A Progressive Paradigm for Guiding Groups
Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister, Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD

Promo blurb:

Organizations thrive by living out their guiding principles. Over time, those foundations often shift, as do cultural paradigms. The most effective groups stay ahead of this curve, and a 20-year-old philosophy/technique called Appreciative Inquiry points the way.

Jaco B. ten Hove is co-minister, with spouse Barbara W. ten Hove, of Paint Branch UU Church near College Park, MD. A "home-bred" UU from New Jersey, Jaco graduated from Starr King School for Ministry in 1988, and served solo for 10 years in Edmonds, WA, just north of Seattle. He then teamed with Barbara in an interim co-ministry in Golden, CO, before coming to Maryland in 1999. They co-authored the popular 2003 UUA curriculum, "Articulating Your UU Faith" and Jaco is journal editor and past president of the UU Men's Network.

 

A Progressive Paradigm for Guiding Groups

--- a service by Jaco B. ten Hove - 2004/05

 

"You can tell clever people by their answers. You can tell wise people by their questions."
-Naguib Nahfouz, Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, 1988

[READING intro:]

Barbara Marx Hubbard is a well-known and respected futurist thinker, who also put her progressive ideas into play as a candidate for U.S. Vice-president in 1984. This reading is taken from her 1998 book, "Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of our Social Potential," an inspiring call-to-action, grounded in her sense that we can indeed fulfill our potential even in the face of harsh realities. She writes

"The acceleration of breakdowns in our system, such as population growth, hunger, poverty, violence, environmental decay, toxic wastes, the greenhouse effect, and pollution of the seas and soils, are mutually interactive and lead to increased entropy and/or disorder in the system.

Some scientists have predicted that because of the rapidly increasing interactions among breakdowns, we may cause irreversible damage to our living system in a very short period of time.

What is almost never noticed, however, is that there is a concurrent convergence of positive social innovations.....

If the positive innovations connect exponentially, before the massive breakdowns reinforce one another, the system can repattern itself to a higher order of consciousness and freedom without the predicted economic and environmental or social collapse.

We can evolve toward the positive as quickly as we might devolve toward the negative If the system could go either way, a slight intervention to assist the convergence of the positive can tip the scales of evolution in favor of the enhancement of life on earth."

[SONG :]

New Community Bound (Tune: "Won't You Play a Simple Melody")

I believe that life is mystery, filled with possibility,

Toil and tears and creativity-building new community.

A new society's rising, and it's not so surprising, if you're looking around.

Just put your ear to the ground, you'll hear a heavenly sound.

New human images spinning, and the village is winning, so believe what you see.

Why don't come on with me-We're new community bound!

 [Written in the mid-1970s by a group from the Institute of Cultural Affairs]

 

 

 

 

 

[SERMON :]       A Progressive Paradigm for Guiding Groups

This song [above] makes me want to ask some questions, like: If you were "building new community" and could include just one aspect of old community, what would you bring with you? Or: Imagine putting your ear to the ground, where you hear "a heavenly sound." What is it you hear? Or: "A new society's rising." What does it look like?

These kind of provocative questions sound like the inquiries that a few small groups at the congregation I serve, Paint Branch UU Church, are starting to use to set themselves in motion. Our Board of Trustees, for instance, began a recent meeting by responding to this simple question: "What have you been active in lately that has been working well?" After hearing a dozen different answers, the mood in the room was impressive and the meeting proceeded quite effectively. A similar mood prevailed at another group's meeting after participants all responded to this topic: "Describe a recent moment when you felt inspired by someone or something that happened at church."

I suggested both those openings because I have been trained in the basics of Appreciative Inquiry, often just called A.I.,-an increasingly reputable philosophy and technique for guiding groups in this post-modern age. How many of you out there have ever heard of Appreciative Inquiry? [About 10 hands went up.] I began investigating this fertile field six years ago and, as part of my sabbatical this past spring, I was able to attend a five-day workshop called "A.I. Foundations."

I'm convinced that this 20-year old approach to organizational advancement is indeed "A Progressive Paradigm for Guiding Groups, and in this talk I will focus on the five guiding principles at the heart of Appreciative Inquiry . Together they animate a very encouraging social perspective, one that I believe may well even "tip the scales of evolution in favor of the enhancement of life on earth," as hoped for in our reading from Barbara Marx Hubbard.

So, without further ado, here's my version of this set of five foundational elements. I invite your consideration of how they do or might operate in any groups you're a part of, not the least of which, of course, would be this congregation. After swimming in some alphabet soup, I came up with a handy acronym for the five points: COPIA, which may help you follow me down these sometimes abstract avenues. ( Copia just happens to be the Latin word for abundance, most commonly seen in its adjective form, copious.) Each letter of COPIA represents a single word that then helps me describe the principle at work.

 

First up is CREATIVE -which in this context points to how we create our world with our words. One wag [Joseph Jaworski, American Leadership Forum, 1996] went so far as to say, "We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we describe."

This understanding has an entire school of thought around it, called Social Constructionism, which explores how human language is powerfully employed to construct social expectations and realities. For instance, you've likely heard the qualification that "History is written by the victors." This is because they are able to fill the history books with very particular language that conveys an understandably subjective message. We are wise to recognize this, let we think that any presentation of history is fully objective.

In my own life, there is at least one family tale told of me when I was young that I do not remember firsthand, but it has become part of my identity anyway. It was an episode I couldn't remember, because I slept completely through a rousing middle-of-the-night visit to our home by the local fire department. The incident was thankfully minor, but you can believe the rest of the family told me all about it, aghast that I never woke up. All of their images I then integrated into my memory, as if I had been awake. Their words created a piece of my world, my history. This process happens to most of us all the time, so often that we are frequently unaware of it.

But you better believe Madison Avenue is aware of the power of words to create our consumerist world. And politicians, too, eh? If I repeat certain words and phrases often enough with enough conviction, people will believe they're true, right? This technique can be abused but it's popular because it works.

In a Washington Post Magazine article last month about talk radio, one public policy expert put it bluntly, "Let me control the language and I'll control the legislation" [Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in The Wash. Post Magazine, Sept.12, 2004, pg. 35]. It works with metaphor, too. Abstract ethical values such as good and bad, by themselves, may have little impact on us, but when embodied by vibrant images or characters-such as St. George (good), dragon (bad)-those values will take hold in our psyches.

Words, language and metaphor do more than just describe reality; they create it. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Book of John in the Christian Scriptures opens with a statement translated as "In the beginning was the Word." It is a Creation Story. "Words Create Worlds" [M. Heidegger].

 

The second principle, represented by the "O" in COPIA, shows up as OPEN, meaning that we can always choose to pursue any aspect of our world, which is like an open book to us. There is an endless supply of learning, inspiration, and possibility available in every direction, much as there are many potential interpretations of a poem.

This is especially relevant, theologically, for Unitarian Universalists. Our liberal religious forebears have consistently declared, often in the face of aggressive orthodoxy, that life is an open book, that divinity is not limited by doctrine, or, to use an historically notable phrase, "Revelation is not sealed". Instead, we affirm that the Holy unfolds anew in each of us on each new day. We call it our "living tradition." (This argument may seem passé to most of us now, but it has been a major bone of contention in eras past and, if some absolutist Americans have their theocratic way, a more closed and exclusive posture will soon return to our cultural agenda.)

Here's a perfect image for this principle. Back in the 1950s, in the sanctuary of one very creative, if short-lived Universalist congregation in Boston, called the Charles Street Meeting House, there was a large open book, prominently displayed and full of empty pages. The steady presence of this blank book symbolized the still-unwritten quality of life and meaning, lest we be tempted to think that all truth had already been spoken. (Perhaps ironically, the minister responsible for this symbology was one of the most prolific of 20 th century UUs, Kenneth L. Patton, who left Boston in 1964 to become minister at my home church in New Jersey. Patton wrote the words to numerous hymns in our hymnbook.)

In the grand openness of the universe we have choices about what to study, and these decisions very often determine the paths we tread. We also make choices about which words and metaphors provide meaning for us, but we may do this unconsciously, or we may simply inherit meaningful metaphors. We may, for example, imagine human organizations as machines, or as eco-systems, or as families, or battlegrounds, or networks, etc. And, perhaps without realizing it, as we use any one of those metaphors, we also project its built-in assumptions that dictate not only meaning, but response. For instance, we are very likely to relate differently to a group if we think of it as a machine versus an eco-system.

So in Appreciative Inquiry, the OPEN principle urges a group to carefully, intentionally design and aim its study in whatever direction it chooses, but knowing full well how fateful that decision can be. To the extent we are aware of our actions, we can consciously select from among all the possibilities for any engagement, and stay OPEN to new choices as we go.

 

Which leads me to the third principle at work in effective groups, one which follows from being both CREATIVE and OPEN. The P in my acronym COPIA stands for what most people and groups really, naturally want to be: POSITIVE . A.I pivots on a basic truism in human existence: emphasis on the positive usually brings more of it.

In two decades of applying A.I., it has become abundantly clear that positive questions lead to positive change. Positive questions also bring out the best in people and organizations, often taking what has been working and aiming it toward an exciting future of possibility, a future that then flows encouragingly out of an inspirational past.

When any group articulates the positive core of its current life and activity, describing what has animated the organization at its best so far-at that point the odds are almost automatically increased that the next steps forward will be powerfully productive. You may have heard a relatively new phrase bandied around in groups that reflects this principle. "Best Practices," are often put forth as clear statements of how a group has experienced itself operating well in the past.

Similarly, one also hears of "asset mapping," "social capital," organizational wisdom," etc.-jargon, perhaps, but reflective of a fundamental truth: POSITIVE energy is just as contagious as negative energy. Or, as Barbara Marx Hubbard reminded us [in the reading], " We can evolve toward the positive as quickly as we might devolve toward the negative."

 

Speaking of things happening quickly, our next entry in the acronym COPIA is the letter I, which stands for IMMEDIATE . This principle notices that change can occur immediately upon asking questions. In other words, inquiry is not always the neutral activity it might appear to be. The act and process of asking questions can simultaneously bring change, which is another reason why the particular topic of inquiry and questions asked are so fateful.

As those responding become creative, open, and positive, they often come up with IMMEDIATE activators toward change. It been said, "Be careful what you ask for!" This wisdom points to the truth of how inquiry itself can affect a group's future from that moment on. The democratic nature of this process often uncovers exciting changes that can be made immediately, even as there are larger issues that also get addressed.

 

 Addressing the future brings us to the final, perhaps most significant of these principles, also the largest of the five words in the acronym: ANTICIPATORY , the A in COPIA.

Our minds have habits, one of which is to anticipate what comes next. That's partly why films, moving pictures work. In our minds, we subconsciously project, as if onto a screen, images that lead us into the next moment, and the next. Groups do this as well-collectively imagining and expecting certain aspects of the future to unfold. These images guide us through today and inspire us toward tomorrow, alone and together.

And, not surprisingly, it matters just what those images of the future are, for they will help determine the directions we go and the spirit we go with. You undoubtedly know this intuitively, and it is certainly not a new discovery. Why, even Aristotle, two dozen centuries ago, noticed the phenomenon and commented, "A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it." A few years later, Albert Einstein is famously quoted, reminding us that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." [in D. Cooperrider, "Positive Image, Positive Action: The Affirmative Basis of Organizing," 1990, Pg. 5].

But anticipatory images are often deeply informed by, if not ingrained in our personal philosophies, worldviews and religious perspectives, many of which are cultivated un- or sub-consciously.

For instance, 20 years ago, Norman Cousins described how our medical conditions can be affected by our state of mind and our life philosophy. "The healing system," he wrote, "is the way the body mobilizes all its resources to combat disease. The belief system is often the activator of the healing system" [in Cooperrider, pg. 5]. In other words, what we believe affects how we feel. A companion finding to this is the well-accepted power of the Placebo Effect to impact outcomes. With placebos, healing occurs simply because of the expectation, the belief that it will, even without any specific agent. Our minds usually play a lead role in whatever we might anticipate.

We all have what might be called "inner newsreels" playing in our mind's eye, projecting ahead of us both optimistic images and fearful images of our future. Researchers studying post-heart surgery patients have determined that odds for a healthy recovery improve when the ratio of optimistic images to fearful images is at least 2:1. [Ibid., pgs. 12, 18]. So we are healthiest when we have at least twice as many positive images of our future as negative ones.

A similar dynamic evidently works in the formative atmosphere of homes with young children. If a majority of a family's internal dialogue is negative-what not to do, how bad things are, what was done wrong, who is to blame, etc.-well, you can imagine the contrast with another family where children hear many more affirmations. And the same ratio effect also impacts organizations. When optimistic energy and images dominate a group, health and effectiveness rise.

As with families, the Anticipatory principle also applies in wider settings that include influential others, such as in school. In one famous case study (repeated and confirmed many times), a class's teachers were told which of their students were of high potential, although in fact, all the students had all been selected randomly. It became clear from tracking the students over time that they indeed responded to the teachers' assumptions about their capacities and did perform in the anticipated categories, according to what's called the "manipulated expectancy" of the teachers. This is serious scientific confirmation of the power of anticipation.

The best news may be that research has also shown a definite human tendency to be "heliotropic," which literally means we are inclined to lean toward the sun. Break up the word and you have "helio" meaning sun, and "tropic," turning toward.

In most cultures, the sun is generally a revered, life-giving aspect, so we can also extend the heliotropic metaphor to groups that lean toward what is life-giving. In the words of the acknowledged founder of Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, "Human systems (tend to) evolve in the direction of positive anticipatory images of the future" [Ibid., pg. 2].

Our anticipation of a sunny future drives us into it. In Cooperrider's words, it "becomes self-fulfilling because it is self-propelling" [Ibid., pg. 14]. This happens whether or not we're even aware of it. So I think it behooves us to pay attention. Mahatma Gandhi told us, "Be the change you want to see."

The capacity to project and affirm an ideal image as if it is already so is known as "affirmative competence" [Ibid., pg. 15], which has long been promoted by ambitious professional athletes like golfing great Jack Nicklaus. He considers affirmative competence to be as significant a discipline in mastering his game as his sheer physical ability. Anticipatory images such as "I'm going to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway" helped make Nicklaus a legend on those courses. [See  J. Nicklaus, Golf My Way , 1974.]

In parallel fashion, any group can articulate a goal, then develop specific anticipatory images of more and better experiences ahead, often called visions. This does not, by the way, imply or require being in denial about problems, concerns or issues, like an institutional Pollyanna. It just builds on the reality that whatever we give our attention to is what will grow. I have personally experienced an Appreciative Inquiry design that effectively resolved a problematic situation without ever even naming it, per se. Quite encouraging, really.

Building our own resolve to grow toward the sunshine of a positive future is work worth doing, as I expect many of you already are. It is especially important in the face of so many discouraging societal ills all around us. This growth be accomplished at increasingly more profound and effective levels by both individuals and by groups, perhaps even by a species trying to consciously evolve, "new community bound."

 

And so, based on an abundance (COPIA) of research and experience, we now have available to us a progressive paradigm for guiding groups into a future rich with value, because it will be well-grounded in the best of what's come before. And it will be full of Creative, Open, Positive, Immediate and Anticipatory excitement about what comes next.

We can help "positive innovations connect exponentially" right here, right now-in our personal lives and in our communities. So may it be.


More about Appreciative Inquiry is available on a website devoted to this field, called the "A.I. Commons," at this address: http://appreciativeinquiry.cwru.edu/ .

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