Appreciative Inquiry - Starting a thousand fires at Hull City Council - United Kingdom
Hull City Council is a large, unitary local authority in the north-east of England. It has had an integrated
transformation or improvement programme for a number of years, beginning during an intervention by
the government into the affairs of the Council several years ago. The Council has improved
tremendously since that point in its history and it is now one of the better performing upper tier
In late-2008 officers of the Council, who our company Optimum Interventions Ltd (Oi) had previously
worked with at the time of our involvement in the government intervention, approached us to talk
about adding further impetus and engagement to the Council’s transformation programme. Whilst the
Council was relatively satisfied that its programme was comprehensive, reasonably well funded and
integrated with other strategic activities, there was a developing sense that it might benefit from a
certain...something. That ‘something’ wasn’t clear, but with committed and passionate people leading
the programme, with all of the necessary programme-management methods in place, there was a
feeling that even more might be achieved, particularly in the human-resource related element of the
programme, known as Creating Conditions for Success (CCfS). This programme’s main focus was to
establish and promote the values and behaviours across the Council which will help it to achieve its aim
of improving the lives of Hull residents.
In a telephone conference in September with officers from the CCfS project we discussed what
approaches could develop greater engagement with and energy around CCfS. We discussed with them
our experience of working on a range of public sector transformation efforts, two of which are reported
here on the AI Commons’ ‘Stories from the Field’, i.e. Walsall Council and West Midlands Fire Service.
Whilst not in any way suggesting they simply took a template approach to using AI, we shared our
experience that AI can deliver potentially great benefits to (already effective) change efforts; ones
where greater involvement and engagement is needed and participants from around the ‘system’ might
have a good deal to offer the overall change effort.
In that context we agreed to provide some ideas and suggestions for how AI could be used, and one
aspect of AI that really took hold in the conversation was the notion of a ‘summit’ event to provide a
magnetic focus to the work of change over the coming months.
The Council invited us to a meeting of the planning group for CCfS in October at which the Council’s
Chief Executive (Kim Ryley) also attended to share his overall view of the position of his Council and how
he really wanted a “thousand fires” around the transformation effort. That imagery was particularly
helpful to us in describing both the required impact of and contribution to be made by appreciative
methods in change efforts. It was a phrase repeated often in the ensuing months.
One of the features of our conversations with the planning group was the potential that AI offers in the
creation of a vision or over-arching statement of purpose for an organisation or partnership. In Hull’s
case though we were looking to use AI at a level below that of an overall vision (Hull City Council had a
strong and appreciative vision already in place), and more around developing the values and behaviours
to help people deliver the vision, which was the prime point of focus for the CCfS project.
The CCfS project, with the support of the Council’s corporate strategic team, had determined that whilst
the existing corporate values and behaviours had served their purpose well, the time was right to
generate new ones and involve much larger numbers of people in their creation. The project lead put it
this way, “it’s about encouraging all employees to commit to the values and live them day to day”.
We agreed to work closely together towards this aim, starting almost immediately with Oi providing
some AI background knowledge and learning, and then being asked to run an initial series of AI
workshops, with thoughts already forming towards an overall goal being a summit in mid-2009.
The initial AI workshops were particularly interesting because whilst introducing AI in a relatively brief
fashion to over 60 managers who were variously from the Council’s leadership programme (‘RESULTS’
programme) and facilitators of change in their services, we used the events in ‘live’ mode, i.e. to both
introduce AI and create material for the CCfS project. We posited the workshops firmly in the Discovery
step of AI to enable participants to generate meaningful outputs from the workshops to underpin the
more detailed work to follow across the Council.
After brief overviews of AI, we worked together through the Define and Discovery steps, in some detail
and using the well established ‘base’ appreciative questions quoted widely in AI literature, and adapted
to the Hull context. Gradually we located the themes and topics from the stories of Hull CC working at
its best, and these would then guide the creation of the questions for appreciative conversations across
the Council later on. This was ‘live’ Discovery at work. It was also preparation for yet more discoveries at
an intimate level in appreciative conversations to come later.
The workshops were completed in an intensive one week period early in 2009 and the output collated
by a small number of event participants and colleagues from the CCfS planning group. We then ran a
fourth workshop, where in ‘real-time’ our sub-group synthesised all of the workshop outputs into six key
themes relating to Hull CC, as an employer, a place to work, the customers, its contribution to the city’s
success and so on.
We created a lead question and subsidiary questions for each of the themes. These subsidiary questions
had been developed in the workshops and as ‘raw’ material were perfect for the subgroup to develop
into the final stage of a ‘conversation master’ guide. After this final workshop, a little further refining
was done by one of the subgroup, but nothing more than alterations at the margin to hold true to the
‘live’ work of the earlier AI workshop participants.
The conversation master then went into the wider Council. The Council holds regular large-scale events
for managers and non-managers to engage with, consult and inform. The CCfS planning group had
wanted to use these events to feed the AI work into the whole-system as part of helping to create new
approaches in how the Council engages with its employees. The opportunity was thus taken by
participants from the AI workshops to facilitate hundreds of appreciative conversations in these events
using the conversation master.
In general terms the master guides Oi designs with clients have sections for proper introductions,
explanation of key themes, lead and follow-up questions and space for interviewers to record brief
notes, highlights, quotes and examples in a consistent manner. Innovatively, the Council had also
arranged for a database to be created that allowed all interviewers to electronically capture the essence
of the conversations and load them in to the database. This would ease the subsequent synthesis of the
conversations into workable material and for any later summit.
By the late spring of 2009 there had been literally hundreds of AI conversations across the Council; both
in large-scale events and in more intimate settings. These represented a significant commitment to AI
and the belief in its potential to increase the pace of change. As well as its use in the large-scale
corporate events, the conversation master had been offered to the participants of the workshops to use
in conversations outside of those large-scale corporate events. Those conversations extended the reach
of AI into Council services, where in some instances it was seen to have the potential to develop their
own approaches to change within the Council’s overall transformation effort.
The database records of the conversations were then brought together by a small sub-group of the CCfS
planning group. The massive amount of material, e.g. key words, notable phrases and ‘quotable quotes’
particularly those relating to the values and behaviours central to excellent performance, were gathered
and grouped to help to understand the ‘best of what is’ across the Council. This collated material was
seen as central to informing the Discover and Design phases of the planned summit, which by then had
been agreed by the Council’s leadership team and scheduled to be held in little over a month of this
synthesising work. The reader will note the pace of the work being pursued by Hull, and the evidence
this provides of AI’s contribution to quickening the pace of change through its energising properties.
An extended meeting of the planning group in early May then reviewed progress on the project, the
synthesised output from the conversations, other aspects of transformation and began to plan for the
summit event. This was quite an intensive meeting. We faced many challenges, e.g. to use AI
‘appropriately’ for the summit at the same time as achieving a pre-determined general outcome, i.e. a
set of new values and behaviours; to bring forward the material gathered so far from the conversations
and at the same time provide the summit participants from all levels and locations within the Council,
with sufficient space to Discover, Dream, Design and create a Destiny for themselves; and to use AI not
to create a vision for the organisation as might be a more ‘usual’ use for it, but to provide the more
detailed values and behaviours to help deliver that vision. That said, the meeting produced a very
workable summit programme and we took that away to create a suite of draft documents: a detailed
event programme and leader guide, a sub-group facilitator guide and a participant workbook, all specific
to the Hull context.
At this point our Council colleagues went into overdrive on creating the summit – the venue was to be
the city’s iconic ‘Kingston Communications Stadium’, where the city’s Premier League football team and
Premiership Rugby League team are based. A large suite was booked and the planning group with
colleagues from the Council’s events team subsequently visited the suite to ‘walk through’ the event
and test out both process and practical aspects. Our role as external advisers was now to support and
guide our client officer colleagues in their efforts – ‘ownership’ was most definitely theirs.
In the final few days before the summit the myriad detail of creating a superb event of high quality and
meaning was worked through by the team. Invitations to 200 participants and confirmations were in
hand and the Council’s Chief Executive and other directors confirmed their attendance. The planning
team finalised the event materials, guides and workbooks and visited the event venue on the Sunday
evening before the Monday summit to put out the existing Discovery material on display boards and
delineate the four D’s as distinct sections of the suite.
Everything was ready for the summit; first mentioned in September 2008 during the first conference call
between the officers and Oi Ltd and now a practical reality.
A separate piece describing the event in detail will shortly be produced and published by the Council’s
Communication’s team, who ably supported the AI work and more widely the Council’s transformation
effort throughout. A link will be published to that document within this report in due course. Suffice it to
say for now that there were many highlights of the summit. As observer and participant I saw:
The Council’s Head of Workforce Strategy lead the event, ensuring that whilst Oi Ltd had
supported the whole AI effort, the main figure for the event was a well known Council officer
The sub-group facilitators, who by and large had attended the early Discovery workshops, ably
guided table-groups through the event, producing strong Discovery conversations and vivid
Dreams of the Council as its vision is realised - and much humour as well!
The material brought forward from the earlier appreciative conversations was properly
respected and fully integrated with the summit Discovery stage outputs by the CCfS sub-group
Voting used well by the participants to indicate their preferred values from amongst all of the
collated Discovery material, with five rich draft values distilled from the material and clear
favourites with participants (see the Council story for more on these)
The values adopted by the Summit – and thus automatically by the Council’s leadership team in
the shape of the Chief Executive in an afternoon session of the Summit. This act of faith in the
summit output was a key feature of our earlier thinking and planning and shows huge trust by
the leadership team in their employees and the process
The Design step deliver challenging provocative propositions for the new values and their
And Destiny not missed out, with offers and commitments to continue to create the final value
statements, associated behaviours and actions to inculcate them into daily organisational life
being made freely. These are already being followed-up with actions by the CCfS project group
with other colleagues
Subsequent to the Summit, I facilitated two further full-day AI workshops where many of the table-
facilitators from the Summit and other colleagues met to work through some of the more detailed
science, theory and practice of AI to enhance their knowledge and thoughts about its application.
These colleagues will be some of the champions of AI in the continuing transformation effort.
So, this brings us to the end of the beginning for Hull City Council’s initial introduction to and use of
Appreciative Inquiry to add pace, engagement and “a thousand fires” to its transformation
programme. We have been honoured to support the Council in its goal and continue to help it to
develop its thinking around the deep value that AI can bring to sustainable change.
For more information please contact Steve Loraine at email@example.com or visit