Do you want to change something or someone in your life? Perhaps it’s something or someone at work, on a team, in the home, with a project, or even about yourself. If your answer is yes, join the crowd. Most of us want to change something and many of us want to change a lot of things. But how do we best do that? The normal approach, called problem solving, seeks to fix what is wrong. But there is a better way, called appreciative inquiry, that seeks to amplify what is right. Sound intriguing? Then read on to see how it works.
Noticing and trying to fix problems is a natural human tendency that jumps out at us on a daily basis and often much more frequently than that. Unfortunately, problem-solving is not always effective and can even be counterproductive. Just ask anyone who leads or consults with organizations around performance improvement. The more we go looking for problems to solve, the more problems we find. And the more problems we find, the more discouraged and overwhelmed we can become in trying to solve them.
Even if we manage to avoid that eventuality, studying problems teaches us more about what we do wrong than about what we do right. The adjustments we make are therefore corrective and reactive in nature rather than expansive and proactive. There’s just so much we can do with problem solving.
Fortunately, there is another and better way to solve problems called Appreciative Inquiry (or AI for short). Think of AI as solving problems indirectly or as coming at them through the back door. By taking the focus off our problems and placing it on our successes, we become encouraged, empowered, and smarter about taking action that will move us forward in the direction of our goals. And as we move forward, with increasing momentum, problems end up being left behind in the tailwind of success.
I heard a beautiful example of this on Friday, when I happened to catch an interview on National Public Radio with marine biologist and undersea explorer, Dr. Sylvia Earle Click. Consider these statistics: 90% of large fish species worldwide have been decimated by over fishing and destructive fishing practices such as deep sea bottom trolling. 75% of all commercial fisheries have been fished to capacity and are approaching collapse. Coral reefs and deep-sea habitats are being destroyed, threatened by human activities. Less than 1% of the earth’s oceans are under some kind of protection. The identification of these problems caught my attention and have certainly moved Dr. Earle and other environmentalists to take corrective action.
But Dr. Earle was not focused on the problems. At one point, with a sense of overwhelm in his voice, the interviewer asked, “So how do you not get depressed by all this? Or, let me rephrase that, because maybe you are depressed. How do you stay hopeful considering the direction all this is headed?” Dr. Earle’s response was truly appreciative. “Oh, there’s plenty of reason to be positive,” she said, “I mean, after all, 10% of the big fish are still there. They’re not all gone yet. Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape. So there’s still a chance.”
“I am inspired by individuals,” she continued. “I’ve just come from Corpus Christi, Texas where one individual has established a research institute to focus on the Gulf of Mexico. That’s our aquatic backyard and three countries are now involved in the institute, the United Sates, Cuba, and Mexico. I see promising signs of cooperation, not just there but around the world. Just a few years ago we had a conference that pulled together representatives from 20 countries and 70 organizations. Only 150 people, but it gave rise to an action plan that was not just ‘Woe is me, here are the problems,’ but ‘Here are some things we can do.’ And I see conservation organizations working together. They are really pulling together with increased motivation, working with industry, governments, and others to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The solutions are there. We need to stay focused on that.”
Now Dr. Earle did not call her approach “Appreciative Inquiry,” but that’s what it was and she properly identified its results. By focusing on the positive signs, on the things that work, and on the things that we know how to do, her efforts hold out both hope and an increased probability for success. Just look at the dynamic words she chose to use in response to the interviewer’s question: positive, inspired, promising, cooperation, pulling together, action plan, motivation, doing whatever it takes, solutions, and staying focused.
That’s what happens when people take an appreciative approach to problem solving. The attitude is elevated and even impossible challenges, like protecting the earth’s oceans, become possible. Problems lose their power as people get engaged by the idea of what can successfully be done in the here and now that will make a difference. Instead of blaming and shaming people • like the leaders of industry and government • for what they are doing wrong, people gets praised and rewarded for whatever they are doing right.
Therein lies the essence of Appreciative Inquiry. It’s a matter of looking for and building upon positive, life-affirming strengths, resources, capacities, and opportunities. This is not to ignore problems as though they don’t exist; it’s to overcome problems by using a totally different analysis, strategy, emphasis, and direction.
Consider the case of a bowling league that invited people to improve their scores by studying videotapes of their games. The league was divided into two groups, and one group was shown only videotapes of when they threw strikes and spares while the other group was show only videotapes of when they failed to make strikes and spares. The first group was asked to learn from their successes; the second group was asked to learn from their mistakes. Both groups watched and played, watched and played, to see how much improvement could be made.
Can you guess the results? The real-time feedback as to what they were doing and how they were throwing the ball enabled both groups to improve. But the group that watched only their strikes and spares improved their scores by 100% while the group that watched only their misses and mistakes improved their scores by just 30%. In addition to their dramatic performance improvement, the first group also had a lot more fun in the process. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing and building upon only their greatest moments!
Tim Gallwey would say they were mastering the inner game while Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say they were experiencing flow. By looking at their successes, the bowlers in the first group were better able to get out of their own way. Instead of standing there, looking at the pins, saying to themselves, “Now don’t do this or remember to do that,” they were able to stop the mental chatter in order to jumpstart the joy of throwing the ball right. The more they did that, the more success they had. And, like a snowball rolling downhill gathering both size and momentum, the more success they had the more it swept up everything • including their mistakes • in its wake.
That’s what Appreciative Inquiry will do for people. It assists us to perform better and to have more fun in the process. Such are the documented results of a strategy that’s been developed and tested with a high degree of academic rigor over the past twenty years.
AI got its start in the early 1980s when David Cooperrider, then a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, and his faculty mentor, Suresh Srivastva, were asked to work with the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Like the bowlers who watched their mistakes, they found that the traditional approach of problem diagnosis and feedback produced only limited results at a huge cost to the collective efficacy of the organization. Instead of making the system more vibrant, effective, successful, and healthy, the intervention made the system more constricted, paranoid, dependent, and toxic. The intervention itself became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
As a result, they developed an entirely different approach to facilitating organizational change which has since come to be known as Appreciative Inquiry. Since the early 1980s, this approach has grown extensively around the world and has been used by thousands of people in major corporations, government organizations, health care institutions, colleges and universities, school systems, religious and spiritual organizations, as well as social service and community development organizations. When it comes to transformative, life-giving change, Appreciative Inquiry has proven to be an effective and compelling methodology.
Recently, there has been an explosion of literature and handbooks on the subject of AI, as well as a wide variety of interdisciplinary applications. So, for example, there was a paper on Appreciative Inquiry presented at both the 4th International Positive Psychology Summit in Washington, DC and at the 3rd International Coach Federation Coaching Research Symposium in San Jose, CA. It seems people on many fronts have discovered AI and discerned its relevance for their life and work.
We certainly see that in our work with people and organizations through LifeTrek Coaching. When we allow ourselves to get caught up in a traditional gap analysis (where are we now, where do we want to go, what’s the gap, why is it there, and what can we do about it) we are not as successful as when we use an appreciative approach (what’s working, where are the signs of life, and how can we do more of that).
So too when it comes to our own life and work. We may understand the root causes of a problem, but that understanding does not necessarily translate into a successful solution. In fact, as we have already observed, the more we analyze a problem the larger it may loom and the worse it may seem. The more we look for, study, and savor our successes, on the other hand, the more empowered and energized we feel to go even further in the direction of our dreams.
Coaching Inquiries: How do you approach problems? Do you prefer to tackle them head on or to come at them through the back door? Does it make sense for you to take a more positive frame? What are some of the best things that have happened to you in the past week? How could spend more time with the things that fill you with energy, vitality, and life?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
Good to have you “back in the saddle” with LifeTrek Provisions. I especially thank you for that story from Bono about Harry Belafonte’s recollections of the meeting with Dr. King. As one who was a passionate teenager in 1968, genuinely excited by RFK’s candidacy, I would agree with Belafonte’s assessment of his importance to the civil rights movement. No exaggeration at all.
Welcome back. You were missed. Thanks for sharing from your own life.
I just wanted to send you a quick note to let you know how glad I am to see that you’re back writing the weekly Provision. I was reflecting just the other night how much I missed your writing. I often find myself in resonance with the approach to coaching (e.g. incorporating the physical • marathon running, eating and supplementation, and relaxation • in the pursuit of the ultimate goal of overall well-being) that you’ve advanced in your writings. And, as a student of English, I’ve also enjoyed the pleasure of reading the exceptionally well-written and well-edited pieces you’ve penned.
I’ve been receiving (and usually reading) Provisions for years and I’ve never offered any feedback before, so I thought this would be a good opportunity. I wish you success in your endeavors, and I look forward to seeing your book on the shelves of bookstores.
Glad to see you writing again. In a newspaper column that my son writes for his college newspaper he alluded to me as an acolyte of personal growth. I thought, “No, that’s Bob.” Then I thought, “OK, Bob’s the high priest of personal growth, and I guess I am an acolyte.”
Mike’s final Provision, with the reminder to balance “Yes” with “No,” came to me at the perfect time. I was experiencing stress because my work and life were out of balance. Mike’s message helped me to choose an important “No.”
I am a Provisions junkie. Did I accidentally get my name off the distribution list? I do hope that all is well with the wonderful staff at LifeTrek. I just want you to know that I count on the Provisions to help me through the week. Thanks or providing such a quality newsletter. (Ed. Note: Your address is still on the distribution list. Be sure to check your junk mail folder since Provisions, being bulk mail, sometimes ends up there.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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