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Generating Possibilities

Last week I described the Interactivity Foundation’s discussion process as flowing through roughly three stages: generating questions, generating diverse responses to those questions, and then revising those responses by exploring some of their implications or possible consequences. We don’t think of these stages as rigidly separate from one another. We’re talking more about a gradual flow, the unfolding of a cumulative process that allows us to move back to earlier points as needed. In the last posting I described how the discussion process gets started by focusing on a complex area of concern and by exploring and developing different ways to frame the basic questions that we might ask about that area of concern. You could summarize the first stage in the process as all about generating questions from diverse perspectives.  It’s about generating different ways to frame the basic questions that we as a society might have to answer in regard to the area of concern. The next stage is about generating and developing some contrasting responses.  It’s about exploring different ways we could answer some of those basic questions. That’s our focus for this week’s posting.

  • Shifting Gears from Questioning to Constructing Answers

The first stage of the discussion process is kind of like taking something apart. You’ll want to look at all the different aspects of the area of concern that you can discover with your discussion partners. The second stage is about putting something together.  This requires a real shift in your way of thinking. It often requires a sort of mental pause, since, after all, it is easier to take something apart than it is to create and build something new.  The attitude of questioning, which pervades the first stage of discussions, helps to open up our thinking about the area of concern. By questioning we put things into suspense. You might then feel a little uncertain moving forward, since responding to those questions often entails more of a sense of risk, a worry that you might be approaching things in the wrong way.  Questions, however, often can provide clues to their own answering.  You might start by thinking about one particular basic question to see if you can find a toe-hold from which you could begin to generate a response.

  • Think Boldly and Imperfectly

Once you make the transition to generating responses to some of your basic questions, the key points are to be bold and not worry about creating perfect or complete answers. You should think of ways to think big and to address the root causes–not just superficial responses that touch on this or that symptom. This is a time to be imaginative, not a time to be hemmed in by looking at the status quo or conventional responses to the area of concern. Remember, we’re generating “possibilities”–thinking about the way things could be, not rehearsing the way things are.  This is a time to break out a bit and explore different ways that you could answer some of the big questions raised early on. To do this, it is vital not to evaluate your ideas as you are generating them. That will come later, mostly in the third stage of the discussion process. Right now your focus should just be on creating a lot of ideas, no matter how “out there” or fragmentary they might appear at first to be.  This means you won’t answer all of the questions that you raised in the first stage of your discussions.  You may feel at first that some questions are really vital, only to find that they fall by the wayside as you generate possible responses to others. Over time, you’ll probably notice that some questions seem to rise to the surface as expressing the key concerns that need to be addressed.  Or you may find that your responses to some questions contain the seeds of answers to others. Once you get rolling, you’ll likely be able to develop a fairly long list of a dozen or more possible responses.

  • Developing Conceptual Possibilities

We often talk about developing “conceptual” possibilities. This might sound a bit egg-headed or complicated. But actually we see it the other way round: developing conceptual possibilities means simplifying things by exploring the big ideas without getting lost in the complex details of how they might be implemented. Concepts are a way to get to the heart of an issue by cutting through the surface details. A conceptual approach is a way to say, “here’s the gist of what this is all about.”  Taking a conceptual approach, focusing on the big or underlying ideas, will help you discover the connections among some of the answers you’ve generated. You’ll begin to see ways that some of the different responses might essentially embody the same way of looking at things, or they might share the same conceptual framework. Over time you’ll find ways to combine or consolidate some of the disparate or fragmentary ideas into more fully formed ideas about how we might respond to the area of concern.  Each one of these might present a different way of framing the issues, a different set of values, a different notion of the goals to be reached, and a different basic way of shaping our actions toward some aspect of the area of concern. You’ll likely emerge from this consolidation with a shorter list of divergent possibilities that are fairly robust.  At that point, you’ll be ready to move on to the third stage of exploring the potential real world implications of these ideas and revising and refining the ideas based on those explorations.

–Jeff Prudhomme