We are always confronted with problems in the context of our work, or in personal life. What do you do when some of your challenges seem insurmountable or your approaches to certain of them aren’t just coming to fruition? Our instinct when it comes to solving most challenging issues is often conventional in nature. That is, most of us are conditioned to view problems as something broken, or as deficit -based and build a negative narrative around them in order to solve. Such traditional approaches may not always prove to be effective. What if you could implement a better approach like Appreciative Inquiry (AI) towards solving them?
When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to start looking at all the things that aren’t proper or try to fix what’s wrong. This is the reason, most of the times, we try to dispute that which is wrong, stop or cover up or find excuses in face of complex problems.
Such negative connotation to a problem points to failure rather than that of optimism and improvement. Approaching them alternatively by shifting to rather a positive perspective of appreciating what is going right enables you to look at whole new set of solutions you or your team may not previously discovered.
“Problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.” — Robert H. ShullerTweet
What is Appreciative Inquiry?
AI is a positive concept that can be applied for problem solving, leadership development and change management. It focuses on identifying and doing more of what is already working well, rather than focusing on what isn’t or the deficits or shortcomings.
Appreciative Inquiry was first developed by David Cooperrider to challenge the traditional approach to problem solving. And is influenced by his artist wife who educated him about the ‘appreciative eye’—an idea that assumes that in every piece of art there is beauty.
The key aspect behind AI is over-emphasising on existing strengths, achievements and successes, or the aspects that motivate people in getting desired outcomes. It is based on the very fact that the questions we ask ourselves influences our state of mind and so are teams, organisations or leaders. They move toward what they persistently ask questions about.
According to this approach, once a problem is associated with its positive core, solutions not previously thought possible can be achieved while at the same time building on enthusiasm, confidence and energy to solve them.
Core Principles of Appreciative Inquiry
The Constructionist principle—Words create our world.
This is based on the notion that we construct our understanding of a situation through our conversations, the language we use, our shared exchange of ideas, the stories we tell or the narrative we build around a problem. A problem situation is subjective and is not objective and is open to reconstruction. In other words, one can come up with solutions to problems in part through reframing the problem situations. That is, by changing the kind of language used in defining a problem, or by articulating it in a more positive way, one can improve exploring more new insights.
The Simultaneity principle—Inquiry creates solutions.
Change happens as soon as we start inquiring about positive aspects. Questions are the simplest means through which we can be able to look at things differently. Simply by asking questions, you can set yourself up at the innovation stage of problem-solving. With right inquiry, we begin to reflect on whether there are better, faster, and less stressful ways of solving a situation. Asking questions that create a sense of openness help to expand our perspectives.
The Poetic principle—Narratives increase creativity.
A problem can be understood when it is defined as though it is a narrative. Considering problems in this way creates space to allow creativity. This makes it open for re-interpretation and/or affirmation. As we interpret different problem situations, we can choose which parts we will focus on and how positively they can be reformed. Reframing the meaning that we assign on to any given situation, interaction or circumstance changes our perception of it automatically.
The Anticipatory principle—Imagination sets direction.
Envisioning our goals is what motivates us to improve an existing situation. We have a tendency to move in a specific direction while solving a problem as a result of anticipating that direction. If the problem is framed in positive, we will anticipate something positive and move towards a positive outcome. And if we anticipate something negative, we think of solutions as to minimise that effect rather than thinking of solving it. In other words, our capacity to imagine and anticipate the outcome will direct our attention in achieving it.
The Positive principle —Positive questions enhance positive perspectives.
This principle is about the emotional context in which the problem is framed. While anticipating positive outcomes sets the direction, the positive principle extends your thinking in a positive. Even acknowledging the present strengths and feeling grateful for the things that are already working well can aid in self-empowerment.
The Wholeness principle—A big-picture perspective.
We come up with better potential solutions when we know the whole perspective of a problem situation. This means every aspect and perspective play a part in the entirety of a problem. We take a positive approach when we have the big picture perspective of why we are solving a particular problem.
Application of AI’s 5-D cycle in problem-solving
“We live in worlds our questions create.”David L Cooperrider
There are five main steps that can be taken in order to tackle and address a given problem within a framework of Appreciative Inquiry. It’s concept of 5-D cycle encourages the exploration of already existing strengths and successes to initiate innovative ideas.
Define. (What is the topic of inquiry?)
This step involves defining what specifically is desired. It requires focusing, clarifying, and framing. Before you can start to analyse the problem, it is essential to clarify the focus on the topic of inquiry or the purpose of the problem you are trying to solve. This includes identifying the starting point, what needs to be achieved, purpose and context.
- Define the overall focus of inquiry.
- Frame the problem in such a way that it does not constrain you, but expands your avenues to explore as many possibilities.
- Look at the problem from a positive view point, and use positive language and narrative.
- Communicate things from a positive stand point.
Discovery. (What works the best?)
This step involves appreciating the past successes and existing strengths. It requires recognising, valuing, and appreciating. At this stage, you need to look for what has happened in the past and what is working well in the present situation. Understanding what works, was or is good, why is it good, and what is the core purpose helps to rediscover a workplace’s or an organisation’s or an individual’s strengths.
- Look at the different approaches you used in the past that helped you come up with an effective solution.
- Analyse what factors that most contributed to the past success of such problem management.
- Explore and appreciate the best of what is, that is an organisation’s strengths, best current practices, and source of peak performance.
- Involve as many people as possible so you get people talking and sharing positive aspects about what they find is most valuable.
Dream. (What might be?)
This step involves debating what could be through shared ideas and experiences. It requires imagining, embodying, and envisioning. This stage includes gathering the past success or the achievements identified in the discovery stage and reinforce them to build real strengths. It helps in identifying new possibilities and envision a preferred future outcome.
- Bring diverse group of people to come together and brainstorm creative and innovative ideas.
- Leverage the best of what is and use this to find out high-impact creative solutions.
- You may stop doing the things that aren’t working, and use your resources to reinforce the things that are.
Design. (What should be?)
This involves identifying best of what might be and looking into their practicalities. It requires brainstorming, aligning, and choosing. This stage combines the best of ‘what is’ along with ‘what might be’ to create ‘what should be’ in an ideal solution. It combines the strengths with what you wish to formulate an ideal solution.
- Look at how practical your ideas are, like for instance, will the past problem-solving approaches or solutions work again or have things changed.
- You look at the practicalities needed to support the vision, including the systems, processes, strategies and plans that enable the dream to be realised.
Deliver. (What will be?)
This involves determining what should be aimed for, most optimistically based on the ideal picture of what the outcome would look like. It requires experimenting, integrating, and innovating. Sometimes called as destiny phase, involves implementation or execution of the designed solution. This requires planning, strategising and preparation.
- Take the ideas from design stage and begin to turn them into a workable plan.
- Keep what could be as a point of focus and formulate solutions to move towards it.
The real positive aspect of this problem-solving approach comes from initial two stages. The remaining stages serve as standard steps to implement the solutions. This can be used while solving complex problems rather than simple ones or for problems where there is a single, easily identifiable cause.
Also for recurrent problems or instances where there is no clear diagnosis or course of action emerges. Such times, it is worth turning attention away from the problem and looking for the places where the problem isn’t happening.
“We need to discover the root causes of success, rather than the root causes of failure.”—David Cooperrider
Why is AI a better approach to problem-solving
Encourages default mode network.
According to research, in cognitive tasks like problem-solving, our task positive network gets activated. This increases defensiveness, lack of trust, stress and reluctance to try new ways as we focus on short-term results rather than big-picture aims. Whereas AI encourages the default mode network that enables big-picture thinking, engagement and motivation. As a result, it makes us focus on what is good and valuable in the present situation, so we can learn about most effective ways to solve the problems for the future.
It is a strength-based collaborative approach.
AI approach of problems helps organisations and work places to reframe problems so that they are an expression of desired future solved state. Focusing on positives of a situation point you much closer to actionable next steps in the process. It is an inclusive approach where everyone can come up with solving strategies by building in the best of the past in order to meet the current challenges.
Facilitates personal improvement.
As humans we all have an in-built negativity bias that makes us spend most of our time dwelling on what went wrong or what isn’t working well. Even when it comes to personal front, we tend to overestimate risks, and underestimate our true potential. AI proves to be an effective approach for personal development and improvement. In these contexts, one simply focuses on what they do well, and on their efforts towards building on them.
Shifts your perspective.
Since we each have different frames of internal reference, our perspective determines how effectively we can tune into what we really appreciate and value. AI shifts your perspective away from underperformance, failure and lack of motivation to developing a positive frame of mind to approach problem situations. It takes a constructive approach towards entirety of present strengths, abilities, unexplored potential, values and vision.
Reduces problem-focused approach.
When we are problem-focused, we fundamentally think in terms of problems, symptoms, causes and all too often, blame, criticism and remediation. We spend our resources dwelling more on What to fix? What is wrong? Or on what’s not working, or other causes that create a deficit culture. AI on the other focuses on the positive aspects in order to inquire, explore and discover new possibilities. It facilitates expending your time and energy to build what you value, or what you want more of.
Questions for Self-reflection
How do I choose to construct the problem? What positive element can I look for ?
What are the key strategies I can follow to come up with potential solution? How can I implement these strategies successfully?
What are my present strengths? How can I build on and coordinate these strengths to create a solution?
What are my past successes and how can they help my present situation?
What possibilities exist that I have not thought about yet? What solutions would benefit everyone involved?
What is my big picture perspective of the problem I am solving?
How are my expectations contributing to my future solved state?
Consider mindful reflection to the above to strengthen new perspectives you have gained through this post*
What we focus on, we create. The problem situations look different when they are viewed as an opportunity to be appreciated. To appreciate is to recognise what is best available so as to strengthen the problem-solving process at an individual and organisational level.
Once you embrace the idea of AI approach to problems, you can apply it to various areas of your work or personal life for better outcomes. And this requires you to be mindful when faced with a problem or challenge and try to look it from a stand point of what is good, right and is currently working well.
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