Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2013

CMP Series: The Power of the Whole

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

A step-by-step approach to an Appreciative Inquiry Summit, which harnesses the contributions of all stakeholders to move organizations and industries forward.

In the December 2011 issue of Convene, we introduced you to Appreciative Inquiry (AI), the change-leadership methodology pioneered by David Cooperrider — and to Cooper-rider's vision for using this strengths-based approach to revolutionize the meetings industry.

“We are on the eve of the meetings industry's finest hour,” Cooperrider — a professor of social entrepreneurship at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University — told Susan Sarfati, CAE, in that interview. But, he added, we can't get there without changing the way conferences are designed. “Why,” he asked, “would we bring thousands of participants together and not engage their strategic and creative minds and imagination for some significant advancement of opportunities for their organization?”

Instead of the traditional conference format of downloading information (Conference 1.0), or a version of that with some dialogue and networking sprinkled in (Conference 2.0), Cooperrider proposed that planners embrace a new model, Conference 3.0, for their large-group meetings — tapping into all the attendees’ talents with a process for them to work collectively on tasks with strategic and creative value. Meeting takeaways — actionable steps to move an industry or field forward — would then be the culmination of this effort, rather than highlights of education sessions.

Cooperrider's invitation resonated with Convene reader Robert S. Collier, president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), who promptly began to overhaul CMF's upcoming 40th Annual Conference. “When I read the article,” Collier told Convene, “I said, ‘This is exactly what we should be doing — what was suggested in this article about creating a Conference 3.0 experience — because I've trained my staff on Appreciative Inquiry.'”

After hearing from Collier, we decided to delve a little deeper into the Conference 3.0 model. First, we asked Collier to describe how he wove AI methodology into his conference. And then we went back to the source, and asked Cooperrider to walk us through a few successful AI Summits he spearheaded. Here, in his own words, he shares how two such events yielded powerful results: a three-day summit for 250 leaders in the dairy industry — farmers, processors, retailers, distributors, students, NGOs, academics, consultants, and others — on industry sustainability, held in 2008; and Sustainable Cleveland 2019: Building an Economic Engine to Empower a Green City on a Blue Lake, which began in 2009 with more than 700 business leaders and civic entrepreneurs, and is now held annually. He starts us off with Pre-Summit Work.

Pre-Summit Work

In an Appreciative Inquiry Summit, the pre-summit steering committee comes together typically for a day-and-a-half to two days of design work. They have three or four major things that they need to accomplish.

First, they need to really articulate what is the collective-action task. Secondly, relative to that task, who are all the stakeholders that we want to make sure are in the room? They map the stakeholder groups and give proportionate numbers to those. So if we want young people to be part of the sustainable dairy-industry movement, what percentage of the convention should be young people in order to accomplish our task? How many and what proportions of each stakeholder do we need to have to really advance this task?

And then the third thing they do is develop the pre-summit research. Sometimes they will do Appreciative Inquiry analysis and interviews throughout the industry to lift up the very best of the best, all of the innovations and all of the best practices so that you come into the summit with a database of strengths that really can help build the vision of the future - so the summit is not just an emergent process, but we come into it with some real business and economic insight.

Another task is to come up with the pre-summit momentum building. How do we ensure that we fill the room with the right stakeholders? And then how do we communicate in a way that builds the excitement and momentum? Sometimes groups will do a webcast ahead of time, to prepare people.

Finally, the group starts designing the post-summit follow-through designs even before the summit takes place, so that already there is really good extensive thinking about how we move forward. In the dairy-industry summit, in order to create a sustainable dairy industry for America, in post-summit work they created a new innovation corporation to do the fundraising for a lot of these innovations. And it is quite amazing. I think they raised over $100 million in funds to foster the innovations, like ways of taking methane and turning it into natural-gas pipelines.

An AI Summit is a meeting where everyone is engaged as designers, sharing leadership and taking ownership for making the future of some big-league opportunity successful. The meeting appears bold at first, but is based on a simple notion: When it comes to enterprise innovation and integration, there is nothing that brings out the best in human systems — faster, more consistently, and more effectively — than the power of “the whole.”

Day One: Discovery

With the dairy-industry summit, instead of just a typical association kind of meeting, we created a real action-oriented focus around creating a sustainable dairy industry. The first day's morning session was on the discovery of all the assets, strengths, and innovations bubbling up in the sustainability domain — ways in which wind energy was powering the dairy farms, transportation costs were being cut in half through better logistics; all the ways in which the industry was going greener.

This first phase of the convention is the Discovery Phase, where you craft very powerful questions to elevate the true, good, better, the possible — all the strengths in the system already there. I call it mapping the positive core of that system. Typically, we have people just turn to the person next to them and do an Appreciative Inquiry interview — again, focused on elevating all of the stories of strength, innovation, capacity, and potential.

Then the participants are organized into groups at tables — usually groups of eight that are very maximum-mix groups. We had farmers at the table, scientists, and agricultural schools, universities, government leaders and regulators — we had the whole system in the room. So each table was a composite, a microcosm of that whole system.

The Discovery Phase is followed by the afternoon session, which can be more of a typical conference format — breakout groups, keynoter, and panels to present the cutting-edge, frontier information that that community is coming for.

Day Two: Dream

The next day, we start the morning session with what we call the Dream Phase, where we have that whole system of people collectively imagine the possible and the preferred future, at their tables, again in maximum-mix kind of groups. But it is not just utopian dreaming. It is dreaming with our feet on the ground. It is kind of a grounded visioning process, where we look at what our history together has prepared us for, what the world is calling for, and then we ask people to step into that future — to think 10 to 20 years out. Small innovations and much bolder and larger innovations have occurred, and the industry became exactly as they would like to see it. What is new? What is better? What is different? What has changed? And how did it get there?

There are lots of differences, obviously, in these very diverse groups. But we honor the differences, and then we search to really put this stake in the ground

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