Appreciative Inquiry: How to Tap Human Potential in Costa Rica

Costa Rican Boy

Pepperdine University’s Master of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) progam’s Nu Prime cohort (the class starting in fall 2010) is comprised of 30 students from throughout the U.S. and across the world, reaching Guatamala, Indonesia, Australia and Mexico. Students meet face-to-face a few times a year in intensive, action learning sessions. In between sessions, students are required to manage a high level of independent and small group assignments. A few of those face-to face-sessions are held in international locations in alliance with local organizations.

The 2011 spring session, held in Costa Rica, focused on organizational culture and appreciative inquiry. It was led by program director Terri Egan and assisted by MSOD alumni Christine Little. One component of this session was an appreciative inquiry (AI) workshop conducted by world-recognized AI thought leaders, Jane Watkins and Ralph Kelly.

As stated by Jane Watkins, “Appreciative Inquiry is an articulated theory that rationalizes and reinforces the habit of mind that moves through the world in a generative frame, seeking and finding images of the possible rather than scenes of disaster and despair. Appreciative Inquiry seeks what is right in an organization.”

The workshop was held at INCAE, a major Costa Rican Business School, and included participants from Café Britt, Banco Nacionale and The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, all of which were the client organizations the MSOD students would consult with later in the session. A bi-lingual translator spoke over a radio broadcast system and students wore headsets to hear the alternating translation between English and Spanish, depending on what language the facilitator/speaker was using.

After learning about the theory of AI together, the participants broke up into teams to apply their learning towards business situations. The students partnered with the clients to identify and scope one business challenge to apply AI, such as improving internal relations between specific business units or increasing understanding of customer needs on a specific product.

MSOD students in Costa RicaI participated in the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation team. Members of that team included the leader of the Foundation, women from the community (La Carpio, one of the slum areas in Costa Rica) and MSOD students. The women of La Carpio spoke little to no English and the MSOD students spoke little or no Spanish. The leader of the Foundation spoke both languages, but would not be with the group the entire time of the project. It definitely challenged the group to find creative and different ways to communicate, but we managed.

The women from La Carpio on our team identified a need to inform parents on the value of education. The average education level in La Carpio is 6th grade, including the women on the team. With these people living in extreme poverty, it’s difficult for them to see the incentive to stay in school and think about their long-term well-being when their daily worries are on fundamental basics like food and shelter. Using the concept of AI, our team set out to help the parents come together and focus on the possibilities and assets within the community to grow and support the children.

At the start of the effort, in hopes that the knowledge and experience would be sustainable, the team decided that the women of La Carpio (not including the leader of the Foundation) were going to lead the workshops. The MSOD students then focused on coaching, supporting and consulting with the women and helped create templates of the session design and activity worksheets.

The women from La Carpio facilitated the sessions and used story-telling and skits to relay key messages about AI. They had the participants breakout into small group discussions and envision what the future could look like if their children had greater opportunities. Outcomes of these sessions were:

  • Women of La Carpio who were on the AI team had built their confidence with teaching and facilitating the workshop. They had never done anything like that before and even a more experienced teacher that participated in the workshop shared how proud she was of them and commended their work.
  • Women community members (mothers, teachers, caregivers) came together for a common purpose. Many of these women had never met each other and at the end of the workshop, had started dialogue on how to work together and began to build camaraderie.
  • The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation decided to continue holding AI workshops with different parts of La Carpio. Their hope is to continue the community building and involving the people of the community to address the problems they see with possibilities and solutions they identify.

The final, and one of the most moving, outcomes of the experience was when all of the AI workshop groups came back together to report out and reflect on learnings. In deciding who was going to report out for our team, the leader of the Foundation stepped back and said it wasn’t going to be her. After a minute, which seemed like forever, of awkward silence, one of the women from La Carpio took the microphone and in a room full of corporate professionals and graduate students, held her head high and so eloquently reported our experience and findings back to the group. The room was moved by her courage and her leadership.

That experience in itself showed us the greatest power of AI … the ability to tap into the amazing possibilities of human potential.

Maria Odiamar Racho, MSOD Candidate 2012

Maria Odiamar Racho, MSOD Candidate 2012

Maria is an organizational effectiveness consultant with Allstate Insurance Company. She is passionate about helping people unleash their full potential to be their very best and to have greater impact in their work, life and community. Maria began her academic journey as a non-traditional community college and technical college student, culminating in earning her MSOD from Pepperdine University. She is located in Chicago, IL and can be contacted at mracho(at) or can be found via LinkedIn.
Maria Odiamar Racho, MSOD Candidate 2012

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Maria Odiamar Racho, MSOD Candidate 2012

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  1. Ann Feyerherm says:

    What a wonderful story about the way the MSOD students interacted and also empowered peoples’ own voices in this important project!

  2. Maria thank you for giving a voice and face to the women of La Carpio! So inspired witnessing the impact of MSOD students using their knoweldge and “use of self” to empower, uplift and change communities — especially women around the globe. Thank you Nu Prime!

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