TOM #8: How to build on what works

Posted on: June 19, 2022

Today’s issue continues our focus on topics and tools that help you build organizational and personal resilience, so you can lead better (and feel better) in these complex times.

Navigating complexity requires you to judiciously allocate resources, e.g. your time, attention, relationships, money, and staff. 

Research shows that focusing resources on action steps that build on what works best prepares you and your business for when the unexpected strikes. In order to do that, you need to notice what works!

If what you notice is a function of what you are looking for...

…and if what you and your team members are looking for is a function of the questions you ask...

... it makes sense to get better at asking questions! 

Today’s issue of The Owner’s Manual introduces an approach to asking questions that help you build on what works and allocate resources in ways that generate better outcomes and that build organizational and personal resilience.

Part 1 provides a quick intro to Appreciative Inquiry. (5min read)

Part 2 offers some tips and specific examples of how to use Appreciative Inquiry in your business and life. (5min read)

Let's begin by connecting today's content with your current situation.

🤔 Reflect on this past week and think of a time when you reviewed a report or some sort of work product that was prepared for you or by you. (Or reflect on a recent client-facing meeting you had.) Take a few seconds now to bring that event alive in your mind with as much detail as you can. Rewind your memory back to the moment just before you looked at it (or just after the meeting ended), and then hit “play”. Pay attention closely to what happens…

…and then answer these questions:

  • 📊 What did you look for or notice first? 
  • 🧐 What were you thinking as you reviewed it?
  • 🗣 What did you say, if anything, to yourself?
  • 🔎 Are these the types of things you typically look for and think about when you review something like this? If yes, what inclines you to do so?

Great work! Let’s dive in…

Part 1: Intro to Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry (Ai) focuses on what's working well, why it's working well, and how to replicate and build upon it. Developed by Dr. David Cooperrider and Dr. Ron Fry at Case Western University three decades ago, this approach has been validated by extensive research as an effective means of developing people, spurring innovation, and scaling companies.

Why does this matter to you as a business owner? 

The Ai model allows you to leverage the strengths of your entire company and everyone in it--which is essential for responding to rapid change and scaling operations at any speed. Particularly in complex, uncertain environments in which your time and other resources are constrained!

Ai is a framework and approach to leading and managing that enables you to:

  • acknowledge contributions of individuals and teams which directly correlates with higher levels of employee engagement and lower rates of employee turnover
  • engage all stakeholders in your business to unveil what they actually value and what is actually driving sales, customer retention, and employee satisfaction–rather than what you and your team believe it to be
  • lead change more successfully and quickly
  • access the collective intelligence of your full team

Given that organizations (and individuals) move in the direction of what they focus on, Drs. Cooperrider and Fry suggest we are better served to focus on what's working (rather than what’s wrong).

A new model for a new century

The problem-focused paradigm of organizational change hails back to the 1930's, and taught us to seek out the problem and solve it. To identify weaknesses and mitigate them.

Appreciative inquiry was first introduced in the 1980's, and it's since proven to be a more useful framework in VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environments where the future is unknowable. Rather than focus on what's wrong, Ai equips you to make the best possible outcome more likely.

On his website, Dr. Cooperider explains the “two radical but exciting premises” behind Ai: 

  1. Organizations are not “problems to be solved.” Deficit-based change methods (e.g. gap analysis) tend to perpetuate the problem and prevent true innovation.
  2. Both top-down and bottom-up change models are obsolete.The most effective change happens at a whole system level.

The pandemic reminded us that the only certainty is uncertainty and that there’s more outside of our control than within it. Both the pace and magnitude of change have increased, and the tools we relied on as business owners to predict and plan for the future no longer work. It’s no wonder that a recent American Psychological Association study revealed that 63% of Americans said they’re stressed by uncertainty about what the next few months will bring, and 49% said that planning for their future feels impossible!

While we can’t change what happens around us, we can change how it affects us.

For most of us, when we are feeling limited by our circumstances–whether it’s a mild inconvenience or complete shutdown of our operations–we tend to focus our attention on the limitation. 

We tend to focus on the problem. And that’s a problem.

In coaching, we focus our attention on the client’s desired outcomes. Doing so creates the conditions for change that enable the client to achieve or create those outcomes.

Today I’m sharing two frameworks that allow me to help my clients get clear and take bold action.

Probing into the symptoms and causes of low morale does not inform you about what generates high commitment within your company. If you want to know about that, you’re better off eliciting information from as many of your employees as possible about when they were the most committed and alive in their work.

This is why the questions we ask are so important. Our questions determine what we notice, and what we notice influences our understanding of what is possible.

“A question is only as good as the answer it evokes, and questions thus contribute to success or failure across different contexts.” -Olivier Serrat

The 5 Disciplines of Appreciative Inquiry

[Feel like having someone diagram this cycle and talk you through it? Check out this video.]

The Appreciative inquiry cycle is practical for approaching change at any time and at any level with any entity. I use it during coaching sessions with clients, when working within their companies to build better teams or better systems, and even with myself when evaluating my performance or deliverables.

You can use it when you’re looking forward (e.g. you’re planning a product launch, you’re creating a new role, you’re thinking of hiring a 1099) or looking backward, like in the exercise that kicked off this issue where you were evaluating a report (or reflecting on how a meeting went).

1. Define

This step orients the entire process, so it’s important to aim well. 

I recommend using the question “What do we/you/I want?” and asking it of every person involved. Eventually your team members will know that you will be asking this question, and you will have built the trust required for everyone to answer honestly. Until then, you may need to ask this question privately or in advance of a meeting in order to elicit the most accurate answers. Be sure to ask yourself, too!

I also recommend that you ask open-ended followup questions to ensure full understanding of the words and concepts each person (including yourself) is using in their answers. [I find the Outcome Frame questions introduced in TOM Issue 5 useful in discerning what I would like and developing clear, explicit descriptions for what it is and why I believe it's important.]

When you (and your team) have defined what you want, have it stated in the positive (meaning in terms of what you want, NOT what you don't want), and you have explicit definitions of the words you’ve used…you’re ready for the next step. 

[If you're not clear on what I mean here, stay tuned for Part 2.]

2. Discover

This step involves finding what works and indexing when and how these things have occurred. 

  • If you're working to create an outcome in the future, harvest what's worked in the past by eliciting stories of when you and your team were experiencing that outcome: What was happening and/or who was involved?
  • If you're reviewing something that just happened or that is ongoing, index what's working right now: What went/is going well?
  • What was/is happening and/or who was involved?
  • What was/is it about you/the situation that made this possible?

Keep asking open-ended followup questions to elicit details. You're ready to move on when you have a good sense of the skills, strenghts, systems, and circumstances that underpin you, your team's, and your company's best work.

3. Dream

This step involves imagining what could be. Having discovered strengths and successes in the previous step, you and your team are primed for identifying and sharing your aspirations for the future.

When you and your team are at your best, what's possible? When your company is crushin' it, what is possible?

4. Design

This step involves determining what should be. It involves you and your team identifying an “ideal” that provides insights and guideposts for the sorts of systems, skill sets, and other enablers that are key to creating the ideal outcome.

What needs to happen in order for the ideal to be possible? Who do you/I need to be in order for that to happen? What do you/I need to do in order for that to happen?

5. Deliver/Deploy

This is the step for taking action toward the ideal outcome.

What actions are you taking? What and how are you monitoring? How are you enabling and ensuring that you and your team are noticing and building upon what's working? That you and your team are learning and adjusting to what's happening in real-time? 

The Ai framework is a cycle. After you've taken any incremental action to deliver in Step 5, you can continue on to Step 2 and discover what's working and keep building on it! 

What Ai Looks Like at Scale

One example of successful Ai implementation involved the British Broadcasting Corporation, which at the time was suffering from a culture of "excessive competition, mistrust and individualism." While the culture fostered high creativity levels on an individual basis, it had a crippling effect on the company’s profitability.

In 2002, the director-general launched an Ai-based program which lasted a period of six months and involved thousands of employees and hundreds of meetings. Employees were teamed up in pairs and told they would take turns interviewing each other about positive experiences and moments in which they felt proud of themselves during their time at the BBC.

Questions that formed part of the interview were:

  • What have been the most creative/valued experiences in your time at the BBC?
  • What were the conditions that made the experience possible?
  • If those experiences were to become the norm, how would the BBC have to change?

Following, each pair was placed in smaller groups of ten colleagues, so that the group as a whole could discuss and filter out which story they agreed to be most touching and powerful.

The stories that were shortlisted were then shared with the whole group.

Thousands of ideas were generated, analyzed, and sent to the Ai team to be evaluated and considered for implementation.

Some of these ideas included suggestions and observations that were synthesized and standardized into the six values listed below, which were used to foster a new culture in which teamwork and collaboration are valued:

  • Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.
  • Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.
  • We take pride in delivering quality and value for money.
  • Creativity is the lifeblood of our organization.
  • We respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.
  • We are one BBC: great things happen when we work together.

There are a number of barriers to effective use of Ai, and there are legitimate criticisms of the methodology. Common trouble spots include:

  • failing to define a clear focus in Step 1
  • sharing stories and experiences unrelated to the topic or agenda in Step 2
  • disregarding the actual problem and focusing only on the positive
  • allegiance to the problem-focus approach--if people don't actually reframe their mental model (at least while completing the steps in the process), Ai doesn't generate useful or reliable information
  • false hope or Step 5 that’s incongruent with company's mission or market realities

Asking positive, open-ended questions will provide invaluable insights, no matter what. I encourage you to initiate a few conversations with questions from this issue and see what happens!

Part 2. Appreciative Inquiry in action

“Change is more powerful, energizing, and effective when we inquire into the true, the good, the better, and the possible—everything that gives life to a system when it is most alive and at its exceptional best.” 

- Dr. David Cooperrider

Tips for Step 1 (Defining)

Ask open-ended questions.

A closed question must be answered with a “yes” or “no” or using one of the specific answers provided in or inferred by the question. They experience as cul-de-sacs or dead ends in conversation.

An open-ended question invites discussion and elicits a wide range of answers. They are questions for which there are multiple–often infinite!–possible answers.

Leading questions limit the range of answers by imposing or inferring constraints such as presuppositions, meanings, or circumstances. Intentionally or unintentionally, when people use leading questions, they are attempting to steer the conversation. Leading questions are narrowing, limiting, and counterthetical to Ai.

Examples of closed questions:

  • Do you believe [___]?
  • Did [___] contribute to that?

Examples of open-ended questions:

  • What would you like?
  • What about that worked for you?
  • What is important about that?

Examples of leading questions and how to morph them into open-ended questions:

  • Do you agree that [___]? → What do you think about?
  • If [this] happened, would you do [that]? → If this happened, what would you do? 

Two tips for asking open-ended questions:

  • Ask questions that begin with “what” or “how”.
  • Use as few words as possible. Short questions are less likely to be leading questions than longer ones.

State what you want in the positive.

Before we figure out how to do this, let me share why this is a critical step. Remember from earlier, what you notice is a function of what you are looking for...and this step is all about focusing your team's and your attention.

To state things in the positive means to use a statement that explains what to do (rather than what to not do or what to avoid). 

We want to put our attention on what we want to happen, so we can work toward it. 

If we put our focus on what we want to avoid, we have little attention on what we actually want. This is at best unuseful…and at worst, dangerous.

Our brains can’t not do something. Try it! 

Don’t think about a milkshake.🥤

Don’t imagine your toenail being ripped off. 😩

My boyfriend was skeptical about this neuroscience factoid, and learned the hard way while mountain biking that “Don’t hit that” is, in fact, processed by the brain as the command “Do hit that.” (Both he and his bike survived the impact.)

So rather than have yours and your team’s attention on the problems you want to avoid, craft what you want with an affirmative statement to ensure you focus on what you DO want.

  • If you don’t want [___], what would you like instead?
  • And when you’re no longer [___], what are you doing? What ishappening?

Define the words you use.

We regularly use words that refer to concepts that have as many different meanings as there are people in the world.

I have found it useful to define these words by clearly identifying the associated behaviors and conditions--those things that are observable and measurable by others.

Here's a personal example: for one person in a couple, leaving the other person alone when they are distressed is the behavioral equivalent of "being loving" and for the other partner, this same behavior is equivalent to "callous disregard"!

Here's a meme from my military days that explains what I mean: 

If you give the command "secure the building"...

  • The Navy would turn out the lights and lock the doors.
  • The Army would surround the building with defensive fortifications, tanks, and concertina wire.
  • The Marine Corps would assault the building, using overlapping fields of fire from all appropriate points on the perimeter.
  • The Air Force would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy the building.

Ask follow-up, open-ended questions to elicit the behavioral and circumstantial equivalents to the words people use. You might try questions like these:

  • What do you mean by "world class"?
  • How would customers describe their experience of "amazing service"?
  • Could you give me an example of what you mean by "supported"?
  • When communication is working well, what lets you know?

I recommend you define (and continually refine) what you mean by all of the abstract words you and your team use. Words like “quality”, “finished”, “timely”, “accurate”, "respectful", "equitable", "communicate", "appropriate", etc.

How Ai builds personal resilience

In addition to learning about what works, Ai's open-ended, positively-framed questions invite the other person’s attention to be on what matters to them. It allows them to define what they want and express why it's important to them. That feels good.

You can learn a lot about someone’s “map” of the world by listening to how they tell stories. As you get more familiar with another person's map you understand them better, which makes it easier to communicate and collaborate with them.

When you take interest in and create space for people to share what's on their map, they feel heard, seen, and respected. That feels good.

Human brains make no distinction between events that have happened in the past, ones that are happening right now, and ones that might happen in the future. When we are thinking about an event, our brains (and bodies) are experiencing it as if it were happening RIGHT NOW.

When we inquire into what people want and what works during Step 2 (discover), we get to re-experience the good thing (what works) as if it is happening again, right now. And that feels good.

These moments that feel good boost emotional resilience. (These moments of "feeling good" involve savoring and belonging, two of the most powerful generators of personal resilience.)

How Steps 1-2 enable innovation in Steps 3-5

When people feel like they belong, they feel safe. And that psychological safety enables their brains to reclaim the bandwidth that would otherwise be scanning the environment for threats and direct it toward answering your questions and imagining what's possible.

When you ask open-ended questions to elicit stories about what worked/is working, especially questions that have the other person connect with the sights, sounds, and feelings of the event, their system will release the neurochemicals and activate the neural pathways associated with the experience. (Quite literally they will be seeing and hearing the event in their mind and feeling the event in their body). This makes the present moment feel awesome and energizes the creative parts of their brain.

How to use Ai in real life

"The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” -Peter Drucker

Make your work (and personal life) better.

Here are a few of my favorite questions for "after action" discussions. After reviewing a report. After a meeting. After a briefing. These questions elicit actionable information from the individual perspectives of everyone involved. They identify good stuff to build upon and insights into how things could be done even better. It's like a mini Ai cycle!

(In groups, I've found it more effective for the most junior person to answer first.)

  • What went well?
  • What would I do differently next time?
  • What did I learn?

These same questions are useful after a workout. After a conversation. After trying out a new restaurant. After completing a chore. At the end of the day. At the end of the week. At the end of the quarter. At the end of the year.

Extra Points: Systemize the learning. 

  • How can I share this learning and convert it into "corporate knowledge" for my company? 
  • How can I build this learning into the way I normally do things going forward? 

💭 Think back to the opening exercise. What have you learned about how you typically review or reflect on how things went? 

🤔 What would you like to try to do differently when reviewing or reflecting this week, if anything?

Make your relationships better.

  • (Re)connect with people: "What is/was the best thing that happened to you (so far) today?"
  • Learn about others’ strengths and interests: “What is your favorite project/task and what do you like about it?”
  • Foster open communication: “When we're communicating in a way that works well for you, what's happening?"
  • Solicit feedback: "What did I do (or not do) that worked for you?"
  • Petition input: "What two or three things can people in leadership positions do that will help you be the best you can be?

🤔 Where in your work and life would you most like to experiment with Appreciative inquiry?

💭 What's working well that you'd like to build upon using Appreciative inquiry?

Interested in conducting appreciative interviews with everyone on your team? Try using (or adapting) this set of questions:

  • Think of a time in your entire experience with our organization when you have felt most excited, most engaged, and most alive. What were the forces and factors that made it a great experience? What was it about you, others, and your organization that made it a peak experience for you?
  • What do you value most about yourself, your work, and our organization?
  • What are our organization’s best practices (ways you manage, approaches, traditions)?
  • What are the unique aspects of your culture that most positively affect the spirit, vitality, and effectiveness of our organization and its work?
  • What are the core factors that “give life” to our organization?
  • What are the three most important hopes you have to heighten the health and vitality of our organization for the future?

Your business does better when you're doing better. 

I encourage you to consider building upon what works in all aspects of your life using the ideas in this issue of TOM. What's working at home? With your most trusted friends? In other important parts of your life?

Let me know how it goes!

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