Today’s podcast guest is Ed Jacobson. Ed is an expert in appreciative inquiry. And you get to learn first, what appreciative inquiry is and second how it can be used to make your company better and more sustainable.
The most important lesson you’ll learn today is that instead of focusing on what’s going wrong in your company, focusing on what is going right will get you a bigger return for your effort. And, that’s what you want, isn’t it?
Here are just a few of the things you’ll learn today:
- What appreciative inquiry is and why you need to know about it.
- Why focusing on what’s working is often more powerful than fixing what’s wrong.
- Why focusing on the positive helps you think about what you can even better.
- The best results come from making things better instead of fixing what’s wrong.
- Why focusing on your strengths is way more powerful than trying to fix what’s wrong in your life.
Narrator: Welcome to The Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In The Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.
Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.
Josh: Hey, this is Josh Patrick. You’re at The Sustainable Business podcast. Today, my guest is Edward Jacobson.
Ed is a really interesting guy. I’ve got to know Ed over the last, I don’t know, four or five years at several Sudden Money programs I’ve been at with him. He is a PhD psychologist. He has an MBA. He has consulted with Fortune 50 companies as well as smaller financial services firms. I can tell you, Ed is one of the most interesting people we’re ever going to have a conversation with.
Today, we’re going to be talking about the wonderful world of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. Ed is really an expert at that. Instead of listening to me just wander on about it, let’s bring Ed in.
Hey, Ed, how are you today?
Ed: I am well. And you, I presume, are fine.
Josh: I presume I’m fine, also. Thanks for asking.
Josh: Ed, is there a difference between positive psychology and appreciative inquiry, first of all?
Ed: Yes. If this is the Venn diagram, there’s tremendous overlap between the two. Well, it’s actually about 19 years old. It’s one of those strange things where Martin Seligman, who is acknowledged as the founder, actually declared positive psychology open for business. It was a landmark thing that he did and it’s been a big seller since then. A lot of research, a number of Master’s degree programs for positive psychology practitioners – and the emphasis of practition – practicing. It’s very much research based. There’s kind of quick translation from research to application because that’s the big imperative. It’s based on what makes for positive, and effective, and high well-being people, relationships like marriages and organizations and even communities.
Appreciative inquiry started as an organizational development process in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve. It’s turned the consulting world on its head from looking at “What’s wrong in the organization and how do we fix it?” to something quite opposite which is, “What’s good here? How do we get more of it?” That’s about the starkest contrast I can make.
Josh: If it’s turned the consulting world on its head, why are we hearing more about appreciative inquiry? I mean, I do read about it and I see it but I wouldn’t consider it mainstream. More, it’s like emerging mainstream, maybe.
Ed: I think it’s that and maybe a little smaller, maybe. From my perspective and the people I talk with, there’s been a tremendous expansion. Much of it is in education, and organizational work, and in coaching, and even psychotherapy, as well as organizational consulting. And so, I think it takes a long time. I’m sure you know this, and agree, for a new innovation to seep through and diffuse into the culture. And a lot of people and a lot of organizations are still steeped in “What’s wrong here? How do we fix it? How do we fix him or her? How do we get rid of them?” It’s spreading like a positive disease.
Josh: I would absolutely agree, it takes a long time for something to seep into the modern world. I have lots of questions, obviously. One of my questions might be, if we study behavioral economics, which I know that you’re very aware of, one of the things that we learn is that there’s a big loss aversion situation that human beings sort of do. We move away from pain which means we want to not have mistakes happen or correct mistakes. But, it appears to me that appreciative inquiry actually says, “Well, maybe that’s not the best way to look at things.” How do we balance those two things off?
Ed: Well, balance is the key. It’s really a question of, “How do we shift the balance from focusing exclusively on “What’s wrong? Who’s wrong? What do we do? How did that person screw up?” to “What are the strengths in the organization? How can we appreciate those strengths and build on them? What are we doing right? What are we really aspiring for? Are we aspiring for something is our vision of our business and even of our lives? Is it compelling? Is it positive? Is it a sucking motion, drawing us to the desired future?”
And so, it’s not a question of “You should never focus on negatives.” That would be just totally crazy. Some research shows that when the emphasis is so much on positives, like a 10:1 ratio, that’s an organizational relationship in which denial is taking place. It’s where old Mary Poppins.
And so, it’s just really important to make what sometimes, for some people, a wrenching discovery that there’s positive stuff going on. And for many of us, it’s like, “Wow, the focus on negatives has actually been taught to us and the positive instincts that we have have been sort of trained out of us.” Take physicians, for example, they’re taught to find a hole and fix it. Find a problem and then solve it as opposed to looking to the whole person and what they are about.
Josh: That makes perfectly good sense. When somebody focuses on the positive, which I think makes a ton of sense – you can make your positive better and often world class. I do agree that you have to pay attention to the negatives or the things that don’t work. One of my statements always is, “I want to magnify the positive and I want to manage the negative. Or I want to magnify my strengths and I want to manage my weaknesses.” I’m not especially interested in making my weaknesses into a strength because I’m not sure it’s possible.
Ed: That’s probably right.
Josh: Is that an appropriate way to deal with positives and negatives in your life?
Ed: I think so. And by your life, I think we are talking about not just our work life but our relationships including our family and, honestly, our relationships with ourselves because if we don’t have that kind of affirmative, grounded sense of ourselves and value what our aspirations are and what our skills are and achievements, the world then knows that because we’re faking it. Your notion of build on the strengths and manage the weaknesses or limitations is exactly right.
There’s a risk factor in here so I like to say, “Build on the strengths and focus on the negatives only to the extent that you must in order for the strengths to blossom and the organization to perform.” It’s just an alternative version of “focus on strengths and manage the negatives”.
Josh: Could you give me an example of how that might work?
Ed: Sure. There’s a lot of examples that are powerful. As an example, I’ll take the Cleveland Clinic case. It’s a classic case in appreciative inquiry in organizations. I think everybody knows the Cleveland Clinic is world class but their hotel was not – for guests and visiting people. It was a dump. It was like one step out of– it was in chapter 10-1/2, basically.
And so, they didn’t do an organizational study of, “Let’s find out what’s wrong. Let’s fix it.” They did something unique. They arranged for the Cleveland Clinic personnel, the staff, pretty much everybody – not the clinic but the hotel, to visit a world-class, Baldridge-award type winners for customer service in one of the great hotel chains. Their job was to shadow people for a week and compare notes as they were going on with what they were seeing, focusing on what’s right.
Everybody came back. Dozens and dozens of people came back super excited. They had put aside their “woe is us” mentality because they were inspired as to what was possible. And then, over time, it became a five-star hotel – not by getting rid of people but by getting rid of practices, turning practices that were not working and that were harmful on their head. That’s an example where simply conversation changes the nature of how we think about things. It changes our mindset and begins to change the group mindset.
Josh: What you said, I just found really interesting because it fits in with one of my tenets around systems which is “Don’t blame the person, blame the system”. How important is appreciative inquiry as part of a systematic development or strategy for business?
Ed: When it’s done right, it can be very pervasive in shifting the culture. Not necessarily shifting how profitable we want to be but shifting pretty much everything – conversations and relationships that were avoidant, hostile, damaging, and were below the line in terms of the results of a group or an entire company, can get shifted to the positive.
It doesn’t take a huge intervention to do that, necessarily. As Joel and Peter, from Twincraft, talked with you, on a previous episode, you can start small. I like to say to owners and CEOs and the like, start with yourself. Make sure that your mindset–
Josh: Oh, interesting.
Ed: Yeah. Make sure that your mindset is more towards the positive – seeing possibilities rather than the negative – only negatives. Seeing opportunity. If you like, seeing goodness in people – positives in people, instead of “How can we limit the damage that they do?” You could be like Jack Welch, the former CEO and chairman at GE, go talk to the guys on the dock. Talk to the secretaries and shipping people. Find out what’s really going on and what would really work for them. They’ll tell you the truth.
Josh: They will. I have found that blue collar folks, people who are actually doing the work are way more honest about what’s going on in the company than management ever is. I think they believe they just have a lot less to lose, Ed. “Oh, if the boss fires me, I’ll go find another job.” They’re going to tell you the truth often which is a good place to go. Adopting these sort of positive practices and beliefs is really for many executives or business owners, a 180-degree switch on how they view the world. One of the stupid sayings in the world has some truth, “It’s really hard to teach old dogs new tricks”, i.e. a business owner who’s over 50 years old.
Ed: Hopeless? No.
Josh: Well, I wouldn’t say hopeless. I will just say, well, if somebody is 50 years old and they say, “Gee, this appreciative inquiry sounds kind of interesting but don’t know if it’s going to work,” what would you tell them to do first? And second? And third?
Ed: Well, I’d probably give them something to read or I would explain it to them and how it’s changed my own life, how it’s changed my clients’ work lives and personal lives who adapt this and adopt it. I would also give him some examples of 20 business owners who actually have gotten the AI message, if you like. “Smell the fragrances,” shall I say, so that your 50-year-old business owner, who’s owned his business for 27 years or whatever amount, he can identify what the success instance is. and you can even have him or her, have them speak to Joel and Peter at Twincraft Skincare because he’ll begin to – fancy word, de-sensitize to the idea of actually focusing on a positive.
Josh: What would the first action they would take? I mean, what could they do? Is it initial action to move towards thinking in a different way?
Ed: Yeah. As they start to feel– let’s say, if you or I are coaching them or working with them, or another business owner who’s agreeing to be their mentor on this, that owner starts to get the rhythms of this, he/she might decide, “You know, there’s several vital people who I think are going to really be interested in this. Let’s have a lunch and learn. Let’s have a – fancy word, study group but an interest group of anybody who wants to learn a little bit about this.” And then, there’s probably people locally, in their community, who are practitioners, who would be very happy to do a lunch and learn or a demo or what have you for goodwill and for the prospect of getting work, of course.
I think, it’s possible to start small in that way and also practice it. There’s a word for practicing it without call it appreciative inquiry or without bringing in a consultant to transform your culture, than you very much. It’s called doing stealth AI. Don’t announce, “I’m now going to be appreciative” to the group.
When somebody does something that’s really great or even just in line with what you’re hoping and expecting them to do, give them positive feedback. Not just, “Great job, or attaboy, or attagal” but “I really liked it when you did this and that, when you answered the customer’s questions in a forthright manner but you deferred to me when it was appropriate to do so so I could come in with the definitive authoritative word. That was really working the group, working the meeting, in an effective way. Thank you.”
Josh: Would it make sense that you’re doing some stealth AI and you’re saying, “Gee, I specifically, really liked the way you handled that customer complaint.” Would it make any sense for you to say, “Now, out of curiosity, if there was anything that you could’ve done differently to make it even better, what would that be?” Is that an appropriate follow-up question? Or do you just want to stop at appreciating what they’ve done?
Ed: The short answer is the latter. I was a nerdy kid in grade school and elementary school and all of that. I brought home a report card that had a 97 and my father, very jokingly, said, “Where’s the other three points?” We laughed about it but that’s kind of an example of what you’re saying.
Josh: It’s really not what I meant to say.
Ed: Oh, okay.
Josh: My question is, okay great, I appreciate what you’ve done and I want to be world-class. What we did was really good but how would I get ideas how to make it better? I guess, that’s the question I’m asking.
Ed: Okay. What I would do is, either with that person or get a group of eight customer service reps or people doing a certain function and ask them to share with each other stories of a time when their customer was crazy delighted with the service. Compare notes. It’s a little bit like the Cleveland Clinic Hospital case. Compare notes. Extract what the factors are that are instrumental in creating the customer experience that’s positive. Basically, reversing an angry customer to an advocate because the same energy reversed is still strong. And then creating actions, structures around that kind of thing.
Josh: What I’m hearing you say is that appreciative inquiry starts off with a appreciating the individual but then bringing a group of like job people together to work as a group on telling stories about things that worked, lessons we can learn, and then ways to memorialize them so we do them over, and over, and over again.
Ed: Exactly. You don’t have to start with one but if the owner, let’s say, just samples around various CSRs or other kinds of people and starts to get a feeling for the rhythms of that then put them on your task force or interest group or whatever. Bring in three or four others. And then you’re rolling. You’ve overcome inertia and you’re starting to make positive movement forward.
There’s a maxim in appreciative inquiry which is that, “Things start to change as soon as you ask the first question, so why not make the question powerful and positive?” Thus, tell me a story of a time when you were at the peak of your work and people were loving what you were doing. You were getting positive results and kudos from everybody and you felt on top of the world. What was happening? What did you do? What support did you have? What lessons did you learn for us to benefit from?
Josh: That’s great. Ed, we have time for one more question in the podcast today.
Josh: This is going to be a biggie because it is a bugaboo in so many businesses.
Josh: Are you ready?
Ed: I’ll set myself here. Okay.
Josh: Okay. Where do mistakes fit into appreciative inquiry?
Ed: They have a place. You don’t lead with them, basically. But by the same token, if you’re the task force or commission that’s looking to find out why the Challenger spacecraft blew up and exploded, you don’t start with “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” You want people who are focused on getting to “What’s going on? and “How do we turn it around?” But you enter with a mindset of, “Okay, we can’t have that happen. This is especially urgent.” You can either look at negative instances of that mistake or you can start with looking at, “When it goes well, what has to happen for it to go well?” And then, “Let’s compare the two” as to how do mistakes get made and how do we get the optimal function and the optimal systems. Obviously, you have to do a stop action if the firm or the business is hemorrhaging cash or losing customers. You probably need to do something to staunch the flow of blood.
Josh: Ed, we are unfortunately out of time for the podcast part of this but we’re going to continue on with Facebook Live afterwards. Before we end the podcast, how could people find you if they were interested in having a conversation or learn more about what you do and how it works with appreciative inquiry?
Ed: Yes. Well, my e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me give my cell phone which is my business phone, essentially, 608-345-3332. Leave a message or let’s chat.
Josh: Cool. Well, thanks so much. I really appreciate you spending a little bit of time with us today.
Ed: I loved it.
Josh: I also have an offer for you. I have a one-hour free audio CD. For you poor people who have bought new cards and don’t have CD players, you’re probably going to have to send me an e-mail asking for the audio file because you’re going to tell me, “I have no way of listening to this CD because I don’t own one – a CD player.” To get the CD, it’s actually pretty easy. You just take out your smartphone. If you’re driving, which many of you are, please wait til you stop driving. You text the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. That’s the word SUSTAINABLE to 44222. You’re going to get a link. You give me your name and your address and we mail you the physical CD. If you happen to be one of those poor souls that doesn’t have a CD player, then you can just e-mail at email@example.com and say you were listening to the podcast with Ed Jacobson and you would like to get the Sustainability audio file so you can take a listen to it.
This is Josh Patrick. You’re at the Sustainable Business. Thanks so much for spending some time with us today. I hope to see you back here really soon.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to The Sustainable Business podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2, or visit us on our website at www.askjoshpatrick.com, or you can send Josh an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.