The frames through which we view our worlds

Featured In: The Brightside Blog

Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer, the founders of solution focused brief therapy, viewed their clients within the systemic webs to which they belonged at home and at work. And then they took this approach towards what they observed

If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it
If something is working well, then do more of it
If something is not going well, then (don’t keep doing it) do something different

This seemingly simple idea to ‘to do something different’ when something didn’t work was shaped, in turn, by the philosopher Gregory Bateson who posed the question, ‘what is the difference that makes a difference?’

In the context of your own work, in your family, with your friends or in the community where you live, what might that difference be?

The work of Berg and de Shazer became the forerunner to an idea and an approach which has become familiar to the coaching community over the last decade, and that is Appreciative Inquiry.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

  • The traditional approach to change is to look for the problem, and find a solution.
  • The primary focus is on what is wrong.
  • By looking for problems we emphasize and amplify them.

The appreciative inquiry approach suggests that:

  • We look for what works with an individual or in an organisation.
  • The idea is to approach situations with an appreciative eye and an enquiring mind.
  • We are good at talking about what doesn’t work. We have less experience of talking about what works and doing more of that.
  • We are obsessed with the idea of learning from our mistakes

Some assumptions

  1. In every individual, team or group something always works.
  2. What we focus on becomes our reality. If we focus on what is wrong or what is missing, we tend to see everything through that filter or frame.
  3. The act of asking questions of an individual/group/organisation influences them in some way.
  4. If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be the best parts about the past.
  5. The language we use creates our reality.

What is the business value to this form of appreciative inquiry?

If done well, most change strategies will create quantifiable results. The data missing is how people feel while they are making enough money to stay in business. Dialogue framed within an appreciative inquiry approach creates positive energy as a result of people knowing how to create deeply satisfying results in a different way.

Everyone wants to feel important and to make a contribution. This model of change recognises and honours the human spirit and will maintain the best of the organisation. People want their organisations to do purposeful work and they want to be recognised as part of it. Finding out how people are successful and the pride they hold in the tasks achieved, engages all members and manages the continuity of the organisation.

Classic Appreciative Inquiry questions applied to professional life

  • Describe the most energizing moment, a real ‘high’ from your professional life. What made it possible?
  • Without being humble, describe what you value most about yourself and your profession. What attracted you to your chosen work?
  • Describe how you stay professionally affirmed, renewed, energized, enthusiastic, and inspired?
  • Describe three concrete wishes for the future of your career.

My colleague, Myrna Gower, and I have repeatedly asked these questions in different contexts and with diverse groups over the last fifteen years. They never fail to ignite the desire within the human spirit to do good work. When people are stuck in a story which almost entirely focuses upon the ‘problem’ then soon, a team or a whole organisation can get caught in that mindset too. Which reminds us of the Japanese proverb which says, ‘to a man (or a woman) with a hammer – everything looks like a nail.’

We must each be careful not to be the leader left with a hammer in our hand.

Berg, I K & Dolan, Y (2001), Tales of Solutions, WW Norton
Cooperrider, D. & Whitney, L (2003). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook.  Lakeshore Publishers.
Hammond, S A (1996). Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Thin Book Publishing Co.
Whitney, D et al (2002), Encyclopedia of Positive Questions, Vol 1, Lakeshore Communications