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Can You Make Change P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E?

Can You Make Change P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E?

BY Michelle McQuaid

Have you ever tried to create change in your own life, in a team or across an entire workplace? How did it go? Did you find yourself wishing there was an easier and more effective way to make the changes stick?

Whilst creating change in my own life had always been a little hit and miss, it wasn’t until I was responsible for convincing 60,000 people to live the PwC company values that I discovered how little most of us know about changing people’s behavior. Suddenly it became clear to me why researchers estimate seventy per cent of change projects fail.

Although we were following the accepted wisdom – like creating a burning platform, gathering a coalition of the willing, communicating for buy in, etc. – it was clear that while people were complying, they weren’t really committing to the change. Instead when the organization moved on to its next big priority, most people simply went back to their old behaviors.

When it comes to creating lasting positive changes, where were we going wrong?

“Most change management models have started with the belief that because people resist change you need to start by creating deep dissatisfaction with the status quo,” explained Professor David Cooperrider from Case Western University, one of the world’s leading change researchers and practitioners when I interviewed him recently.  “But the truth is we’re wired to delight and thrill to change, so what holds us back is not resistance to change but a quiet despair that we can’t change.”

Understandably this deficit despair can leave us feeling fearful, cynical, angry or even depressed about the very idea of change, so what’s the alternative? For the past 30 years David’s research has explored how to create lasting positive changes by building upon the strengths – what works well – in people and systems through a simple set of tools known as Appreciative Inquiry. With David’s help these tools have been used around the globe to:

  • Help grow the United Nations Global Compact for sustainability from 1500 to over 8000 of the world’s largest organizations
  • Improve energy efficiency across Massachusetts, delivering nearly $9 billion in benefits for residents and businesses.
  • Bring together the world’s religious leaders to unite more than 7 million people of different faiths to help build a better world.

As a result David’s most recent research suggests that deficit despair can be overcome by elevating people’s hope and confidence for change through three types of power:

  • Wholepower: by connecting and magnifying the strengths and resources across, inside, and outside an entire system to support our efforts.
  • Waypower: by developing specific strategies to reach your goals and make the change a reality.
  • Willpower: by finding ways to initiate and maintain your motivation, even in the face of obstacles, to achieve the desired change.

So how can you practically harness these three powers to create lasting positive changes?

David and his colleague Lindsey Godwin, propose that their new change model P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E can do this by completing the following steps:

  • Pre-frame – We live in a world our questions create, so before you begin make sure your change effort is focused on what you want to create, not what you want to avoid or get away from. For example, when the Mayor of Cleveland decided it was time to try and solve the ecological issues facing the city, the change was pre-framed as “Building a green city, on a blue lake”. And when David decided to lose weight, instead of focusing on dieting he pre-framed the change as “eating to thrive”. Try to positively re-frame (pre-frame) the change you are seeking into an epic opportunity that inspires urgent optimism and hope in others.
  • Omnisearch –Positive change thrives on wholeness, so to realize your epic opportunity now you need to design a change platform that unites your stakeholders – your employees, your customers, your suppliers, your community, your detractors, your industry innovators – rather than a change program that will be done to them. Wrap your change agenda in the most profound, accessible strengths available by looking inside, across and outside your system for the people you want have involved. For example, Cleveland’s decision to reach out to experts from Denmark to explore offshore wind energy, has just resulted in the city receiving $40 million to become the first freshwater offshore wind energy experiment in the world.
  • Strengthen – Studies have found that the best change efforts have a positively biased imbalance of over 4:1 in their discourse about strengths and opportunities over deficiencies and failures. Make space for them to individually and collectively discover and savor their stories of strengths and possibilities around your epic opportunity. What’s worked well in the past? What might be possible in the future? Strengthen the strengths on which your change platform is built by drawing on the Appreciative Inquiry discovery tools, to give your change effort lift off.
  • Imagine – The rise and fall of cultures can be predicted 25 years ahead by listening to people’s visions of the future. We need positive images of our future that are so meaningful they have the emotional power to pull people’s energy into action. Not just a sense of what it is, but why it is. For example, in Cleveland the group created a vision of what the city would look like in 2019 and as they heard the stories of what this may mean for future generations, a heroic energy was unleashed about the legacy this would help each person to leave. Breakthrough change requires heroic energy so use the Appreciative Inquiry dream tools to make the space for people to co-create a positive image that is so emotionally magnetic it calls out to the hero within and provides the willpower to get started and to sustain the change effort going forward.
  • Translate – It’s essential that you go beyond words and create clear pathways to make the shared dreams a reality. Design thinkers have discovered the power of translating visions into reality by giving people the tools to rapidly prototype and model their ideas. For example, in Cleveland people started building models of the first six wind farms on Lake Eire with balloons and pipe cleaners. Use the Appreciative Inquiry design tools to give people the opportunity to visualize their dreams and start creating grounded hopes.
  • Improvise – Now that you have a sense of what the change comprises, don’t just communicate for buy-in as most traditional change models encourage, instead invite everyone into iterations of the prototyping. Co-creation results in the kind of substantive engagement that is worth rounds of meetings talking at people about change and what’s required of them. Expand the Appreciative Inquiry design tools by inviting people to be part of creating the change that is starting to unfold in front of them.
  • Value – Change happens in small moments, so be sure to articulate the progress moments as you see them and then play them forward to maintain people’s energy and motivation for the change. For example, when David’s efforts at ‘eating to thrive’ had gone so well he no longer needed his cholesterol medication and his insurance premium went down, he spent the savings on a membership at a great health club to continue improving his wellbeing. Expand the Appreciative Inquiry deliver tools to capture the progress moments across time-lapse metrics to enable reverse innovation, ongoing investment and scaling of what’s working.
  • Eclipse – This is where change is embedded. As your change continues to unfold and establish new ways of being, the old patterns, behaviors and problems become eclipsed. For example the $40 million grant to build the offshore wind energy system in Cleveland will transform the city and it’s ecological footprint.

How could these steps help you think about creating positive changes in your life or across your organization?

For more approaches to creating strengths-based changes visit David’s website

This interview was produced in partnership with the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and the 3rd Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. For more information please visit

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