Imagine 120 people, grouped around fifteen tables of eight people each. They were all stakeholders of the large Dutch national firefighters organization, all somehow connected to ‘transferring learning to working practice’. (The practical transfer is always important in learning, but it especially is for firemen.) Red tablecloths on the tables; lights are dimmed; small (electric!) candles on the tables. There were lots of relics on the table, such as firemen helmets, water hoses and specific rescue tools. Although all of these people are in a meeting room, the atmosphere is ‘practical’. They are practical people. Being representatives of an organization with tens of thousands of co-workers, the people in the room are mostly new to each other. (And if not, the table settings secure the maximum mix of people around every table.) I was very honored to be their AI-summit facilitator. We had the opportunity to spend a full day with each other.
It’s around eleven o’clock. We’re in the middle of the Discovery phase. In pairs, the attendees performed a mutual appreciative inquiry interview with each other, with the aim of ‘discovering’ strong experiences from the past, when the transfer of learning to practice went very well. After the pairs have returned to the plenary room and before they share their stories, I take the microphone, shop around the tables and ask individuals about their AI interview experiences. Some were really excited to hear about a good practice within another region of the organization. Others shared experiences about feeling very appreciated by another person listening to their stories. Some people were pleased to just have a good, warm and constructive conversation and wanted to share that they miss these kind of encounters at work…
What are the odds of two particular people ending up at one out of fifteen tables? And what are the odds that out of eight people, two of them form a couple for an AI interview? One of the participants took my microphone and shared that he was a study coach at one of the regional training institutes. He had supported a student-firefighter who had completed his training and assisted him getting into a work environment. He explained that at some point he received complaints about the (lack of) practical experience of the student…. The other participant of the pair was sitting next to him, and told him that he was the mentor of the team in which the student was placed. He explained that he was the one who made the complaints, but decided to focus on the student, but somehow this did not lead toward further investigation or discussion. At this point I’m not sure whether the study coach and the team mentor have had mail conversations, but I remember they were mutually not very happy about each others actions. And now, by pure coincidence they found each other in an Appreciative Inquiry Interview. As a result, they fully understood and appreciated each other’s situation and they had already come up with solutions for improvement. They had started a very fine professional relationship. This is what an AI summit can lead us to.
What is the purpose of an AI summit? It’s to produce the best ideas to realize a desired future based upon a specific question – an affirmative topic. Where do these ideas come from? They stem from people’s strongest experiences concerning the affirmative topic. What is needed for people to come up with their stories? First of all, to be with a variety of stakeholders, often called ‘the whole system in the room’. Secondly, a ‘friendly’ meeting environment. Thirdly, time to meet and get acquainted. Fourthly, a ‘safe’ circumstances in which personal stories can be shared. Fifth, a guideline or summit script to enable several forms of communication and co-creation; interviews in pairs, roundtable dialogues and small group presentations.
What can happen? At the end of the day there is a selection of ‘best ideas’ including suggestions for first next steps into realization. Moreover, many co-owners of these best ideas are willing to put energy in the realization. Why are they co-owners of the action plans? It’s because they were the co-producers. If these sustained ideas and proposals are to be regarded as ‘output’ of the AI summit, there’s also a lot of extra ‘outcome’. People who experienced high quality communication, lots of new connections and working relationships. There’s a feeling of really being part of the organization (again), there’s a sense of pride on behalf of the organization, for its capability to organize an AI summit. There’s a reassurance that working together can be fun as well as productive…
This particular Firefighter-Summit was a very effective one, due to the focus placed upon following up on the outcome process: out of eight proposals, three ‘best practices’ have been selected, described as attractive stories, and presented to the 25 regions of the organization. The process of improving the ‘transfer of learning’ within the organization is still going on. This is all thanks to someone who was inspired by Appreciative Inquiry and suggested a summit to support her project objectives. Thanks to Marianne Heijndijk, senior advisor of the Academy for Talent and Leadership for the Dutch Safety Regions. Dear Marianne, co-creation with you is like a nice walk along the beach, with a good friend, in the midst of summer!
What would you consider as your strongest experience in partaking in a conference?
Can you recall a (business) conference that lead to a sustainable follow-up?
Regarding the next meeting you are in, what would be your desired outcome?
You’ve just read one of the 100 chapters of my book Appreciative Inquiries of the 3.0 Kind. Find out more (and a special pre-ordering offer) on www.appreciativeinquiries.eu.