Humble Inquiry: or, How to circumvent the pernicious inclination to fix other people

An emphasis on problem-solving can be problematic. And dangerous. When you set out to solve a problem, you march forward with an arsenal of assumptions: you are already convinced that a problem exists, you believe you ought to fix it, and you believe your solutions will be superior to the current state of things. That is a lot of assumptions. One does not need to look very hard to find examples of ‘problem solvers’ who only left a trail of greater problems in their wake.

In describing the deficiency and prevalence of the problem-solving bias in management and development thinking, David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva propose an alternative approach: appreciative inquiry. The goal of appreciative inquiry is “discovering, understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and processes.” Appreciative inquiry is about curiosity, not chasing solutions for their own sake, because “a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination…”

Consider how adopting appreciative inquiry approach might impact your approach to international development or addressing poverty. Instead of tromping into someone’s village or living room and proclaiming yourself as the fixer of their problems, you instead assume the permanent position of student. You prioritize their knowledge, not yours. Appreciative inquiry aims to expose the inherent blind spots that come with assuming you possess expertise on a subject.

This mode of thinking has profound implications for leadership and business management. How many times have you heard an executive describe their eagerness to respond to the concerns of their employees — only to hear their subordinates, in turn, express their hesitancy to speak up for fear of the potential cost to their careers or reputation within the company? How is such a chasm bridged? Appreciative inquiry invites one or more parties to approach the other in a spirit of seeking knowledge without ulterior motive or judgement.

To enact appreciative inquiry, one must assume an attitude of humility: it means learning from not giving to the other person. Asking, not telling. Edgar Schein defines humble inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Personally, I find this idea of ‘humble inquiry’ to be an indescribably liberating way of being in the world, especially in today’s ruthlessly polarized climate. It means I can discuss even the most contentious issues without needing to ‘correct’ other people’s ‘erroneous’ views. It means I can try to understand what makes other people tick, without trying to ‘solve’ the problem of their ‘delusions’ or ‘cognitive inability’ to see the truth. It means I value the process of ‘self-discovery’ for others as much as I do for myself, which means placing the utmost value on honest, curious questions. (For more along these lines, listen to And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question.)

In some respects, I feel like the ‘social innovation sector’ has significantly lost its way since Cooperrider and Srivastva wrote about appreciative inquiry in 1987. Today, we are all about solving problems. We are obsessed with problems — identifying them, describing them, researching them, and fixing them. The first thing we see when we look at a community is what appears to be wrong with it. Appreciative inquiry drags this unconscious bias into the light and invites us to rethink the way we describe community itself: not as a mire of issues to address, but as the source of a continually emerging future that we are constructing together. Don’t rush in to fix it, but humbly tip-toe in to ask questions about it.

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Poverty-Industrial Complex

As a nation, we’ve said many things about eradicating poverty and ending homelessness:

Let us affirm today, in this Parliament, that as a nation, by the beginning of the twenty-first century — only eleven years away — child poverty in this great Canada will be a relic of the past. (Ed Broadbent speaking to the House of Commons on November 24, 1989, on the motion to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. The motion was unanimously adopted.)

In my city, poverty has been the focus of much political discussion. In 2001, we said this:

By 2006 no resident of London will be homeless. (Community Plan on Homelessness in London, October 2001, pg. 40)

And in 2010:

Unlike previous plans, this Community Plan on Homelessness is a comprehensive reflection of the voice of the community. The Community Plan on Homelessness transcends any one funding program and is designed for alignment across a broad range of initiatives to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness. (London Community Plan on Homelessness, November 2010, pg. 15)

And in 2016:

The goal of these recommendations is for London to reach its full potential by ending poverty in one generation… Panels have been struck before, recommendations developed, plans made. Even with the best of intentions and efforts, we haven’t been able to bring about the big changes we are looking for. What makes things different this time? (London for All: A Roadmap to End Poverty, March 2016, pg. 2, 12)

Admittedly, cynicism comes easy. For others, a sense of aggravated pessimism and resentment is a default (and arguably justifiable) response to the past thirty years of political action on poverty. Broadly speaking, the last three decades of consultations, expert opinions, and academic research studies have all yielded pretty much the same outcome: an almost standardized, copy-and-paste list of recommendations never seem to get enough political traction in the real world. A 2008 discussion paper from my city’s research and planning department sums up the common recommendations that emerge from such processes:

…the general strategies for addressing poverty in a community are consistent: advocating for increased income through higher social assistance and minimum wage rates, taxation strategies, and child benefit levels; increasing access to community supports such as quality child care, adequate and safe housing, and transportation; increasing access to health supports; addressing issues that contribute to poor education outcomes and poor jobs… (Poverty Elimination in London: A Municipal Approach to Community Well-Being and Vitality, Social Research & Planning, April 17, 2008, pg. 47)

When it comes to addressing poverty, the kernel of our collective frustration is blatant: if we’ve been saying more or less the same things for so many years, why has so little been done? Every time yet another government consultation goes live — gathering yet more input from “people with lived experience” and community stakeholders — the indignation grows just a bit louder: we already told you what the issues are. As evidenced in community consultations of all kinds, we have a definite threshold for participating in public engagement schemes: the less implementation we see as a result of our previous input, the less inclined we are to accept future invitations to participate. Trust is a finite resource. In the end, for many, this circuit of consultations and research programs appears to be a circus of indifference and inaction:

Almost a decade of empty discussions about “poverty reduction” has shown that consultation is a diversionary tactic to avoid tackling poverty. (Let’s break the cycle of endless studies and consultations, Mike Balkwill, September 12, 2016, Toronto Star)

The following exchange is an imaginary dialogue to illustrate the situation:

“Would you be willing to participate in a research project to help us better understand the issues affecting people experiencing poverty?”

“What about the study you interviewed me for last year?”

“It was a great research project! And we thank you for your participation. Your insights helped us craft several important policy recommendations.”

“But nothing about my dire situation has changed.”

“Yes, unfortunately the government didn’t implement all the recommendations we proposed based on our findings.”

“So what was the point of the last study, then?”

“Well, we generated some terrific data. And we were able to win a another grant to this new study!”

“So, they have given you more money to ask me why I have no money?”

“Uh, well… If we can understand poverty, we’ll be able to make the system work better and more efficiently to serve people.”

“That’s what you said last time you asked me to be in one of your studies. I think my poverty might just be helping you stay employed.”

Let’s call this phenomenon the “poverty-industrial complex.” Like a military-industrial complex, it appears to be a league of elites devoted to funding one another’s pet projects. From the outside, at least, they might seem more interested in extracting money from one another than actually eradicating poverty itself. It is a system that appears to sustain insiders who are making names themselves on the backs of the impoverished: dissecting and commentating on the lives of their subjects — the poor — like laboratory rats. Many papers and resume-polishing articles are published for other elites to read. It all begins to look conspiratorial: nothing seems to change, but more and more public money is spent on the salaries of highly educated (and comfortably unionized) experts to research why nothing seems to change. The longer nothing changes, the more of them seem to be hired. And when a new political party promises to address poverty, what do they do upon winning office? They hire even more elites to do more studies. Another anti-poverty campaign. Another round of consultations. Another prestigious award for an upstanding in-group do-gooder. Another funding increase announced with fanfare and glossy brochures.

There are significant careers to be had and salaries to be made in professionally studying, talking, and theorizing about poverty. And yet there are still people desperately struggling in our city. I think it is the collision of these two realities where the breakdown of social trust snowballs into outright resentment.

One might think it would be alarming to everyone that the people we task as a society to study and address poverty are increasingly referred to as a social class of their own — the “poverty expert elites,” as it were. But perhaps this should be no surprise: accepting public money to study and comment on public social issues effectively makes one a public figure — and it leaves one’s motives and legitimacy open to scrutiny in the public sphere, much like a politician. (Except, unlike politicians, poverty experts do not have to seek reelection, which invites the public to be even more skeptical of their authority and position.) Ultimately, everyone who speaks to public social policy necessarily ventures into the public arena, which inherently invites criticism. (Expound this variable if your salary is linked to public money, and multiply it yet again if your career is directly linked to other people’s lack of resources, power, or social mobility.)

We often fail to recognize is the degree to which social heroism can be toxic for community.

Turning a blind eye to the realities and optics of this system is irresponsible and counterproductive to the stated cause of reducing poverty itself. The fact that the “fight against poverty” has created a socioeconomic tier from which people feel structurally and economically marginalized seems, in the long run, catastrophic to the struggle against poverty itself. And inasmuch as anti-poverty work is a struggle against inequality and systemic barriers to resources, anything that exemplifies “elitism” or resembles “insider trading” is more than just a problematic public image issue. Ignoring the real-life obstacles and inefficiencies that the poverty-industrial complex has created because we are “just too passionate about ending poverty to be distracted by the naysayers” is endemic to a willfully blind system caught in its own inertia.

(This post serves as an introductory ‘part 1’ of an informal, multipart reflection on the so-called poverty-industrial complex. I will explore the system from several angles. I am curious how it might be reimagined, circumvented, redeemed, or, perhaps, abolished. Full disclosure: I am presently employed part-time by a university-funded research centre that includes “Poverty and inequality” as an area of research. The extent to which I am personally implicated in the very system under critique is my driving motivation for this series. Like all writing and projects on this site, this work is composed entirely on personal time.)

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