What is Working? A Question of Discovery

One of the questions to ask when evaluating a current work activity or process (at whatever level you engage with that – e.g., business model, system) is what is working? What is going well? It is important to note that this should only ever be a question of discovery, not a discovery of the unquestionable. The form of every activity or process can be analysed for current performance outcomes – the good, the bad, the challenging. But when the activity or process is changed, the set of outcomes will change too, and the promise of doing re-imagining right is that the collection of outcomes become better over time – even though they are likely to be different.

One method for asking what is working is called Appreciative Inquiry (see Wikipedia or Rob Lambert’s article on LinkedIn). The intent of an appreciative inquiry session is to focus on the current positive outcomes – to create a place for talking and discussing these. The meta-intent is to force participants to think at a different level, and to avoid fixating on what is not working in the current activity or process. Maybe it’s the re-imagining equivalent to expressing gratitude and being thankful during the day: the discipline forces us as individuals to pay attention to the multitudinous good things in our lives, rather than the problems and challenges that your relentlessly in your face. Gratitude is a way of shifting what you pay attention to, without diminishing the reality of the problems. When your mindset changes, your emotions shift, and thus your capability to respond (rather than react or lash out) shifts too.

Appreciative Inquiry isn’t just a “what’s wonderful with this” love-fest though. It creates a base of shared discussion around what is working, and then shifts to a space for contemplating what could be better. It’s the pull of the vision of the future, the pull of the idea of excellence, the pull of the thought of becoming a better functioning team / group / process / business … born of a confidence that we have already created something good, and thus have the skills to push towards something greater. Under this approach, it is a question of discovery.
To be avoided, as I mentioned above, is that asking what is working becomes a discovery of the unquestionable. The idea that because we value today’s outcomes (rewards, good things) so highly that we want to preserve indefinitely and at all the costs the current stream of benefits. Without change. Without progress. Without any sense that it could be even better than it is today, although different. Otherwise we become trapped like the monkey, or caught by the endowment effect, and thus the current good thing that we have today traps us from ever moving forward.

Footnotes
[1] To catch a monkey, they say (never done this myself, despite living in Zambia for almost 4 years when I was younger), you make a hole in a gourd (or coconut if you have one), fill it with sweets or nuts, and then tie the gourd in a tree. Monkey-to-be-caught comes along and puts a hand into the gourd, grabs the contents in his or her fist, and then can’t pull out the now filled hand. They won’t let go, and then neither will the hunter. What’s currently good (the sweets) robs forever the monkey of the greater good (freedom tomorrow and the next day and the next day). See the movie version (using a termite mound) or the sermon version.

[2] The endowment effect says that we place a higher value on something we already own than what it is actually worth currently. See Louis Chew.

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