Are You Magnifying Your Problems?

Do you wish you could solve the world’s problems – or at least the problems of your workplace?  Let’s face it, unfortunately, if you are like most of us, you can probably see plenty to fix.  So, what’s the best way to tackle them?  Should you be putting your energy into addressing the underlying causes?  Or could you be more effective by building on what already works?

While traditional approaches to creating change often focus on solving the problems we face – their location, extent, and impact on others – studies have found that the danger is by doing this you can become an expert on the problem, rather than an expert on how to create the change you want to make happen.  “Change efforts that focus your resources and inquiries on what’s not working tend to drain your energies and efforts,” explained Diana Whitney, a global social entrepreneur, and one of world’s leading Appreciative Inquiry researchers, when I interviewed her recently. “The better way to create change is to learn what’s working well and find ways to magnify this.”

Diana’s research has found that when you get curious and start asking questions about what enlivens people and the systems they are part of, you‘re able to transform problem-oriented, deficit discourse into a more strengths-oriented outlook that is fuelled by hope and optimism for the future.   When coupled with an appreciative inquiry approach – a change framework that brings people together from across a system to discover the best of “what is”, dream of what “might be”, fuse their strengths together to design what “should be”, and secure collective ownership and commitment to deploy what “will be” – it gives people the power to be heard, regardless of their role, and to co-create and contribute to making change happen.

For example, when Hunter Douglas Window Fashions invited their staff to conduct appreciative inquiry interviews with employees, customers and suppliers to discover when the organization was at it’s best and how they could build upon this, the benefits of this approach soon flowed into their bottom-line with a thirty percent increase in sales, thirty-seven percent increase in profits, and a fifty-two percent reduction in staff turnover.

But is taking an appreciative, strengths-based approach the right answer for every problem?

“Appreciative inquiry comes at the world with a profound compassion and acknowledgment of harm and suffering,” explained Diana. “And while it can be difficult in challenging times to think of what gives you or others life and vitality, sometimes being able to keep preserving and hoping for change can be enough to build on.”

She suggested trying to incorporate appreciative Inquiry practices into your workplace by:

  • Reframing the problems – Flip or reframe the narrative to shift your thinking from what the problems are onto more life-affirming possibilities. Use positive questions to ask: What do you want more of?  What would make your values become more alive? What would create a better world for you, for your whole organization? For example, when British Airways used Appreciative Inquiry  to address the technical issue of lost luggage, by reframing the focus to ‘better service recovery’, and then to ‘exceptional arrival experience’ they were able to uncover possibilities that delivered better customer service, greater employee satisfaction, and a more flourishing business.
  • Valuing other’s stories – the more that you feel that your story is listened to and heard, the more you feel valued in your organization. Look for how you can encourage others to get to know each other, and build a web of relationships within your organization, regardless of roles and positions, by sharing and valuing each other’s stories.
  • Being prepared to nurture out – when you are implementing cultural change, no matter how positive, there can be some people who feel that they no longer fit within your organization.  Implementing change is not only a situation of asking how are you going to do things differently, but it’s also an opportunity to ask if others are still with you, and want to keep working with the new set of ground rules.  Rather than thinking you need to move some people on, it’s a matter of giving people the choice to be in the driver’s seat of their own life, and look for how you can nurture them onto whatever is best for their future. This can be a powerful appreciative approach to meet the needs for personal transformation and organizational transformation simultaneously.

How can you use appreciative inquiry questions to reframe a problem to a search for more life-affirming possibilities?

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