Dream the Impossible Dream: AI Summit – On Broadway

“A vivid imagination compels the whole body to convey it.” –Aristotle

(Cooperrider, personal communication, January 9, 2009)

            Artists have never been short on imagination when applying it to their art, but more than ever before the commercial theater in New York is in need of inspiration, innovation, and imagination regarding its sustainability and future.  Broadway has an economic impact of over $2 billion dollars on New York City (retrieved from http://www.allianceforarts.org/pdfs/ArtsIndustry_2007.pdf on March 18, 2009).  With the economy is serious decline, multiple shows closing and ticket prices rising even higher, Broadway must look at its sustainability for the future – creating a new audience base and exploring the possibilities of making theater more affordable while at the same time profitable as well.  I believe that an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) Summit, while ambitious, is the answer to the question:  How do we keep Broadway thriving?  I am confident that the Broadway community will feel as passionately as I do that this is the time to create an impact in the Broadway community with a lasting change initiative.

In order for Broadway to keep thriving in this economic environment, the community would need: to discover a new narrative that led with what is right about Broadway rather than what is wrong; dream together of what the vision of a thriving and successful Broadway would look like; design related pathways between all of the stakeholders; and invite all of the Broadway community to own their future through collaborative action.  This is why utilizing the application of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – a philosophy that is grounded in the assumption that every organization or community has a hidden and underutilized core of strengths – its positive core – which, when revealed and tapped, provides a sustainable source of positive energy for both personal and organizational transformation (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008).

Used by organizations around the world, AI involves the art and practice of asking questions to: discover the best of what is in any given situation; dream about what could be; design the organization’s social architecture to bring the dreams to life; and create a destiny that anchors ownership to innovation and action.  This is known as the 4-D cycle and it works because appreciation is a process that creates a fresh perception of life; produces a learning environment that fosters empathy, hope, excitement and social bonding among people around desired outcomes (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008).

One of the most effective means of using AI in organizations to accelerate positive change is the AI Summit – typically a single event or series of events that bring a large number of people together to complete the 4-D process so that participants are excited about where they are going, have a clear plan to move forward, and feel confident about their ability to reach their destination (Ludema, Whitney, Mohr & Griffin, 2003).  This is an ideal intervention for Broadway because it meets the community’s needs and also engages the community’s strengths of curiosity and creativity evidenced in theatrical productions.  In addition to putting Broadway on the pathway of positive change, this intervention is likely to help create an upward spiral of positive emotions within the organization; highlight the strengths of individual stakeholders and the collective community; encourage alignment of the strategy with people’s intrinsic motivations; and begin to improve the quality of connections between people that may have never communicated before.  This approach uses the best of what positive psychology knows to help realize Broadway’s goal of creating art and facilitating an engaging community that fulfils dreams and has the potential to transform lives.

In the spirit of AI we would begin by forming a planning team that comprised ourselves and representatives from all of the stakeholder groups which include but are not limited to:  the unions, actors, producers, audience, tour operators, marketing, advertising, press, directors, designers, theater owners, non-profit theaters , general managers and, yes, even reviewers.  Our role within this team is to share our knowledge of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry; facilitate an AI experience for the planning team; and provide appreciative guidance.  It is essential that the community actively shape the summit task; select participants; create the mini-summit design; and determine what will happen after the summit.  Next comes choosing the summit task.

An effective summit task is one that excites, energizes, and invigorates participants to contribute at the highest level.  It asks the questions:  What do we really want from this summit?  What are our ultimate hopes and aspirations?  What will success look like?  In addition, there are some rules for choosing an effective summit task.  Is it stated in the affirmative?  Do you really want it?  Is it driven by true curiosity?  Does it require collaborative action? (Ludema, Whitney, Mohr & Griffin, 2003).  For example, combining the goals of commercial success with artistic success and a sustainable future, a possible summit task for Broadway may be “Thriving Broadway:  Fulfilling Dreams and Transforming Lives”.  The team would facilitate a brainstorming session for the Broadway stakeholders to select their summit task.

Once a suitable summit task has been determined, three to five affirmative topics will need to be decided upon to uncover what it is Broadway really wants to explore and innovate.  Topic choice is a crucial act as words create worlds.  These topics can be anything related to success but must be stated in the positive, identify the objectives people want and spark genuine curiosity (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008).  For example, “audience accessibility”, “passionate collaboration” and “positive profit” (Bozorgnia, personal communication, January 10, 2009) may be potential topics for Broadway.  We would facilitate an interview experience between the Broadway planning team participants using foundational AI questions from which they can identify the key patterns and themes that are emerging to shape their topic selection (Cooperrider, Whitney & Stavros, 2008).

When the summit task and affirmative topics are clear, participants can be selected.  AI  experience teaches us that getting the whole system in the room brings out the best in people.

This is important because wholeness eliminates false assumptions and evokes trust; allows  people to gain a sense of interdependence; lets people see, experience and connect with purposes greater than their own or that of their team; and establishes credibility in the outcomes because  everyone is part of the decision.  Instead of forming judgments, compassion for different perspectives are formed.  People realize they really need each other to accomplish their goals.  Thus, participation at an AI summit is holistic with the entire organization and members of its entire extended family participating. From the start all influential, interested and relevant people, all stakeholders should be involved.  Such as those listed above, the stakeholders typically include all who have a vested interest in and/or a strong impact on the organization’s growth and future (Ludema, Whitney, Mohr & Griffin, 2003).  The team would help Broadway to create a stakeholder map to identify the best mix of voices to answer the summit task and affirmative topics.

A crucial element of the process is writing the appreciative interview questions.  The team would work to create the interview guide and depending on the topics some of the questions might include:  What is your highpoint moment in the theater?  What show were you doing?  Who were you working with?  What were the root causes of success of that moment?  What made it magical?  What strengths were you engaging in that moment?  What are three things about Broadway that you want to make sure that it keeps?  Imagine that it is 2019 and Broadway just had its most profitable season ever.  All of the theaters were filled for every week.  80% of the shows recouped their investment.  What made that possible?  What did you do to contribute to that?  What did the community do as a team to make that happen?

At this point we know the attendees and the summit task/topic/questions, the next step requires us to determine the summit format.  Typically an AI-Summit occurs over three to five days and is designed to flow through the 4-D process of discovery, dream, design and destiny to build a lasting platform for innovation and commitment to change.  We would plan a three day session with Discover on the day one, Dream and Design on day two, and Design and Destiny on day three.

After taking the room through the four D process, we would help Broadway consider what would happen after the summit in terms of communication of outcomes, support for innovation and action teams and other uses for AI within the community.  For example this may include brainstorming ideas for engaging younger theatergoers, discovering possibilities for bringing costs down, encouraging unions to consider lowering their rates, enabling producers to think about lowering ticket prices in relation to lowered rates.  How can the previously siloed groups work together more collaboratively?  Would it be possible to have a ‘pay what you can’ night on Broadway?  I believe that the results of the summit will mean that many answers to these questions will be yes.

But how is change possible at this whole system level?  It is possible because positive interventions work on an individual as well as a whole system level.  That is why one of the ten conditions for summit success is having the whole system in the room all the time (Ludema, Whitney, Mohr & Griffin, 2003).  It is through the whole system approach as well as the unconditional appreciative question that AI is successful.  Feudtner’s lecture in MAPP 702 mirrored Appreciative Inquiry in illustrating the power of the question.  Feudtner uses an inquiry approach in order to understand the hopes of the family members for the patient. Feudtner discussed the importance of Collaborative Communication, which establishes a common goal that guides collaborative efforts (Feudtner, personal communication, February 27, 2009).  Feudtner continued by discussing the importance of mutual respect and compassion.  This is how successful theater is created.  Ironically, an AI summit for Broadway will have stakeholders talking who have never even met before.  It is this compassionate, collaborative communication that could change the way the Broadway communities sees itself and it could transform the way it functions.  With AI, art and commerce can unite through the eye of imagination.




Cooperrider D.L., Whitney D & Stavros J.M. (2008) Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of   Change 2nd Edition. Brunswick, Ohio: Crown Custom Publishing, Inc.

Ludema J.D., Whitney D., Mohr B.J. & Griffin T.J. (2003).  The Appreciative Inquiry Summit: A         Practitioner’s Guide for Leading Large-Group Change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler           Publishers Inc.




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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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