Lowe of CPI makes the helpful observation that it is notable that the people who are ‘doing the accountability’ are very often not included in the experimentation. In such situations, the old ways readily impose themselves through performance frameworks of KPIs that bear very little relation to the actual work in hand, and aren’t measures of the changes in perspective, power and participation needed for system change. We need to be able to co-create meaningful measures that provide timely feedback to support learning in action, so we track what matters, because it matters, rather than simply because the data is available.

Across the world, people are keen to hear examples of success in changing ways of working and adaptive practice.  Yet, when asked for examples of mainstream or large-scale system change, commentators might seem to dodge the question.  They fairly suggest that there’s lots of innovation happening, but it’s very often hidden.  Some is small scale, below the radar, where people have managed to carve out a small ‘permission space’ to try something different.  There’s an ‘asymmetry of risk’, such that credit for success will be shared, whilst we fear that failure will lead to individual blame.  Who wouldn’t be cautious in this culture?  Yet, perhaps this small-scale operation is inevitable and not at odds with our big ambitions for change at scale.  System change becomes less daunting when we accept that we have to start where we are, do some good things at a smaller level, allied with a ‘coalition of the willing’, be prepared to show people the difference that’s being made and invite them to join in.  You might call this ‘nurturing emergent development’ to achieve both scale and sustainability. 

But there’s another aspect to this in situations where ‘where nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing’. Myron Rogers recently gave a fascinating answer to the ‘dreaded question’ about examples:

“Examples?  Yes – and everything I’ve ever done has ultimately failed. Failed in the sense that it just doesn’t persist, through time and space. It changes, it adapts, it evolves, it moves into a different direction. You can’t say ‘well, this is what we intended to do’, and four months later, ‘this is what we got’, because if you’re not paying attention, at five months later, the way in which it changes itself, the very change you’re trying to do, changes.”

He goes on to propose that the most important thing to do is to nurture the capabilities to have ‘learning-full conversations’ in which we look at what’s actually gone on, and how it measures up to what it is we are trying to do, whether it works or doesn’t and what happens as a result. This ability to learn is what will persist through time and space.  

In this way we will be able to learn from successes (however small) and failures (however fleeting) as we study the ‘the articulations, workarounds and muddling-through’ as our work unfolds over time.  We need to go beyond saying ‘yes, we have insights’ or talk of ‘lessons learned’ to being able to say how our thinking and practice has changed in the light of our learning and with what consequences for those we seek to serve – a true accountability for learning and action.

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Appreciative Facilitation Invitation to join an on-line action learning set

“I believe that emotions urge us to action, so action learning has to dive into the emotional landscape of the present at all times. If we stay in denial of our emotions, we are susceptible to endless anxiety and stuckness”. (Amy Stabler, 2021) 

This on-line set is an opportunity to help you to develop and spread practices of relationship-centred and appreciative facilitation. Blending the principles of action learning and appreciative inquiry, the intention is to co-create a space for slow reflection and play, to support practical learning and help to develop shared responsibility for group dynamics and experiences.   

As a small group of practitioners, we will reflect on the live issues we are working with and consider what action we each may take with the intention of changing the way that we work.  We will encourage each other to try things out in our own environment between sessions.  This approach recognises that people learn best when they learn with and from each other – by working on real problems and reflecting on their own experiences. As an on-line set, this is based on the expectation that everything we do can be translated into both your own on-line and off-line learning spaces.

As practitioners that seek to support others and not do things ‘to’ people, how can we be true allies in change?
How can we look at old issues with new eyes?
How can we work positively with our emotions and our different perspectives?  

“It has taken me a long time to unlearn the art of using questions as clubs with which to bludgeon other people.” (W. Barnett Pearce, 2007)

It is likely to be useful for people working in a wide range of public services; for example, those working with complex change; people with a brief to develop participation or build communities; those engaged in facilitation of learning or supervision; and action researchers and practice developers.  If you are interested in how to create the conditions and support change with others, then this is for you, even if you are not in a formal facilitation or leadership role.  We will seek to share our knowledge and experience to create the conditions for sustaining and improving services, organisations and communities. 

Each session will be three hours long, using Zoom.  Participants should expect to commit to working together in an open, honest, and positive manner, within the confines of an agreement made at the first session.  There will be some limited material to read to stimulate discussion, always with a focus on how to personalise and apply the learning to the practical issues and challenges that participants are already immersed in.   

It starts in October 2021 and there are more details on this page. The offer can also be adapted for an ‘in-house’/partnership group, with fees and timings by arrangement. 

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Grow As We Go

It’s exciting to announce a new initiative – Grow As We Go originates in and builds from the legacy of My Home Life, a highly successful relationship-centred leadership programme to enhance the experience of those who live, die, visit and work in care homes for older people.

I’m working again with Belinda Dewar, Fiona Cook and Edel Roddy. We call this short on-line programme “Grow As We Go” reflecting both the commitment to practical learning rooted in the principles and practices of relational practice, appreciation, and collaboration and the ability of commissioners and participants to shape the programme to meet needs in different care settings.

The specifics of the programme arise from a recent consultation with care home staff with experience of My Home Life, to ensure the programme honours their experiences from these times of challenge, helps them to incorporate their learning from recent times and move forward in a positive way.  

We are a experienced facilitators who have worked across health and social care, including the facilitation of My Home Life and related relational and appreciative programmes.  Through this programme, we intend to support reflection and exploration of their experiences that supports people to discover sources of nourishment and energy for themselves and their teams to meet the ongoing challenges. We want to nurture connections and bonds between residents, staff and families in care homes, creating cultures which strengthen people’s confidence to work with uncertainty and innovation. Finally, we want to enhance collaboration that fosters effective cross-sector working and helps to make health and social care integration a reality. 

We are confident that it can support previous My Home Life participants to reconnect with their earlier learning and provide stimulus and support for those who are new to the approach.

There’s more here in this programme flyer. Please take a look at what we are offering, and to come back to us with questions. We expect to co-create a bespoke programme which will help meet the needs of care home managers, staff, residents and their families in each area.

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What is worthwhile work?

A few weeks ago, at the end of a workshop where there had been high engagement and energy in the room, someone said to me “Is this a typical day for you, as Research for Real?”  What a great question.  I said something like, “well not every day is like this, but it’s not unusual.” 

Research for Real is 17 years old.  When I started out, I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for.  Someone I respected said that I was ‘brave, but not foolhardy.’ I have never regretted taking that step, even if I sometimes still miss the corporate IT Helpdesk. 

In pursuit of worthwhile work, the last 17 years have brought me into contact and partnership with a fantastic mix of people who share the common goal of making a practical difference.  There have been loads of highlights: in recent years, for example, the work to evaluate the Cedar programme for children experiencing domestic abuse which underpinned £11m of funds being put into the programme in Scotland.  Getting involved in facilitating My Home Life a leadership programme originally for managers of care homes for older people and, through that work, developing a deeper understanding of appreciative action research has been immensely inspiring. Last year, going to the Faroes spurred me to write about ‘new territories for evaluation’ for Collective Leadership Scotland.  Closer to home, this week I’ve been writing up recent work on human rights in care homes and facilitating a session working with stories that brings surprise and much learning every time we do it.  It’s learning-in-action.

My own learning edges are getting pushed.  I’m often in a ‘Learning Partner’ role and there’s lots to explore there about what this means and how it might be distinct from being an evaluator. I’m hosting an on-line action learning set that’s interested in their own facilitation practice and I’m working with familiar faces and new colleagues to develop an approach to Dynamic Impact Analysis using System Dynamic modelling.  

Many will appreciate that the wider environment is so different to November 2002.  There’s much more interest in and knowledge of action research.  More people are interested in asset-based approaches, complexity and systems leadership and there are many more opportunities to be part of these wider networks and conversations. There’s much more interest in working with and using stories and, yes, still work to be done in understanding their purpose and validity. 

This new territory feels really promising.  I think there are opportunities to help us notch up our practice and think more about quality in action research. I was challenged recently about why I still contribute to peer-reviewed publications, work that is unpaid, often done to a tight deadline and which, in the gloomiest moments, one fears, may not be read.  Most simply, writing makes me read and reading helps me understand what it is that I think I am doing and how it might be better.  It brings me into contact with a whole lot of other work across the world from which I can learn and reinvigorates me to feel able to keep going.  I’ve been reviewing the history of action research in the UK since 1945 for a book chapter to be published in 2020 and wondering whether action researchers can worry less about definitions and distinctions amongst us and find ways to connect and highlight strengths and commonalities. I’ve been thinking about action learning and action inquiry and the prospects of nurturing the collective capacity to lead through different kinds of conversations.  It feels to me that it’s all worthwhile work. 

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Stories and more…the conversations that are possible

At the 2019 Firestarter Festival myself and Keira Oliver ran a workshop grandly entitled “Practising change together – towards appreciative and collaborative evaluation.”  We hoped to develop the ideas and themes from the FSF2018 event “Reigniting Evaluation” and take it further, influenced by the recently launched report Workforce Scotland, “Collective leadership: Where Nothing is Clear, and Everything Keeps Changing – Exploring new territories for evaluation”.  People were asked to read this in advance – but we didn’t check if they had. 

Our words of the moment

On the day, we aimed to focus on the practicalities of how to talk about the creation of new cultures of embedded learning and evaluation.  We used a series of provocations (see pages 53-55 of the report) to help us tell stories of when evaluation had worked well and think about how we might ‘retell’ that experience as a ‘story of the future’.  We had great conversations about our hopes and generated some ideas for what we might do or think more about here and now.  

There was a great energy in the room.  People were drawn from across public services and if you digest their words of the moment and the unfolding stories you will be in no doubt of their shared commitment to change.  That’s the fire’s well and truly stoked.

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Collective Leadership – Exploring new territories for evaluation

FaroesI spent time this summer writing about evaluation.  It’s been good to immerse myself in reading and thinking about what complexity and collaboration mean for how we evaluate public programmes and interventions.

The focus has been Workforce Scotland’s Collective Leadership programme, and they have published ‘Exploring new territories for evaluation’ as the first of a series.  Collective leadership builds leadership capacity amongst people working with systemic issues, where it is necessary to work collaboratively and collectively to affect change and where success will depend on the quality of relationships that can be developed.  Of course, these conditions apply to lots of us.

One of the influences on the paper is the clear appetite, expressed at the 2018 Firestarter event ‘Reigniting Evaluation’, for different approaches to evaluation, especially those that   better reflect deeply held values and avoid creating a culture of ‘gaming’, that’s rooted in fear of failure and loss of funding, at the expense of learning.

The paper is pitched as an invitation to inquiry amongst a reasonably well-informed audience of policy makers and practitioners in public services and those who provide research, evaluation and facilitation support.  If you think that might be you, just digest this quote for a moment:

 “When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.” (Caitlin Moran, 2017)

If there’s any resonance there, and if you’re looking for some professional nourishment then this might well be for you.  A key idea is that relationships are at the heart of practising change.   You will almost certainly have heard that before.  But how often do we spend the time to really focus on how create the conditions for genuine relational collaboration?  Faced with urgent questions about how to act amidst complexity to tackle ‘wicked’ problems, we need help to decide how to act wisely in real-life situations where ‘nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing’.   Seeking help, we might talk about “what work’s”, reflecting high expectations of evidence, but too often evaluation has been more of a barrier to transformation than an enabler.   We can easily find ourselves overcome by a sense of paralysis or overwhelm at the scale of the challenges.

Drawing on parts of the global family of action research approaches, the paper recasts evaluation as ‘action inquiry’, an embedded evaluative learning practice that can help navigate complexity when enacting collective leadership.  Action inquiry can be used to help learning-in-action, wherever success depends on the quality of relationships that can be developed.  In developing a model of practising change together that builds-in evaluation, the paper picks up the idea of developing “5th generation evaluation” that explicitly seeks to strengthen working relations and the coordination of actions, built on the recognition that evaluative inquiry is a form of intervention or ‘intervening’ (of getting involved) in itself.

The paper is ultimately quite optimistic, particularly in recognising the place of aspiration, emotions and agency. Most simply, what people truly care about and how they feel about their work or community, whether those are feelings of fear, anger, sadness, satisfaction, excitement or courage; their aspirations and passions – what they most hope to see happen; and their agency – their recognition and regard for others and their ability to inquire with them to enact and embed change.

It doesn’t offer a map or a blueprint, but hopefully some navigation aids that will stimulate your own thoughts and further dialogue.  It’s quite a ‘dense read’ and of course, there’s more to say and discuss.   The supportive reaction of the first round of reviewers has give me confidence that there will be value for lots of people from diving in.

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What can we do with our stories? Reflections from the Faroes

In my efforts to refresh my social theory and develop new perspectives on evaluation I recently attended a social constructivism conference on Communication, Collaboration and Relationships in the Faroe Islands[1].  I’d be alerted to this opportunity by one of the organisers Gro Emmertsen Lund, a Danish organisational consultant and author with a shared interest in reshaping evaluation (Lund, 2011).

As a freelance action researcher, this was my annual dose of CPD – like many people from the UK, this was new territory for me and I couldn’t resist the location and the conference aims to ‘increase the motivation and the joy of learning, teaching, leading and serving’ and ‘bring public services into synchrony with emerging world conditions’.  One of the keynote speakers was Ken Gergen who, amongst his many writings, articulates a vision of the researcher as an active agent in fashioning the future and research as a form of social action (Gergen, K, 2014).

There were about 170 delegates and, somewhat to my surprise, the vast majority of them were from the Faroes.  People came from schools and local and national government, but in the mix, there was also an airline pilot, a publisher, an actor and a few consultants.  The other international delegates were from other Nordic countries, Switzerland, Nepal, Canada and the USA.

Ken and Mary Gergen did a very impressive double act with joint keynotes on ‘Social Construction and Narrative Practices’ and ‘A Relational Perspective on Practice’ and workshops on ‘Relational leading and the challenge of changing times’ and ‘The Challenge of Positive Aging’.  A highlight was the relational keynote where they managed to convey the ideas of the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) through role-play (Pearce, 2007).   Imagine the scene as two colleagues meet in the corridor:

Take 1

Ken: “That’s a lovely, colourful outfit you’re wearing today Mary!”

Mary: “And I thought you were colour blind.” (said with obvious amusement)

Take 2

Ken:  “That’s a lovely, colourful outfit you’re wearing today Mary!”

Mary: “You do that one more time, and I’m reporting you!” (waging her finger angrily at him)

Take 3

Ken:  “That’s a lovely, colourful outfit you’re wearing today Mary!”

Mary:  “Ah thanks, that’s nice…….you’re quite well turned out yourself today.” (strokes his lapel)

Ken&MaryHer response in Take 3 elicits a further turn, that takes the form of an invitation to dinner and much laughter.  They made the point beautifully.  How we make meaning is embedded in the relational process, which has a context and a history, as well as choices we make about language, tone of voice, gestures and so on.

I also attended a workshop on Ethics and Leadership, hosted by Gitte Haslebo from Denmark, which led us through some case examples featured in her book, which I had recently read (Haslebo and Haslebo, 2012).  This reinforced the themes of all the presentations and workshops over the two days.  There was a profoundly optimistic thread through it all – in essence, that as we have created what we have, so we can change it.  The central ideas of social constructionism were reinforced in all the sessions – that what we focus on becomes our reality; that ‘words create worlds’ and the essentialness of multiple perspectives.  And echoing too, the idea that “the point of research should be to talk to each other about what we ought to be doing.”[2]

As narrative is indispensable, we need to ask, ‘what can we do with our stories?’ When we share them, we can create a dialogue and a focus on what kind of future we want to create.  In the way we approach our work together, whether it is research, leadership, practice development, or community development, we need to shift from investigations of deficits, to be future-focused by creating a dialogue about contributions.   With me, they were preaching to the converted; I have come to a view of the essential and powerful part that appreciative inquiry can play (Sharp, Dewar and Barrie, 2016; Sharp et al, 2017).  Most of the conference contributions at least alluded to this and there was one session billed as an Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry, led by Larry Espe a former school superintendent and great story teller from Canada[3].

More generally, I felt the implied part of Appreciative Inquiry was not as well-developed as I would have liked.  If ‘the problem is the problem’ then people need more help to think differently and reframe thinking and practice about those issues that we decide are ‘problems’.  In workshop exercises where we discussed scenarios, I found that people couldn’t develop fuller, alternative approaches that might create dialogue, because they weren’t sufficiently familiar with the theory and practices of appreciative inquiry.  My writing with colleagues at home has attempted to develop the tools and more mature understandings of appreciative inquiry, beyond a simplistic focus on positivity, to help to us to see old issues in new ways and offer fresh ways to challenge the status quo.  It’s work in progress.

There also more work to do around the implications of social constructionism for our approaches to evaluation.  There was a sense for me that, when we think about measurement or evaluation, we often seem stuck in the realist paradigm and the concepts and tools we have don’t aid us, they don’t recognise the messiness and complexity of relational practices, but too often are a ‘barrier to transformation’ (Quinn Patton, 2017).   If what we focus on becomes our reality, perhaps we should reframe evaluation to be more curious about what is working, so we can create more of it.  Evaluation as a dialogue, not a diagnosis.  I often hear that ‘it’s all about relationships’  – it is clearly time to change and shift our focus to relationships; not relationships as ‘things’ but as co-created and dynamic relational processes in which we are embedded.  In this way we can bring new qualities to our talking to each other about our various and shared visions of a better future.

Originally written for Concept – The Journal of Contemporary Community Education Practice Theory. http://concept.lib.ed.ac.uk/index.php/Concept/index

References and footnotes

Gergen, K (2014)     From Mirroring to World-Making: Research as Future Forming, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, DOI: 10.1111/jtsb.12075  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268280852_From_Mirroring_to_World-Making_Research_as_Future_Forming

Haslebo, G and Haslebo, M. L (2012) Practicing Relational Ethics in Organisations, Taos.

Lund, G E (2011) Fifth generation evaluation, http://bit.ly/2Gr0x7R

Pearce, W. Barnett (2007) Making Social Worlds, A Communication Perspective Blackwell

Quinn Patton, M (2017) http://www.transformations2017.org/keynote-videos

Sharp, C., Dewar, B. and Barrie, K (2016)  Forming new futures through appreciative inquiry, IRISS Insight No 33 https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/insights/forming-new-futures-through-appreciative-inquiry

Sharp, C., Dewar, B., Barrie, K and Meyer, J (2017) How being appreciative creates change – theory in practice from health and social care in Scotland, Action Research http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1476750316684002

[1] https://www.faroeconference.com/

[2] This is a paraphrase by Peter Reason of Richard Rorty, (1999) Philosophy and social hope. London: Penguin Books

[3] https://www.taosinstitute.net/co-creating-schools-of-the-future-through-appreciative-inquiry

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Where nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing – new territories for evaluation

Greetings from the Faroe Islands.  In my efforts to develop new perspectives on evaluation I’m attending a conference on Communication, Collaboration and Relationships.  This is my annual dose of CPD – like many people from the UK, this is new territory for me and I couldn’t resist the location and the conference aims to ‘increase the motivation and the joy of learning, teaching, leading and serving’ and ‘bring public services into synchrony with emerging world conditions’.  One of the keynote speakers is Ken Gergen who amongst his many writings, articulates a vision of the researcher as an active agent in fashioning the future and research as a form of social action.


This conference was nicely timed as I am hoping to write something to express the shifts in thinking about evaluation that I see emerging shoots of, as I go about my work in Scotland.  I’ve been revisiting the work of Michael Quinn Patton who is a well-known evaluator and former president of the American Evaluation Association.  He’s always an entertaining speaker and last year, he was in Scotland attending the Transformations 2017: Transformations in Practice Conference at the University of Dundee.  Most memorably he said, ‘we are familiar with systems thinking, but we haven’t used it in evaluation’ and went on to describe traditional evaluation as a ‘barrier to transformation’.

I suspect this would resonate with the people who attended the recent 2018 Fire Starter Festival event on Reigniting Evaluation.  Based on the premise that what you focus on becomes your reality, we deliberately focused on our experience of evaluation at its best.  There was a real appetite for evaluation – the generation and use of evidence –  to contribute to transformation within human services.  We know it can happen; we didn’t spend our time commiserating or outdoing each other with horror stories, instead we were future-focused – we identified what values and qualities we’d want to keep and what that would look like.  We talked about what we’d need to let go of and what would help us to discard those things we no longer want.  These aspirations are well expressed here and within these stories are many allusions to the unintended consequences of the way that we have traditionally thought about and practiced evaluation.


There is no doubt of the desire that evaluation should be a tool for learning, to help us develop our practices, collaboration and performance – to do well in our work, to do even better and to learn our way through things when nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing – a bit like the weather in the Faroes.  When we are working with the complexity and messiness of communication, collaboration and relationships, when we are seeking to make the world a better place, we need some new ways of thinking about evidence, that treats evaluation itself as an intervention.   I often hear that ‘it’s all about relationships’  – it is clearly time to change and shift our focus to relationships, to our various and shared visions of a better future and even to play catch-up with ideas about complexity and systems thinking.    More follows soon and at #Faroes18

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“The cynicism that passes for sophistication”

I’m not sure when or how I first encountered Appreciative Inquiry.  But I do remember going to an Imagine Chicago conference in 2002 with a group of community activists from Edinburgh.  We had a thoroughly exciting time, meeting appreciative inquirers from all over the world in an explosion of energy and creativity.  At the time I was a research commissioner and manager working for a public agency in Scotland, with a brief to develop new funding for community action research.  I was an experienced social researcher myself, with a PhD and a keen interest in making an impact.

On the flight home I poured over the information and tried to make sense of it all – on one hand, I liked it and the energy of the people I’d met.  On the other, I was a little sceptical, especially about the idea of the focus on the positive and I was a bit stung by the idea that my more critical queries might indeed be what someone had called, the ‘cynicism that passes for sophistication.’ Ouch!

At the time I was immersed in the CARPP – Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice – programme at the University of Bath where, at times, I felt like I’d fallen off my ‘social researcher’ bike and was learning to ride it again.


To cut a long story short, I ultimately left my post and set up my own action research company, Research for Real.  I’ve been working for myself now for 15 years.  Originally, I was very influenced by the ‘Bath’ school of action research, that talked about first, second, and third person inquiry and ‘living life as inquiry’.  I also worked with Danny Burns and Susan Weil from SOLAR at the University of the West of England in Bristol and was excited by their approach to systemic action research, for example in the work for the British Red Cross.  These people continue to inspire me, as does Yoland Wadsworth from Australia who talks about human inquiry for living systems by building in research and evaluation.

You might say I dabbled in appreciative inquiry.  I found my own way of introducing it, particularly thinking about being more positive in evaluations and I ran some successful one-off events that helped people to understand their shared values and common goals.  My chance to immerse myself in it more fully came as part of the My Home Life team at the University of the West of Scotland and in some spin-offs from that work.  For about the last five years, I’ve been working alongside Belinda Dewar and her colleagues and have taken forward my own work using similar approaches in health and social care and in community development.

We’ve written about it and I think we’ve found way of integrating the generativity, imagination and attention to language of appreciative inquiry, with the focus on collaboration, experimenting and the practical orientation of action research.  I particularly like the future-making orientation to research as a form of social action, that both excites and incites further change.

So often, I am privileged to witness people getting excited again about the work they do, when they are asked to notice what they value, what matters to them or what works well. I like the focus on the ‘here and now’ – not starting off by imagining how we want things to be in some distant future, but rooting ourselves in what we already have and value, that we might too readily dismiss or take for granted.   We encourage people to talk to each other about how they feel about both the good aspects and those that are tricky and then, to work out, together, what kind of future might be possible.  And then to try something out, to test it, review and consider whether and how to sustain it.

So, yes, it has a bias – a real-life-centric bias.  It’s nurturing and emergent, and places relationship and conversations at the heart of change.   Now, I can’t imagine another way.

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Reigniting Evaluation – Unfolding Stories

Today about 24 people gathered in Edinburgh to explore what they value about evaluation, as part of the 2018 Fire Starter Festival.

2018-02-02 11.13.25Working with our own stories of experience of evaluation at it’s best, we identified what values and qualities we’d want to keep and what that would look like, going into the future. We talked about what we’d need to let go of and what would help us to discard those things we no longer want.

This collection of Unfolding Stories of the Future is the start of a series of conversations we are keen to continue.   Here’s a sample:

  • My word of the moment is engagement
  • It’s a bit radical but could we do away with the word ‘evaluation’?
  • I would like to think more about why we are evaluating – or prove or improve?
  • Let’s stop fruitless, box-ticking outcome evaluations
  • I’d be upset if this was just an interesting conversation and nothing changes when we leave the room
  • Let’s start valuing and understanding what we do well
  • Imagine if everyone valued and enjoyed evaluation

With a nod to the Year of Young People in Scotland, we felt that we wanted children and young people to understand the value and importance of reflection and learning, with others.  A few people signed up to be part of a small group keen to take this thinking forward – watch this space for further dialogue.  Please get in touch if you want to take part yourself.

Imagine if we made a difference – let’s try!

Posted in Appreciative inquiry, Co-production and new ways of working, Courses and events, How can evaluation be useful?, Leadership, Living systems research, Participatory research methods, Partnership working, Research Impact, Stories, What is action research? | Comments Off on Reigniting Evaluation – Unfolding Stories