Mary Beth Bass: The value of appreciative inquiry

Published 3:30 pm Monday, June 5, 2017

In 2014, Warner Berger published a book called, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. The leadership “nerd” in me loved the concept and wanted to know more — ha! The power of questioning, right? The premise of his book is based on the concept that much of the innovation that has occurred, particularly in business and industry, over the decades was due to asking the right question, a strategic question, a beautiful question, at the right time. While this is intuitive and certainly makes sense, Berger continues that the great irony is that we often do less and less of that as adults. Questions abound from children, but the busyness of life often takes away adults’ time or willingness to push for answers to their questions.
What impact does this have on our communities? How does this impact our growth? Do we think that it does? Some might say that’s what strategic planning is for — but how often do we take the time to do that, without it seeming like just another task on our long list of other things to do, to accomplish? Do we ask the right questions while we’re there? Do we push for the answers we need? Do we leave it up to others to do? Do we think about how we might innovate with the resources available to us? Or, simply say, we cannot do that because we are a small community?

Here’s why I love appreciative inquiry … when we seek inquiry truly for the sake of understanding and hoping to gain better, or better understood, answers, we find the following to be true:
• We ask the difficult questions
• We avoid complacency
• We question existing conditions and activities which result in unintended consequences or an inability to achieve established goals
• We seek clarification when something doesn’t seem “right”

My favorite part about appreciative inquiry is that, above all and if it’s done right, it does not indicate a lack of trust, it promotes it.
We are currently at a crossroads for economic development in Sumter County. I feel confident in saying that, in that I sit at the helm of an economic development foundation, funded through a private capital campaign of which business, industry, individuals, and some public sector entities willingly chose to give of their investment to support and enhance the challenges we face as a community. With the exception of two municipalities, these are not taxpayer dollars — they represent the desires of the business sector to see change, to see growth. Branding, like broadband and high-speed fiber connectivity, were just two of their priorities.
In response to questions that have been asked about the efforts of One Sumter, I applaud the willingness to ask! Every person in Sumter County, regardless of whether they are a donor or simply a resident, SHOULD ask. In fact, I wish more would call my office, get involved, be a part of the change and bring their ideas to the table. We need a concerted push for change to occur, and many of our foot soldiers have been marching a long time — we welcome ideas, questions and innovation!
As some of the questions that have been asked will require more depth of explanation than my column will allow each week, I will take these questions one at a time, so that they get their proper response and due. Regarding the cost of the branding campaign to taxpayers and citizens in Sumter County, that’s the beauty of the One Sumter efforts! Those monies were raised privately, beginning in 2014, with pledged donations anticipated to be received through 2019. The only portion of the branding efforts that are being funded through taxpayer support are those that are rightfully being invested in through the efforts of the City of Americus, the Americus-Sumter County Tourism Council, and its staff to enhance exposure of the brand, and our community, once the campaign is complete.
Perhaps it is important to know how we got to the campaign itself. Last July, One Sumter convened a group of stakeholders representing major institution in our community — those that represent a brand all of their own that already market Sumter County individually through their own outreach efforts. Some 15-20 individuals spent approximately six months researching communities across the country, their branding efforts, what works, what didn’t, what “felt” like Sumter County, what concepts or ideas did we want to emphasize to sell the great assets of our communities to others, etc., basically asking all sorts of beautiful questions, to ultimately determine that we had so many wonderful stories, wonderful narratives about our great community, that we needed the expertise of professionals to pull them together in one tight, cohesive and strategic message — in multiple mediums.
Together, we vetted professional firms and consultants from across the Southeast. And only when everyone was completely comfortable with our strategy and approach did we proceed. So, to ask if numbers were crunched and all angles considered, I can completely answer honestly that yes, we did our jobs, and I believe, did them well. However, I must stress that those decisions were not made in a vacuum, and through the public engagement process in April, we heard from well over 200 residents across all communities in Sumter County regarding what they loved about living here, working here, growing up here. You will see every bit of that reflected in our new brand on June 12. It is truly something to be proud of for all of our residents!
While I know my attempt to answer the questions that have been passed along to me only responds to a few today, I am excited about the possibility to address others in future columns to come — particularly as it relates to the work of One Sumter and the opportunities for growth and change in Sumter County. It’s why One Sumter exists and why it was created, to engage the community in a meaningful way to facilitate change and optimize growth.
An article that ran in a 2012 edition of Public Management magazine talks about the need for micropolitan cities (10,000-50,000 population) to strategically and deliberately plan for growth while communities are in “good times,” before the decline occurs and stagnates. Author Gerald Gordon states this, “Some economic development does just happen, but I have yet to find an economy that grew to its fullest potential in the absence of serious, sustained and aggressive effort.”
To respond to the challenges we know exist in our community, economic or otherwise, that’s what it will take.

Mary Beth Bass is executive director, One Sumter Foundation. Contact her at 229-924-3042 or