According to David Cooperrider who pioneered the concept of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ (2005), the ‘problem-solving’ approach to drive organizational change is ineffective, if not counterproductive. By focusing on what does not work to identify gaps versus an often unattainably perfect state and then devoting resources to eradicate deficiencies, leadership teams not only foster a negative environment which limits employee engagement but also prevent their troops from achieving their best. Organizations become a gigantic problem to solve, with executives seen as primarily dealing with remedial actions.
Appreciative inquiry contrasts with this philosophy. Instead of focusing on shortcomings, it explores what is working at its best in an organization, on what makes it work so well, and on exploiting the underlying strengths throughout an organization. For example, instead of dwelling on the reasons why employees leave, Management would seek to find out why loyal employees stay. They would then build on these findings to drive employee engagement, and, with it, creativity and innovation alongside a common purpose. Gallup, a global analytics and advice firm, provides a stream of evidence supporting this approach. Under this construct, leadership can be defined as being about identifying and aligning strengths to improve an organization’s performance.
This method finds its mirror image at the individual level through the relatively new concept of ‘positive psychology’ as introduced by Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, in a captivating paper (2000). According to him, ‘[traditional psychology] concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community. The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities.’ Those interested in finding out about their individual qualities can do a 10-minute free test through Mr. Seligman’s VIA Institute For Character.
The focus on positivity may be dismissed as overly ‘soft’ or ‘idealistic’, only worthy of a discussion related to existentialism at the Burning Man. But it finds support in science: in ‘The Neuroscience of Coaching’ (2018), the authors demonstrate, supported by brain imaging technology, that ‘the best way to engage a mind-set that will lead to sustained effort in learning or change is to coach in a manner that first engages and then sustains the individual’s own vision of his or her dreams and aspirations. In contrast, many [line managers, psychologists, parents] focus from the start on the problems and challenges that an individual faces […].’
Perhaps the main issue with a problem-solving approach is that it must define a standard of excellence, a tyrannical yardstick against which performance is measured. The implicit pursuit of conformity and homogeneity flies in the face of the principles of diversity and inclusion.
Mastering the skills to leverage employees’ and organizations’ relative strengths, uniqueness and exceptionality represents an important source of competitive advantages. At its core, it is about building on what one is as opposed to what one is not.