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CoreChange Summit: “D” to the Fourth Power

written by Shannon Polly 12 March 2012

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

Back to the Core Change Cincy conference that I started to describe in my last article.

Many readers will be aware that the change management process known as Appreciative Inquiry involves a wide range of stakeholders going through a Four D process:

  1. Discovering the best of what is and has been
  2. Dreaming about the future
  3. Designing the Future
  4. Deploying that design

This article presents highlights from the 4 D’s that happened in Cincinnati on February 17-19.

Preparing for Discovery

One speaker at the Summit, Peter Block, has been an author, consultant, and speaker on organization development, community building, and civic engagement for the past 40 years. He wrote the book, The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters and helped found A Small Group in Cincinnati with the following mission: “We are committed to the creation of a restorative and reconciled community. Our work focuses on direct efforts to bring into conversation those groups of people who are not in relationship with each other.” His comments echoed through the Discovery phase of the AI summit:

Two Views of Peter Block

“The idea that real transformation requires leadership – is wrong. I think it is all about citizens coming together. A small group is a unit of transformation. When we come together in the presence of others.
At conferences people come together and expect someone else to do the work. Here we are supposed to do the work. I know you are an introvert. Don’t wait to be chosen.

Don’t be helpful to each other. Small groups based on advice go nowhere. To give advice presumes that I know and you don’t. If you think there is an answer here, you are a fool. Substitute curiosity for advice. Get interested. Tell me more. What does that mean to you? Why does this matter to you?

Be present with each other. Lean in. Sit with your knees less than 9 inches from each other.

Problems don’t get solved by talking about them as problems.”

I spoke to Peter Block during the summit.

Shannon: How do you view this Summit in light of the work you’ve done in the Cincinnati community?

Peter Block: I see this as a community organizing event. It is bringing people around interest areas that weren’t together before. If we keep meeting something will happen.

Shannon: How do you think the Summit is going?

Peter Block: The Summit is unique. Attendees are meeting people they’ve not met before. People are having new conversations about what’s possible rather than what’s wrong. Positive psychology is part of the larger positive movement. I hope that we can get beyond speech making to action.

Shannon: What are you hoping to come out of the Summit?

Peter Block: I hope this changes people’s minds about what constitutes news, health, that kids learn outside of school, and every neighborhood can become safe.

Dream: Drawing Energy from the Youth Contingent

The Dream phase had had some powerful speeches and showed the creativity of the Cincinnati community. What was compelling about the Summit structure was that there were exemplars in each of the Four D’s that were Cincinnati residents telling their own stories. This included many students from Taft High School who were involved with the summit throughout the three days. This gave the summit a youthful energy that created fresh ideas. A community group known as Elementz gave some powerful performances, which inspired participants as we moved into the Design phase .

Look for the Shoes

Design: Putting Innovation to Work

The speakers that preceded Cooperrider were not sure why there was a pair of gym shoes perched upon the podium. Cooperrider used them to tell a story about an outlandish idea: to create sustainable shoes, ones that you could plant and they would grow. I was sure this was a metaphor for how we could brainstorm outlandish ideas, and it was a reminder not to edit prematurely. Then Cooperrider revealed that this idea came to fruition through a company called OAT – Shoes that Bloom. These are gym shoes made from sustainable sources. After you finish using them, instead of chucking them into a landfill, plant them in your yard. They decompose into potting soil with wildflower seeds already embedded and ready to bloom.

Design needs an opposable mindset, the ability to hold different kinds of ideas simultaneously. We can design the lobby of a hospital so that it conveys respect and neighborhoods so that they convey peace. Often this comes from a collaborative team, not from an individual. Designers don’t go for perfection the first time, and they invite feedback.

As shown by IDEO’s new shopping cart, a brilliant design doesn’t need to take months. IDEO’s philosophy is to fail often in order to succeed sooner.

“Being invited to design is legacy leadership.” Peter Senge

Moving on to Deployment: Design in Action

The Ohio prison population has risen 500% since 1972. One group represented at the summit, The Help Program works with people to help them past the difficulties of getting a job after being convicted of a crime. They start with language, especially terms like “ex-convict.” As one woman so cogently put it, “You don’t call a minister an ‘ex-sinner’ do you?” They coined the name “returning citizens.” When this group reported out, a young man mumbled, “There are many aspects to every individual, and not everybody sees that. The HELP program has done a lot for me. It seems like things might be able to change. I think I want to be part of that change.”

Deployment Magnified: Making Cincinnati a Strengths-Based City

According to Neal Mayerson, the VIA Institute, home of the character strengths survey, isn’t in Cincinnati by accident. I believe he meant that the city of Cincinnati has an enormous pool of strengths in their 52 neighborhoods. As they stand now, however, the 52 neighborhoods tend to compete rather than collaborate.

One design group was composed of Cincinnati citizens joined by others from as far away as the United Kingdom. Their initial design idea was a website with the expression, “We Are Cincinnati,” (a unifying idea) with hyperlinks to all 52 neighborhoods. As the idea took shape, an even bigger one took its place: to have a subsequent appreciative inquiry summit to design the world’s first strengths-based city. While there are efforts underway on well-being cities, the home of the VIA Institute seems the logical choice to be the first strengths-based city.  Ryan Niemiec (PPND author and VIA Institute employee) was a member of the group and spoke with high hopes of how the VIA and the city could benefit each other.

As I excitedly told a friend about this idea after the Summit, she asked me, “What does that mean?” It’s a good question. I don’t think we will know until we design it. Does it mean neighborhoods that are known as the “Creativity” neighborhood? Does it mean renaming a street Curiosity Lane? Perhaps it means spotlights on the strengths of each neighborhood weekly or the news giving out “Strengths Spotting Awards” to people who are able to spot the goodness in others? The possibilities are as numerous as there are strengths in Cincinnati. If you are interested in being involved with the Summit for a Strengths Based City, contact me.

It’s impossible to know what will come out of the CoreChange Summit. When you magnify strengths there are endless possibilities.


Block, P. (2003). The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishers.

McKnight, J. & Block, P. (2012). The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishers.

VIA Institute on Character web site

Elementz web site



Peter Block courtesy of Jennifer Neutel
The rest of the pictures were taken by Shannon Polly and are used with permission

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Ryan M. Niemiec 12 March 2012 - 3:01 pm

Great article, Shannon! Here are some further thoughts regarding the Summit in Cincinnati and what this might look like:

It really is exciting to think about the many ways Cincinnati can become a strengths-based city or the strengths capital of the world: In addition to relishing in the outcomes of strengths use such as greater engagement, happiness, meaning, self-efficacy, etc., it’s fascinating to consider the ingredients and pathways to getting there. We might envision a culture of strengths where if you walk into a store, a school, a youth club, or a fitness center in any of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods, you hear people discussing one another’s character strengths; where if you conducted a ratio of strength words heard to problem/blaming words heard as you walk the streets, the scale would be far tipped on the strengths end; or if you ask any person in a school, business, healthcare clinic, government agency, or youth organization – what are you top strengths and do you use them each day? – they would not only rattle off character strengths lingo but also a resounding “yes, I use my strengths each day in my work life, my family life, and my social life.”

There’s a lot of work ahead but what’s even more exciting is seeing people uplifted and working together to meet a common vision.

Shannon Polly 12 March 2012 - 5:53 pm


Thanks so much for your thoughts. As a representative of the VIA and a resident of Cincinnati, you are the perfect person to talk about what this might look like. I love the idea of the ‘Strengths ratio’ of people’s speech as you walk past the fountain downtown. Indeed we do use our strengths in every part of our lives…but how do we use them…and do we notice it? A powerful vision. Thanks for sharing.


oz 13 March 2012 - 4:27 am

Ryan and Shannon – I think I would prefer to live in a city which is accepting of peoples foibles. Not sure why we have to put a positive spin on everything.

Shannon Polly 15 March 2012 - 12:49 pm

I agree with you about accepting people’s foibles. I think, however, we are talking about tackling issues on a larger scale. The high rate of infant mortality in Cincinnati, ‘returning citizens’ needing work, other unemployment, differences among the neighborhoods…and instead of applying a deficit mindset – applying a strengths based approach.


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