A colleague recently asked me for “the AI perspective on meaning making.” There’s been lots of writing about how to make meaning during an AI process … but I can’t recall anything about why we do what we do. So I’d like to take a pass at reflecting on the question.

What We Study

In our book, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry, @DianaWhitneyPhD and I describe #AppreciativeInquiry as “the study of what gives life to human systems when they are at their best.” There are many other “definitions” of AI, and most of those that I seen are reasonably congruent with this one. But the simplest one I’ve heard or read came from one of my client: it’s “the search for value.”

Now, it might be said that every organizational change or human development process is a search for value. But how do we define value? The question of who engages in that search and how they are engaged has a great deal to do with what we find, who the findings privilege, and what the findings “create” going forward.

The manner in which these people search for value is another distinctive element of Appreciative Inquiry. As social constructionists, we believe that human systems move in the direction of the things they study and talk about: that “words create worlds.” So our search for value is focused on times when that which we seek has been most alive and evident – in our own and/or others’ experiences.

Who’s Involved

In our AI work, my colleagues and I talk about engaging the whole system in the search. What is the whole system? In The Appreciative Inquiry Summit, the authors describe it as the people and groups who have:

  • Interest in the task at hand,
  • Formal or informal influence,
  • Relevant information (or access to it)
  • Impact – or a high probability of being impacted – by decisions that are made, and
  • Financial or emotional investment in the outcome

In #AppreciativeLeadership, Diana, Kae Rader and I describe that as “everyone whose future it is.”

Why might it be important to engage such a diverse group of people in this search for value? If, as AI social constructionist theory suggests, our “words create our worlds,” then “value” is both defined and created through these conversations among broadly diverse stakeholders.

Why might it matter who defines “value?” Because that act of determining what is and isn’t “valuable” gives power to – or privileges – some things (and people) over others. Let me give an example.

Years ago, Barbara Lewis and I facilitated a strategic planning process for the @CityofLongmont, CO. The process involved hundreds of interviews and AI summits engaging a broad cross-section of the community: city employees and elected officials, business leaders, and citizens from every demographic “niche” that the organizers could imagine (e.g., ethnic/cultural background, age, length of residency, religious persuasion, etc.). Their purpose was to envision and create a “vibrant, sustainable Longmont” 10 years out, when tax revenues would flatten and publicly-funded resources would be harder to come by. Because of the diversity of participation, the things that were determined to be most “valuable” included:

  • The sense of community and belonging … what they described as a feeling of one giant front porch.
  • Enhancing their environmental legacy, or stewardship of the city’s abundant natural resources (water, open space, farmland, etc.).
  • An exciting living and business personality, which would make it easy for people to live, work, play and pray near home – rather than becoming part of the “sprawl” of Colorado’s Front Range.
  • Prosperity for all of the community’s citizens, including access to good education, multilingual services, and more.

How might this definition of value have changed, had this been a gathering only of business leaders, elected officials, or even what was then a large and growing community of first- and second-generation Latino immigrants? The breadth and depth of their search was a reflection of the purposefully diverse group of people who were invited – or who volunteered – to be part of the conversation.

I’ve talked about who gets to be involved, and have hopefully touched on why it matters. Let me now turn my attention to how we involve people in this “search for value.”

Gathering “Data”

Our approach to meaning making generally involves a combination of conversation and reflection. Individuals share personal experiences and stories about the topic at hand, most often beginning with a single partner who is as different from them as possible. Why does that matter? The initial conversation is an equalizer. It assures that every person in the process has a voice (i.e., an reflection and input) regardless of his or her social, organizational, economic, or ethnic status. Everybody answers the same questions – many of which involve storytelling, as well as aspirational reflections. Everybody’s experience matters and has equal value, as it is grounded in personal experience, rather than theory and/or professional training. Together, these stories and experiences provide grounded input for the meaning that is created.

At the same time, the interviews forge relationships. Upon completion of the process, people often describe themselves as feeling surprisingly close or connected to their interview partners … as finding themselves having similar thoughts and experiences, despite their apparent differences. One of our colleagues tells people to “meet your new best friend,” as she is introducing the activity. This alone is a crucial intervention into people’s “ordinary” way of relating to one another.

Why do we position this as an “interview,” rather than a back-and-forth conversation? The uninterrupted focus of the interview encourages active listening, probing, and (ideally) curiosity on the part of the interviewer. It puts the interviewee “in the spotlight,” which – though uncomfortable for some people – demonstrates respect and a belief that their input is valuable.

Periodically, organizations are trying to create something new: something their members have had no prior experience of. For example, a congregation of nuns is trying to create new structures for leadership, planning, etc. that will assure the long-term viability of their international mission. Most participants have lived in community for their entire adult lives, and many have had little – if any – contact with external organizations doing similar work. In this case, we have created opportunities for participants to broaden their experience and deepen their capacity to imagine by having them interview people from other organizations doing similar work. They are, in short, inviting the input and experience of people who have information and insight – beyond the walls of their congregation. We sometimes call this approach generative benchmarking.

Making Meaning

Once partners complete their initial interviews, they join with other pairs to form a small group (no less than 4 and no more than 10 people). Members of the small groups introduce their partners, sharing the stories they’ve heard in the interviews. The small size of the groups, combined with the “witnessing” of stories, creates a container or “safe space” for further dialogue and exploration.

As stories are shared, people talk about what they’ve heard and what it means. They listen for patterns across the stories, as well as outlying insights. Sometimes they conduct a formal “root cause of success” analysis, where they dig into the supportive conditions that enabled the positive experiences they’ve discussed. They’re encouraged to search in conversation for “higher ground,” rather than “common ground”: a distinction that openly acknowledges the likelihood of differences, and the importance of valuing or remaining curious as they become evident.

At some point, the small groups are invited to identify the most important things they have learned from their interviews and reflections. Once they’ve identified “key elements” (core contributors to success), groups are often invited to create or select some sort of image or icon that metaphorically illustrates the elements they’ve chosen, and their relationships to one another. Frequently, they are also encouraged to choose a single story (from among those previously shared) that best exemplifies their group’s chosen elements.

Assuming that several small groups are participating in this process simultaneously, a last step includes “report-outs” in the whole. Representatives of the small groups share the stories they’ve heard, the themes that the stories represent, and (where appropriate) the images or icons they’ve selected or created.

Why the images? Why the stories? Particularly in organizational settings, executive summaries and “bullet points” have become the norm. But such summaries and shortcuts rarely capture people’s hearts and imaginations; and they are easily forgotten. But people remember images and stories. And together, these images and stories begin to forge a “narrative of hope” that, drawing upon past success, paves the way for new and positive action in the future.

Reframing – or Re-storying – Past Events

Occasionally, when we inquire into times when things have worked well, we hear new versions of old stories. For example, when a group chose to inquire into “human and organizational resilience,” two participants described how they’d found themselves revisiting episodes that they’d previously experienced as failure. But when they’d turned the kaleidoscope a different direction, they discovered strengths – a capacity to rebound and regenerate – that they’d previously overlooked. This is an example of what Barnett Pearce describes as reframing: of re-determining when events begin and end.

This act of reframing – or restorying – restores a system’s capacity perceive its strengths, and to envision a positive future.

Potential Risks

Though the vast majority of people report positive outcomes from these appreciative processes, individual and cultural differences can render this approach less than optimal. Some people find it difficult to share positive – what might be considered self-aggrandizing – stories. Some interviewers are unable or unwilling to stick with the “script” and focus deeply on their partner’s feedback. The same can be true in the largely self-managed small groups: an individual might dominate or direct the conversation, thereby numbing or reversing the positive effects of the one-on-one interview.

Why Might Appreciative Meaning Making Work?

#Neuroscience author @DavidRock101 suggests that positively-focused one-on-one relationships, and being appreciative introduced to a small group of people, activates the brain’s “reward” response. These activities might similarly be seen as flooding the brain with positive emotions that, as Positivity author Barbara Fredrickson demonstrates, broaden people’s thought-action repertoire. They promote discovery of novel and creative actions and building people’s physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources.