Why Focussing on what Needs Fixing Can Get You In Trouble

It doesn’t matter what area of our lives, particularly our working lives, we love to focus on what’s not working rather than what is working. In fact, we are rewarded for spending countless hours analysing problems and then working out what’s blocking higher performance. We then spend even more time trying to fix the problem in the form of re-structures, project teams, steering committees and more analysis. Sadly however, these types of activities are often a waste of time, effort and resources. One of the problems with problems is that the investment of energy in looking for and solving problems doesn’t actually help get clear about what the ideal state should look or how to get there.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an emerging approach to organizational and community development that calls for us to look at organizations from a different perspective, to rediscover and organize the good rather than limit our focus to problem solving.  The principles of AI cluster around the idea that organizations and the people in them do not need to be fixed but rather affirmed. With AI, the intervention is not around analysing and attacking problems but around asking powerful, positive questions that help access an organization’s strengths and capacities, their “positive core” for energy and movement. Choosing to study the best in a system and “what gives life” generates energy, participation, and fresh, well-grounded visions of the future.
AI provides an effective philosophical and methodological container for important conversations, enabling collaborative dialogue and knowledge sharing that can involve a whole system in clarifying purpose, illuminating competencies and values, strategizing, and moving in new directions.  It is designed to serve diverse organizational situations, ranging from deepening relationships and team alignments to whole system change initiatives. Ultimately, it is a planning method – used with small groups or even involving thousands of people in the room at the same time.
It has proven to be a groundbreaking philosophy and tool in situations as diverse as the United Religions Initiative, a whole system change process at GTE, city and community encounters, and the co-creative magic of personal relationships.
Dr. David Cooperrider, of Case Western Reserve University, developed the methodology when working on his PhD with his advisor Suresh Srivastva, at the Cleveland Clinic in 1980. Appreciative inquiry invites the study of what a collective group chooses to create versus the study of a problem. One of the principles of AI is that organizations will move in the direction of what they ask questions about. The assumption is that the questions we ask are fateful.
Julie Snyder, writes in the International Positive Psychology Association Newsletter this month how ‘Appreciative Inquiry Empowers a City’.
In August, 2008, Forbes Magazine listed Cleveland, Ohio, as one of 10 of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities,” due to high unemployment, a fleeing population and lack of economic growth. The city is desperate for economic revival. It has been forty years since the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire due to an oil slick and debris.It was one of the most polluted rivers in America, devoid of fish. The city was a center of steel mills and heavy manufacturing industry at one time, being in the “rustbelt”. While the city has made ecological progress since 1969, it still earns its rustbelt designation.
This month, Dr.Cooperrider facilitated a three day AI Summit for Mayor Frank Jackson and the City of Cleveland, his own backyard. Instead of focusing on the region’s myriad problems the summit focus was Sustainable Cleveland 2019: Building an Economic Engine to Empower a Green City on a Blue Lake. Organizers from the Mayor’s Office and the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western Reserve University were initially nervous about attracting 500 diverse stakeholders to participate in the event. However, the focus was so compelling they found themselves making room for 700 attendees from stakeholder groups as diverse as high school students, entrepreneurs, local business leaders, government workers, artists, engineers and more.
The Summit attendees were inspired by messages of hope from Mayor Jackson and Cooperrider, but also from Dr. Peter Senge of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  Senge spoke of a “global awakening” regarding the environment that is occurring because businesses understand they won’t be successful if they don’t address the issue. This understanding is creating unprecedented collaboration among traditional competitors. One example is the collaboration between Coke and Nestle on the issue of water management.
Ray Anderson of Interface, a petroleum based carpet manufacturer, also inspired the group as he spoke of his company’s commitment to “zero carbon footprint by 2020.”  The promise that Anderson brought was that you can truly “do well by doing good. “ As of 2008, Interface has reduced its carbon footprint by 60% and has experienced sales increases of 60%. Anderson suggests that “creativity comes when an organization sets its vision so high it takes people’s breath away.”
The Green City by a Blue Lake vision obviously took the AI Summit group’s breath away, because creativity flowed through those three days in monumental proportion. Twenty groups worked on specific themes that flowed from the dream such as advanced renewable energy, local food, green building and vacant land use.  Each of these groups moved through design and rapid prototyping of the most significant component of their theme, before building an action plan for implementation. As the Summit drew to a close, the Mayor’s Sustainability Office had in hand twenty action plans and volunteers signed up to work on each plan.
Perhaps the most inspiring comments of the entire three-day experience were the closing reflections from participants. Participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate and optimism for their future. They acknowledged that the silos and barriers that have separated them in the past were gone for three full days and they spoke of a commitment to move forward in a unified way toward their new future. It was a moment filled with pure positive emotion that had sprung from a focus on strengths and hope for a better future and a better world.  It was positive psychology at its best.
For more information about how we can bring an Appreciative Inquiry approach to your organisation, please contact us.
Sources include:
The World of Appreciative Inquiry – Tapping Collective Wisdom to Create Change, by Sallie Lee, Shared Sun Studio
Julie Snyder, writes in the International Positive Psychology Association Newsletter this month how ‘Appreciative Inquiry Empowers a City’.
The 2009 World Appreciative Inquiry Conference, Imagine Nepal is being held in Kathmandu, Nepal, from November 16-19. Dr. Cooperrider is the Honorary Conference Chairman. The conference is offered on-line as well as on site.