How to appreciate “Appreciative Inquiry”

At the end of a project, milestone, or quarter many companies incorporate a “post-mortem” into their wrap process. All too often, the post-mortem shifts from a summary of events to a discussion of what went wrong.

An organizational development method called Appreciative Inquiry (AI, for short) – which has similar roots to Positive Psychology and Applied Improvisation,  seeks to turn this notion on its head.

At its core, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on what an organization does well, instead of what it does poorly.  

This process seeks out and inquires the positive (what the Heath Brothers call, bright spots), which in turn helps to engage and rally an organization. What is done well is identified, developed, and built upon for the future.

This model was formed based on the assumption that the types of questions we ask (negative or positive in nature) will focus our attention in that direction.

Examples of AI-type questions would include:

1. What is working well?

2. What should we do more of?

AI brings with it the belief that every organization and every person in the organization has positive aspects and contributions that can be built upon.

Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology and Applied Improvisation are solution-focused and strength-based mindsets and methods that move organizations forward instead of keeping them stuck and frozen in the problems of the past.

What can you do to adopt an Appreciative-Inquiry methodology at your next meeting?

Why our brains focus on the negative – via the New York Times

Joe Joseph (let’s call him) walked out of an important meeting at the company he worked for, “Golden Handcuffs” (let’s call it), and immediately felt horrible. He had received a ton of criticism (not much of it constructive), and other assortments of negative information.

Over the course of the day, he had also been on the receiving end of some general compliments from his peers, an easy commute, and a thank-you note from a good friend.

But all he could focus on was the negative.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in a recent article in the NY Times…“Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

Research tells us, bad feedback has much more of an impact than good feedback. In fact, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass… Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

Joe Joseph is not alone. We as a culture and a society tend to focus on the negative for a variety of reasons, and now, some neurological research tell us this is normal.

But, normal does not mean healthy.

Can you soak up and stack up enough “positives” to out-weigh the negatives, and is it simply a matter of working hard (very hard) to modify your outlook enough to concentrate on the positives?

Evolutionary tales tell us those who were more attuned to negative events were better equipped for survival and threat deterrence. But, we want more than to just survive – we want to thrive.

Here are some practical tips to help focus on the positive:

  1. Spend your time around people who lift you up. View your brain as a bank – our goal is  increase positive deposits and decrease the number of  negative withdrawals.
  2. Don’t shun criticism but remember its place. Constructive criticism is important and un-avoidable – focus on action steps, and stick to facts instead of feelings.
  3. Take a cue from Professor Amabile, who writes of the power of small wins. Take note and strive for making progress on meaningful work and the steps forward you can take every day.
  4. The article gives the example of a “Kudos File”, or positive piggy bank. Work to remind yourself of the positives, steer your focus towards them, and in return, offer specific praise to friends and colleagues when you can.


Your brain on training – what your initiatives need to consider

David Rock… well, he rocks. His neurological research reminds us to ask this important question – in designing organizational transformation initiatives, are we taking into account the way our brains work?

Here are two must-have tips:

1. It’s all about insights

Knowledge is gained through insight, not necessarily transmission and passive knowledge transfer.  Our training initiatives need to encourage more time for self-reflection, de-briefing, and the ability to make connections.

We tend to form new connections when we are happier, which can be encouraged by helping people focus on solutions instead of problems.

The more we want people to change, the more we need to recognize, encourage and deepen their insights. These insights should be generated from within.

We are capable of forming more insights if interactions and initiatives at work trigger our reward stimuli as opposed to threat stimuli in the brain.

2. Social Triggers – S.C.A.R.F.

The brain predisposes us to resist some forms of leadership, training, and interactions, and to accept others based upon whether our brain views them as a threat or a reward.  In fact, much of the motivation regarding our behavior is driven by this system of rewards and threats.

When we feel threatened we tend to adopt an avoid response. When we notice a reward, we tend to have an approach response.

Threats can reduce cognitive performance and decrease our effectiveness. However, the approach response generated by rewards is synonymous with engagement and positive emotions. A growing body of research shows this state increases dopamine which activates the learning centers in the brain, allowing us to perceive more options when trying to solve problems.

David Rock states, there are FIVE important social triggers at play in our brains during every interaction:






What are some practical and trainable tools companies and managers can use to minimize threat, and maximize reward through these social triggers? 

Status – Build self-awareness of status  (behavioral shifts towards either dominance or submission). Use specific, genuine praise. Start Positive to minimize threat of status differential.

Certainty – Provide clear expectations, break down training or change initiatives into steps.

Autonomy – Provide clarity of purpose, increased control over events.

Relatedness –  Increase trust, connection and empathy at work.  After all, relatedness is imperative for collaboration.  Create and initiate safe social interactions.

Fairness –  increase transparency, honesty, and level of communication and involvement around business issues.

In designing training initiatives, we need to consider more than just the different ways adults learn. How can we adjust the way we approach, market, and deliver training programs with an eye  towards increasing insights and rewards,  and decreasing threats? It can be done, especially with Applied Improvisation and the self-awareness skill-building we take part in.  For me, realizing the neurological implications when our certainty is threatened provides an interesting framework for teaching others how to be comfortable in the unknown.

What your sales training initiatives might be missing

This recent piece from HBR sheds light on the alarming gap between investment and performance in sales training initiatives and provides insight into what key ingredients they may be missing.

Consider this fascinating statistic: only 9% of sales meetings end in a sale, and only one out of 250 salespeople exceed their sales targets.

What Researchers Lynette Ryals and Ian Davies found could surprise you and change the way you view your training initiatives:

“Ryals and Davies found that a disproportionate amount of training is allocated to presentation and rapport skills, as well as the actual sales pitch”…

… when in fact, they found the behaviors of the most successful salespeople include overcoming customer objections on the fly (thinking on your feet), rising to the challenge, and adaptability. Furthermore, what hinders success is sticking to the sales script too much, not listening or paying attention, and lacking self-awareness.

Luckily, these “successful” behaviors can be learned and built up like muscles through training initiatives like Improvisation.

What can you add or substitute into your sales training initiatives to help close this gap, and fast? Consider the training toolbox of an Improviser. 

The price and science of wellness (via Tony Schwartz)

Readers of my blog know I am a huge fan of author, speaker and CEO Tony Schwartz. In his most recent article in the Harvard Business Review blog, he wonders – if companies know investing in employee wellness is imperative to the health of their organization, why don’t more companies follow through?

Take this startling research:

Research conducted at Harvard found that the savings from wellness programs in organizations averages $3.27 for every dollar spent

So if we know what is good for us, why don’t we follow through?

Schwartz conducted an informal poll of CEO’s at the World Economic Forum last week. They unanimously agreed employees perform better if they are happier and healthier at work. However, they also agreed the amount of time, energy and money invested in wellness at their company was very little.

The value can seem hard to measure, and the ROI can take years. In order to move forward and increase the health of an organization, Schwartz points out we must imagine the future consequences of our actions, and sacrifice more in the short-term to generate more value in the long-term.

We must re-wire our thinking in order to achieve this goal. Schwartz conversed with two neuroscientists who have demonstrated that our brains have “extraordinary plasticity”. From the article:

“It’s possible, they’ve found, for human beings to systematically train the regulation of negative emotion and to increase our capacity for calm reflectiveness in the face of high stress. MRI scans can measure, for instance, brain activity associated with empathy and compassion — and people can cultivate those attributes through deliberate practice”

It is possible to train our brain through practice, to develop habits (many developed through Applied Improvisation) that can help increase our well-being, happiness, and it turns out, productivity at work. In the same respect, CEO’s and decision makers can train their brain to be less short-term focused in their perspective and to work on imagining and preparing for the future.

Resistance to spending on training and wellness at work is also attributed to a fear that employees will take their new skills elsewhere. However, by investing in employees, demonstrating concern for their well-being and enhancement of skills, it becomes easier to retain and attract employees.

What can your company do to increase wellness?

Read the full article here.