Setting the World on Fire: Fathom After an Appreciative Inquiry Summit


(From L-) Jon Berghoff, Scot Lowry, Jon Vroman, David Cooperrider

Organizational change is not a topic typically addressed on this blog, but I wrote last week about how Fathom was preparing for an Appreciative Inquiry Summit, which brought the whole company (and beyond) in a room to inspire transformation. Here’s a summary of what happened: Start with an entire company. Take a little Conscious Capitalism and Firms of Endearment. Mix in some external stakeholders (customers, like-minded partners). Sprinkle some design theory and organizational behavioral principles onto everything. Finally, just add love.

What do you get? A whole room of invested people who might otherwise never interact planning an organization’s future. I would be committing a sin of omission if I didn’t tell you the process was amazing to behold. Just like St. Ignatius’ first Jesuit disciples, 160 people came out of it ready to set the world on fire.

As facilitator David Cooperrider noted, the summit ended today, but the work has merely begun. We all know how good ideas can die. We’ve all seen momentum fizzle; it happens for all sorts of reasons (apathy, distraction, fatigue, neglect). Cynics and realists alike can reasonably argue that organizational idealism usually gets sacrificed on the altar of everyday expediency and short-term urgency (e.g., your day-to-day job). Why would Fathom’s new energy from the Appreciative Inquiry Summit be any different?

I can think of 3 reasons:

1. Everybody was in the room. Meaning: People from every part of the company can go back to our 2.5 days at the Crowne Plaza in Independence and recall the spirit of the event. We all share that bond and can go back to that place when needed. In fact, I would argue that in order to succeed, we must go back to that place often. If we use this shared experience to renew our faith in the biggest hopes for the organization, then we will keep that flame alive. When we remind ourselves (and each other) of what we collectively vowed to do at this event, then we will increase the chances that we actually realize these dreams.

2. We collectively designed prototypes. We didn’t just talk about them. We didn’t just brainstorm. We didn’t give each other back rubs in a circle and nod our heads like sheep in agreement of each other’s brilliant ideas. Instead, taking a page from the renowned product design company IDEO, we worked on iterations of creative concepts, refining them until they were good enough to take back to the office as real blueprints for action. These prototypes were assembled by individual groups who volunteered their services by highest interest. They were then presented to the entire group to raise awareness and facilitate further cross-company collaboration. As Cooperrider noted, “Design is too important to be left to the designers.” In other words, everybody took part in the crucial work of design, which means these visions for Fathom’s future are coming not from the top down, or even the ground up—they are sprouting simultaneously from across the entire organization.

3. Belief, passion and purpose. These words surfaced repeatedly throughout the summit, more than any of the usual marketing jargon I frankly thought we might be hearing. Beyond simple use of the words, we saw people physically embodying these concepts. The emergence of this critical mass of people who stood up for various causes tells me we have a fighting chance at achieving them. I don’t need to name names; everybody could not only feel their own high energy, but clearly see the energy in certain individuals who were bursting with evangelical excitement when talking about their design projects. Furthermore, you didn’t need to be trained in the art of interpreting body language to see their enthusiasm was genuine; no acting, though the summit proved Fathom has plenty of talented performers.

Another reason why this passion indicates success is because ultimately just one person needs to own responsibility for executing a plan. That’s the foundation … as long as that person retains that passion (and inspires others to follow on the journey), then radical change will eventually occur. Fulfilling a particular vision may take months, if not years, but steady progress is guaranteed when someone takes accountability for it with a Jesuit-like burning desire.

What can all organizations learn from appreciative inquiry?

The purpose in my sharing these results is not to pound my chest about Fathom (though I’m excited and proud for the organization). It is rather to offer a window into what your own organization may be able to do for itself by conducting appreciative inquiry. If you care about your organization’s future—and being a 100% engaged worker within it—then consider taking some of these lessons to heart. You can do your company and yourself a favor by striving to create an environment of purpose.

If you’re still not sure what to make of it, consider appreciative inquiry as essentially a testimonial to the power of positive thinking. Call it an instruction manual for taking the proverbial Jim Collins Good to Great leap. Or call it nothing less than great news for everybody: Employees, customers, partners and the community.

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