Possibilities Are Birthed By Questions

How do we advance new possibilities? Lately, I count myself fortunate to be able to do the work I do.   I am enjoying most of all our evolving activities here at The Social Possibility Lab.   The Lab seeks and shares stories, serves as an idea commons, and celebrates the pursuit of possibility.  Above all, it is an experiment and an exploration.  And it is just plain fun.  Fun to speak with remarkable people doing interesting work in varied places.  Importantly, we center our work here in questions, rather than answers because change begins with inquiry.

In some ways, this stands in contrast to my “other” work.  In addition to directing this project, I also help lead Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development.   Our team works most often with “mainstream” development issues and organizations, established leaders, and major industries.   My colleague and associate here at the Social Possibility Lab, Brad Stephens, also has “other” work.  He leads business engagement and other projects for a workforce development organization helping workers and companies, and working with education and training partners.   

But our “other” work is not so “other”, not so very distinct and different but rather complementary and connected.   We also bring questions and curiosity to bear in those roles, and our work is enriched by our ability to ask better, deeper, often more difficult questions.  We began Social Possibility Lab out of curiosity – as a project to better understand how people and organizations were pursuing positive changes, changes for good, in their communities, and in the world.   As an E2 Fellow, I was provided connections to people deeply interested in concerns of sustainability, working at the intersections of economy and environment.  I had also long been interested in the social labs model.  

Both Brad and I have a long history of exploring ideas for change.   We worked together on a precursor to this initiative, the Thriving Places Project.  My work at Virginia Tech has included helping communities and organizations assess and develop new strategies and directions.  Brad helped start a number of interesting change initiatives, such as Simple Roanoke.  Before his current role, he directed the Grandin CoLab, an entrepreneur hub and co-working space.  And as part of that work, he directed an annual ideas festival here in Virginia, CityWorks Xpo. 

So, the Social Possibility Lab was birthed by long-standing curiosity, incubated by my E2 fellowship and my friendship with Brad, marinated in many years of thinking, and motivated by a concern for better advancing the greater good.  It was, and remains, a kind of side project, but is also very much front and center. It is central in allowing us to explore some of life’s bigger questions, questions of place and equity, of development and justice, of imagination and inclusion.  

In our other roles and duties, these questions of meaning also arise, but they are too frequently the background noise.  The culture, pace, and values of our organizations push these concerns off to the side, pay them passing glances, fail to follow them where they might more fruitfully lead.  The Social Possibility Lab seeks to play a restorative role, returning these larger questions of meaning back to the foreground. 

Arthur Brooks, writing for The Atlantic, explores questions of purpose and meaning in his bi-weekly column. Here he describes one of the primary needs for designing a life of value

“The last step is to find the right metrics of success. In business, people often say, ‘You are what you measure.’ If you measure yourself only by the worldly rewards of money, power, and prestige, you’ll spend your life running on the hedonic treadmill and comparing yourself to others. I suggested better metrics in the inaugural ‘How to Build a Life’ column, among them faith, family, and friendship. I also included work—but not work for the sake of outward achievement. Rather, it should be work that serves others and gives you a sense of personal meaning.”

At the Social Possibility Lab, we are a vehicle for inquiry into questions of meaning and purpose and value and possibility.  As we speak with leaders and place-keepers, activists and social entrepreneurs, the conversations often seed new questions, but also begin to paint a larger canvas that colors our approach to this project and to our “other” work.  Here are a few of the questions that I am beginning to ask myself more regularly across my various roles and work, whether at the Social Possibility Lab or in our projects for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development:  

  • Are we starting with Assets? 
  • Are we practicing Adaptive work? 
  • Are we modeling Appreciative inquiry and having possibility-oriented conversations? 
  • Are we aiming for greater Authenticity? 
  • Are we following our Astonishments? 

Are we starting with Assets?

To remedy the drawbacks of deficits-based perspectives, many planners and development actors use asset-based development models.   Drawing from the work of researchers and community practitioners, including John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann and their colleagues at Northwestern University, asset-based development begins with the existing strengths in a community – the tangible skills and knowledge of the individual people who live there (rather than the cumulative low educational attainment level for instance), the presence of open land for use by people (rather than the number of vacant or blighted properties), or the existence of churches and civic groups (rather than the absence of types of businesses).    

In many approaches, this is very literally a door-to-door, block-by-block endeavor at inventorying assets as a first step to greater capacity.   Capacity building comes in after the inventory, by asking people what they would like to see and then working with them to connect assets.  Development happens, not simply by an infusion of outside capital, but also by a linking of two or more existing assets in a new way.  A local elementary school connects with a local church, area residents, and an available lot to create a shared community garden.  Capital and outside funders can help, but it begins with assets.

Placing assets at the foundation of our work with communities does not have to mean an exhaustive inventory, but reminds us to shift our perspective towards what strengths and capabilities are present in people, places, or organizations.

Are we practicing Adaptive work? 

In my work at Virginia Tech with communities and clients, companies and non-profits, we are sometimes called upon to play the technical expert.  In a few cases, we do simply serve a technical role, providing some data on workforce characteristics or industry trends.   More often, our work relates to a more complicated problem, with less ready solutions. Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky would describe these as adaptive challenges.  We explore challenges where the nature of the problem and of the solutions are contested and complex.   To address the challenge fully requires learning and the development of new knowledge and capabilities.   In our day to day work, it is tempting to gloss over some of these complexities, offer overly simplified solutions, and acquiesce too much to the interests of the established authorities, often our “clients”, or their close allies.

The practice of adaptive work requires diagnosis of the most pressing challenges or opportunities confronting a group at a particular point in time and placing the focus on that most pressing issue.  This requires us to be able to take a wider perspective, to nurture and sustain an environment for tackling the situation, and for guiding a group towards a process of learning and growth.  

Are we modeling Appreciative Inquiry, and having possibility conversations? 

We tend to move and focus in the direction of our language and conversations.  The questions we use matter.   Appreciative Inquiry (AI) reminds us to focus on possibilities and capabilities.   While exact approaches to AI may differ, appreciative inquiry calls us to consider the questions we use, to seek a wide range of responses and perspectives, and to place more of our focus on positive, future-oriented conversations that are generative in nature.  

I was reminded of the connection of AI to our project here while reading David Brooks book, The Second Mountain:  The Quest for a Moral Life.  Brooks writes that, 

“The better community-building conversations focus on possibilities, not problems…If you want to shift the culture, you’ve got to have a conversation you haven’t had before, one that is about long-term possibilities.”

Are we aiming for greater Authenticity? 

Ideas about authenticity and its value are contested, but aiming for authentic presence and connection in our work remains a worthy aspiration.   Describing some of the critiques surrounding the concept of authenticity, Scott Berry Kauffman in the Scientific American still concludes that authenticity remains a useful value, writing that,

“Healthy authenticity is an ongoing process of discovery, involving self-awareness, self-honesty, integrity with your most consciously chosen values and highest goals, and a commitment to cultivating authentic relationships.”

Authentic work for positive change entails an ongoing vigilance and a vigorous self-refection and awareness of our positioning and privilege, assumptions and actions.  It calls us to consider the extent to which we are nurturing trust, openness, and empathy in our work and relationships.  

Are we following our Astonishments? 

I have written here before about astonishment, the importance of attending to what strikes us as interesting and beautiful, mysterious and dazzling.  To see better and notice more is at the core of our work and humanity, and our shared civic life.  It involves a pausing, a slowing down.  We can take small steps to look around, to see what is being done, to see what is needed, and to see what might be possible.  In working with communities and partners, on causes and issues, what are the things that resonate most, that people notice, that they value?  How do we better appreciate the stories and views of those who are following their wonders and curiosities?  What can we learn from their passions and pursuits?  What catches our eyes, our hearts, and how do we help tell those stories?

Here at Social Possibility Lab, we continue to gather ideas, assemble resources, and share the stories of people and organizations working to advance new possibilities for good, all while pondering these and other questions.  The questions here are not a step-by-step check list or guide, but reminders for us of the relevance of inquiry itself and the crucial value of sense-making and meaning-seeking.