Going beyond positivity: Ron Fry and Gervase Bushe -1- (by Saskia Tjepkema)

It’s quite a challenge: delivering a keynote speech on Saturday Morning, 8:30, on the final day of an intense conference. Not a problem for Prof. Gervase Bush and Prof. Ron Fry. They picked up some burning questions that were ‘buzzing’ throughout the conference. Starting with the one about ‘positivity’…

It’s about action
Their focal point is generativity. As Ron puts it: “The most amazing aspect of AI to me is that it always sets people in motion. Few begin an AI summit wanting more work to do; nearly all leave having volunteered to new cooperative action. Something happens: we call it generativity.”

What is it? Ron describes it as: “The moment that a connection happens that leads to more than a new idea or an insight. When the connection sparks actions. So that people don’t wait for the next meeting, or until someone else does something. They do something themselves. People start up a new business, try out a new approach, get other people together… That, to me, is the true AMAI!-factor of AI.”

Beyond positivity
“Have you noticed?” Ron and Gervase ask the audience, “How ‘appreciation’ often trumps ‘inquiry’? Or, how ‘positivity’ frequently becomes an end unto itself in AI processes? In such cases, people go away energized, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. Positivity does attract, but sometimes we get lost in it.”

What they’re looking for is processes that spark self-initiative: when people act without being asked, told, invited. But just start up and get into action. So to Ron, the question is really: “How do we make generative connections: interactions that bring a feeling of energy, aliveness and potential. That lead people to create more and new things.”

Transformative change
To Ron and Gervase, generativity is important, because they are looking for transformative change. Change that is true change, in the sense that things happen that ordinarily wouldn’t have happened in that system. Gervase: “One of the things that distinguishes transformational changes from ‘ordinary’, or incremental change processes is that in such a process the new idea always emerges from within the system (it is not imported from the outside). People think of a new idea themselves. That compels them to action.”

“Also, in transformational change, somehow a generative metaphor always pops up. Such an image or concept alters the landscape and the language. For example sustainable business, or ‘going green’…. After thinking up that word, and idea, a whole range of new ideas became possible.”

Do we need positivity?
With visible pleasure, Gervase puts it out there: “I am not so convinced that positivity is necessary for generative thinking. What you do want, is to appreciate. There is always something to appreciate, because it energizes people somehow. But it doesn’t have to be positive.”

This resonates very much with the audience… On the first day of the conference, a Belgian newspaper published an article on the WAIC that presented AI very much as a ‘positivity movement’. Much to the discomfort of many of the participants who feel that AI is more than that. It even inspires one of the participants, @gheysenssaskia, tweeting during the keynote to that same newspaper: ‘#2012waic, Bushe generates a lot of agreement here: AI is not all about positivity’.

Which question do we ask
To put it to the test, they ask the audience: “If you want to use AI to create a great conference: which question would you ask?

  1. Tell me about your most positive high point experience of the conference (when you felt happiest, proudest, alive….)  OR
  2. Tell me about the most provocative experience you had at the conference – when you felt most challenged (perhaps your thinking was upended, your values were confronted, your ideas were challenged….).

It generates earnest responses from several people, who stand up and take the mike:

  • “My idea of feeling alive is very much the B question…. That is not about surface positivy, it is about what is deep and connecting.”
  • “The deepest of human experiences very often happen in the most painful situations. It is vital that we make use of them as well, explore them, not shy away from them“
  • “To me it is and- and. I work with people who are very ill, sometimes in the final stages of their lives. The positive questions work very well there as well.”

Appreciating a range of emotions and situations
Ron and Gervase nod and conclude: “There is a difference between appreciating and being positive. We can appreciate a whole range of emotions and thought, that can lead to a generative process.”

And Gervase adds: “In fact, in some organisations, talking about what is positive, is not something that people do. Maybe even a taboo. In that case, actually, talking about the positive means you’re delving into their dark side. It can be difficult and uncomfortable. And generative at the same time. Fitzgerald, Oliver & Hoaxey wrote an interesting paper on that: ‘AI as a shadow process’.

They go on to investigate HOW we can make AI into a truly generative process. With very practical advice. A blog on that part of the keynote can be found here.

By Saskia Tjepkema


  • For those interested: you can find the ‘shadow’ article here. Gervase Bush responded to it, you can find that response here.
  • Ron Fry also referred to the book ‘Research Alive’. You can find that here.

3 Responses to Going beyond positivity: Ron Fry and Gervase Bushe -1- (by Saskia Tjepkema)

  1. I was experimenting with Google Drive yesterday as it was launched just then
    Live notes from the seminar with Gervase Bushe and Ron Fry on Generativity.
    You can still comment in the right column (right click) and you can even edit the text, if there was something important missing.

  2. […] This blog is a reflection of the 2d part of the keynote delivered by Ron Fry and Gervase Bushe. You can find part 1 here. […]

  3. Indeed, our challenge as an AI community, is to use a language, that prevents us from being ‘misunderstood’. I agree it is not so much about studying the good. It is about studying what is, but in a way that brings life to the system. Whatever system it is. We inquire in a way that creates new possibilities, it happens simultaneously. I would like to mention that although David Cooperrider highly focuses on ‘the positive’, he defines positive as ‘what gives life’.
    If I ask people about ‘high points’ (inquiring the positive), in 90% of the time, they come with moments of great suffering, moments of despair, highly challenging conditions … So inquiring the positive is often inquiring the challenging on our path. It proves that often ‘great things can better, if not only, be seen through eyes that suffered from tears’. When we meet tough conditions and somebody asks the question ‘would you be willing to take up this challenge? If you can not do it, nobody can’ this often is generative moment.
    So 1) positivity in the sense of ‘what gives life’ and 2) generativity, in the sense of ‘something new is happening’ are not that different after all. Just different words. This is exactly what Cooperrider means when he says ‘stop dialoguing, start designing’.
    Generative Inquiry does make sense, and has a lower risk of being misunderstood, I think.

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