An enormous amount of time and energy gets devoted to solving problems within organizations, all under the pretence that solving those problems is the best way to achieve success, superiority, a competitive advantage and greatness. The challenge is that growing organizations are constantly changing, which inevitably leads to new and more interesting problems to solve. It’s an endless cycle of focusing on problems that means it’s impossible to solve our way to greatness.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative to the traditional problem-solving approach. Appreciative Inquiry was developed by David Copperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University in the mid ’80s. It focuses on doing more of what does work: uncovering the high moments in an organization’s history and using the commonalities of those experiences to build a plan to replicate those wins for the future. Sounds like more fun than constantly problem solving, doesn’t it? Here’s how it works and how it can be applied to your business.
Uncover what works. It never occurs to us that we can fix an organization by doing more of what works instead of fixing what doesn’t work. Appreciative Inquiry is about allowing our successes to multiply enough to crowd out our failures. The first step is to figure out what works by brainstorming around the key successes you’ve had as an organization. Draw out ideas by asking positive questions about the past. For example: When have you felt proud to be a member of this group? What funny stories do we tell over and over again? When were we at our best? What do we do really well? What celebrations have we had and what were we celebrating? Not only is this exercise revealing, it’s a great chance to have some fun recalling and exploring wins with your team.
Look for themes. Once you have assembled a number of stories and examples, look for the key themes and commonalities between them and what you learned about your company as a result. What circumstances made these successes possible? This is also a good opportunity to highlight the behaviours that contribute to success in your organization.
Consider what might be. Now that you understand the key learning behind your successes, brainstorm ideas on how you can replicate success by using these key themes in new ways. Don’t worry about how you’re going to accomplish these ideas; focus instead on creating as many as possible, without judgment or discussion around what’s possible and what’s not.
Turn creativity into innovation. From the myriad ideas you have created for the future, filter the creativity down to look for points of innovation; for creative ideas to turn into innovations, they need to add value to the organization. Ask the question “what if?” to keep the focus on generating possibilities instead of spending time debating the intricacies of the difficulties in implementation. Narrow your ideas down to a small set of options that have the most leverage; they create the most potential value for the organization.
Take action. This critical step focuses on creating tangible actions to implement the distilled set of ideas. Select a champion for each initiative, state it as a goal and determine the discrete actions that the team needs to take to develop the idea. You’ll have a solid action plan when each action has a logical next step mapped out toward completion of your goal.
Meet early and often. Set up a meeting rhythm to check in with each other regularly to ensure that roadblocks are removed, attention is focused on implementation and the team’s energy and passion are kept high.
Maintain the shift in focus. As you get back into the day to day, continually focus on what’s working and what’s positive about the organization and its people – in meetings, in conversations, in brainstorming sessions, in planning. Appreciative Inquiry is a way of thinking about and looking at things that requires you to consistently focus on what’s working, what’s good, how things can be made better and what the possibilities around “what if?” are. The mindset shift from problem solving to Appreciative Inquiry is tough because it pushes against your innate drive as leaders to firefight and fix problems. Moving in this direction pushes you to focus on driving value to the organization from where success has come from in the past instead of spending your energy on trying to fix problems that don’t create key opportunities for growth, and as a bonus you might find that a greater focus on the positive improves your organization’s workplace environment.