Appreciative Inquiry: The Wrap-Up (for now)

Last week, I participated in the day-long Appreciative Inquiry Summit for Women’s Leadership.  The Jewish Federation of Cleveland convened the event with the following aspirations in mind:

Strengthening our Jewish community, building meaningful connections, and creating valuable experiences through opportunities that utilize the unique strengths and resources of women and maximize our personal growth and leadership potential.

Previously, I wrote about my anticipation of the day and followed up with a morning and afternoon dispatch from the Summit.

Now, I’d like to offer a few thoughts, looking back but also acknowledging that it is way too soon to fully appreciate – no pun intended – the ramifications of this unique and dare I say breakthrough gathering.

From the moment I walked in the room where we were to work from 9am through 4pm, the power was palpable.  The mere numbers of us present provided a baseline buzz, with tables set for six often accommodating more, especially later in the day as we moved through the process.

But more tangibly, I experienced the power as emanating from a shared desire to be there. I won’t lie and say that every single participant possessed the same joie de vivre from beginning to end. But I would venture that we shared it certainly through lunch and before late afternoon set in.  It isn’t simple – sustaining a day that requires intense focus with just working breaks (for the most part), and even with a facilitator and with up to 150 or more people you don’t know but with whom you have been charged with helping discover and create something that no one can even define yet.  But overall, everyone did function at a high, engaged level throughout.

Why? Why would so many women take a day to follow a specific program design and basically take orders all day in an effort that sought to pluck from each of us ideas and visions that we might not even realize we imagined?

For one thing, because of that shared desire – a love for our community. Our Jewish community and a woman’s community and a woman’s Jewish community and a community of Jewish women.  Nothing needed to be spoken or pointed out because these commonalities were a given.  And I feel comfortable in saying that no one who doesn’t love one or more of those categories attended.

So we were taking advantage of an opportunity to be with women who, like each of us, had an interest in one or more common attributes related to being a woman, being in the Cleveland area and being Jewish.  And if we didn’t know this when we arrived, by the time we finished the first set of tasks – which involved talking about ourselves to a partner and then listening to the partner respond to the same set of questions – we knew.

From there, we moved on to identifying what was common in our stories of success and leadership and then sharing those with the larger group. Then, we progressed to envisioning a 2013 version of our community – not so much about what we hoped it would be like, but more about what it is like, as if we were there already.  The main contextual difference I saw in how the inquiry program wanted us to accomplish this task had to do with the requirement of rejecting skepticism: we weren’t allowed to think in terms of, “if only…” or “this will never happen but wouldn’t it be great if…”.

Instead, we had to come up with newspaper headlines or some other contrivance that would be common and typical of our 2013 community.  As I wrote in a previous post, my favorite was the one that was represented by a text message declaring, “No more money needed – all needs met.”  I recall the room going kind of silent before erupting into applause – I still think that’s a fantastic focal point.

This period of time spent getting to know one another, identifying strengths and imagining what the future will be (see? I’m not even saying, “might be”), gave way in the early and later afternoon to tasks oriented more toward implementation: through what vehicles could we accomplish, get to that “no more money needed/all needs met” state of being? What do we need to do between now and then – what can we do between now and then to get there?

By working in slightly larger groups than just the six original people to a table, we came up with several projects or ideas to be implemented in service of what we imagined for the future.  Then, we selected one idea as the top pick to be pursued, and one as a second idea to be pursued.  This choosing was then followed by the facilitator going around the room and asking us to declare are choices, and having those choices mapped out on an “opportunity map” – probably a total of 50 or so ideas got listed.  Following that, we were given five sticky dots and a ten minute or so break to visit the map and place our dots on the ideas we wanted to see receive more consideration.

After that step, the eight or so ideas with the most dots became those around which we were allowed to gather and discuss how we they could be implemented.

And it was at this point that some of the more challenging moments for me and apparently at least a few others came.

Let me be clear: when I say challenges, I mean that at this juncture in the day, these eight ideas reflected the consensus of the consensus of the consensus.  And while there’s no question that reaching consensus is something without which few things can be achieved, it is also necessary, I believe, to recognize what a consensus process leaves out: anything that’s not getting the majority thumbs up.  I struggled with this because the consensus ideas did not represent, to me, particularly original possibilities.  I was disappointed and a bit discouraged by that.

But wait! There’s more!

Once I sat down with the collection of folks around one of the ideas – mentoring – the work of fleshing out what’s been done before, how might this be different, how can we learn from the failures and successes that have come before demonstrated that how much we’d only just begun: women in their 60s and 70s were talking about attempts and failures, women in their 40s the same, and women in their 20s talking up what they’d like to see.

In other words – just selecting ideas to be implemented and speaking with one another as though we were starting on that path was perhaps enough (or beyond what would have been enough) to expect for such a day of brainstorming (and that word oversimplifies what we accomplished).

So I want to close by circling back to the aspirations:

Strengthening our Jewish community, building meaningful connections, and creating valuable experiences through opportunities that utilize the unique strengths and resources of women and maximize our personal growth and leadership potential.

Frankly, last Thursday all by itself did all that. I witnessed it – the strengthening, the connecting, the using our strengths, resources and leadership potential. If nothing more was done, all those things happened and I know with lasting effect for many of the attendees.

But the truth is that that day really was just the beginning.  I’m pretty sure that most of us who attended don’t really know what’s next, and we may indeed go back to the ebb and flow of our activities not reviewing that day. But there are people with that opportunity map and a whole lot of other evidence of the work we did – the appreciative inquiry in which we engaged.  And I’m convinced that in the best interests of our community – Cleveland, Jewish, women and all the combinations of those – they are eager, and anxious, to figure out and let us know exactly what’s next.

2 thoughts on “Appreciative Inquiry: The Wrap-Up (for now)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Jill Miller Zimon Appreciates Inquiry « Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Blog

  2. Wow, Jill! I think you really captured it all! But the summit lives on; everywhere I went this weekend there were women who had attended the summit and wanted to talk about it and there were others who had wanted to be there but couldn’t and then there were the people who heard others talking about it and were intrigued–it’s gone viral!! Follow-up is under way!

    Hedy

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