Positive development

Positive development
Maybe appreciating what already works in your company is a way to grow in these uncertain times

By Steve McCombs, for SBT

Throughout the last six decades the focus on most management improvement systems promulgated by business authors, consultants and managers themselves has been on fixing problems in organizations in order to improve them.
Even well respected management gurus such as Tom Peters have been quoted as saying "If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looked!
Could problem-solving indeed be the problem?
Maybe Appreciative Inquiry (AI) could be just the push your company needs to help you get out of the doldrums created by the state of the economy. David Cooperrider, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University who originated this technique, says that problem-solving always asks people to look backward at yesterday’s failures and their causes, and rarely results in a new vision.
That’s not to say that problem-solving is useless. On the contrary, when used properly it can improve your organization’s performance and even prevent disaster.
Seat belts, air bags and tamper-proof packaging are among the best examples I can think of that have improved our lives by solving problems.
To reap the benefits of AI, train your employees to look at what is, and has been working well in your organization, and then discover ways to apply those concepts to improve your performance in a way that will get your customers’ attention.
Cooperrider calls this the "4-D" cycle of appreciative inquiry. Here is how you might approach it:
— Discovery: Gather your workforce into groups of no more than seven and facilitate a discussion about experiences that made them feel like the company was really succeeding.
Encourage all to share an anecdote or tell a story about and incident or a time when they felt they and the company were at their best. Then work together to create a new one to five-year vision based on those successes.
— Dreaming: Ask the "miracle question." Ask your employees to imagine waking up tomorrow and your company was exactly the way they would like it to be concerning the four main areas of your business: management, operations, sales and finance.
Ask them what they see and how they know it is different. Put this all together and talk through a way that these dreams connect to the most pertinent of the visions.
— Design: Get your employees to now talk about how the organization will truly look based on this combination of visions and what its driving values and principles would be.
— Destiny: Ask your employees "How do we move forward to create this new reality for our company? What do you see as your role?"
In other words, once you have brought your employees this far, the process may take on a life of its own.
Be sure to empower your employees by letting them know what their limits are in terms of time, money, people, and equipment so that they can take the initiative without having to ask for approval at every turn.
What I believe makes this process so powerful is that it follows the human being’s natural thought process, that is: to focus on the positive.
The way I like to illustrate that point in my talks on positive employee discipline is to tell the audience, "Don’t think about a yellow horse!" Then I immediately ask them what is in their heads. With out exception the response is "a yellow horse."
Why? Because, we are programmed to think only in positive terms.
That’s why telling people what not to do can, in many cases, be counter-productive.
Just as focusing on what kinds of behaviors and skills you want your employees to use is more productive than a list of "don’ts," AI focuses on a positive vision for the organization rather than listing all the things that are wrong and must be fixed, which can, in and of itself, create a climate of negativity and blame-placing.
Even though these times seem uncertain and not conducive to growth, it just might be a good idea for you and your employees to rediscover what made you great in the first place and then look for ways to recreate the conditions that supported that success. What we all need is way to get off the dime and differentiate our service or product in a way that will show our prospects and customers how we can improve their condition.

Steve McCombs, consultant, author and speaker, is president of Beyond Performance, a management and performance consulting practice in Milton. He has more than 20 years experience in quality assurance, management consulting and employee development. He can be reached at 608-868-4565 or stevemccombs@netscape.net.

May 16, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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