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Appreciative Inquiry and Problem Solving

Many people view Appreciative Inquiry as a replacement for problem solving. This view misses the fact that Ai and problem solving are entirely different thought processes with different applications. Ai should not be a substitute for problem solving, but should replace the misapplication of problem solving, which is very frequent.

In general, we can say that problem solving applies to the world of things and technology and Ai to the world of people.

Let’s look at the proper home and skillful use of problem solving. When there is a problem in the technical realm, problem solving is a series of logical steps, a disciple of thought, which makes sense and is extremely effective. Problem solving steps go something like this:

Define the problem
Brainstorm possible causes
Identify actual causes (often a single root cause)
Brainstorm solutions for the identified cause
Select the best solution
Implement solutions and monitor progress

Formal problem solving varies in the number of steps and the wording of the steps, but most processes are very close to what is outlined above. These steps are extremely useful and have many applications. If you are driving down the road and your car suddenly has an extremely rough ride, you are confronted with a problem. You pull over and seek to identify the cause of the vibrating and find a flat tire. You quickly run down solutions: get out the jack and fix the tire, leave the old piece of junk beside the road and call a taxi, have the car towed to a station.

You select fixing the tire as the best solution and get out the spare, implement your solution, and drive to the nearest gas station to check the air pressure (select, implement and monitor solution).

With a flat tire, you go through the simple, intuitive, and very appropriate steps of problem solving. This same process works for power outages, car defects, plumbing issues, and other purely technical problems. Individuals and organizations need a good problem solving model to approach these technical challenges and can save time, money, and headaches by applying problem solving appropriately and effectively.

The trouble comes from applying problem solving too broadly. Because most of us know problem solving well and have used the thought process for a lifetime, we apply the same logical process to human situations. We start talking about, “the problem with our schools” or, “the problem with him is.” These phrases are more than linguistic differences; they are indicative of a prevailing thought process that views human situations as problems to be solved. Turning human situations into problems is ineffective, can be frustrating, and often leads to disastrous results.

I know that problem solving leads to these bad things because I spent over a decade of my life consulting with individuals organizations using a problem-solving perspective. I helped organizations find what was wrong – the weaknesses, problems, issues, and roadblocks – and tried to create a better tomorrow by fixing what was wrong. The approach seldom worked well and often backfired.

Here’s a much abbreviated look at applying the Appreciative Inquiry approach to engaging students at school:

1. Define the area for Appreciative Inquiry; “When are students most engaged at school?”

2. Design and use questions in interviews to inquire into life-giving forces,

Questions for students: “Tell me about times at school when you were most excited about a subject? When do you really love learning?”

Questions for teachers, “Tell me about times when you see students come alive with a love of learning.”

3. Dream and articulate possibilities for the future based on interview responses.

4. Design a future based on possibilities.

5. Deliver the future with passion.

Look at the difference in this appreciative approach and the problem-solving outlook that would ask, “What’s the cause of students not being engaged?” I assure you the differences are vast, just as the difference is vast in almost any human situation where Ai is applied instead of problem solving.

If the school and student engagement is approached as a problem, you can be assured that defensiveness and finger point will result, morale will drop, and, in the end, the situation might be made worse. By using Ai to focus on what is working best with student engagement and articulating a positive future, hope, energy, creativity, involvement, and passion are released.

This is not meant as a general indictment of problem solving; problem solving has its appropriate place in the world. Think of the flat tire and how useful Ai would be in that situation. Standing by the tire and asking, “When was this tire full?” and asking yourself, “What does it feel like to ride on a tire full of air?” is a silly, stupid, and totally inappropriate use of Ai. When the tire is flat, use problem solving, get out the jack and fix the tire!

So the basic distinction is this:

Use problem solving for technical issues that have clear causes and effects.

Use Appreciative Inquiry in the human realm to discover possibilities and design positive futures. Related topics

"I thought I was a positive thinker. Now, I have new ways to use an appreciative approach in all areas of my life and re-think some old habits. Great job, John! Excellent style, format, and overall experience."
- Lisa Hanger, Indiana Association of United Way, Vice President for Training

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Partial Client List
American Electric Power
American Red Cross
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Ball State University
Boys and Girls Clubs
Brooks Construction
Cummins Engine
Eli Lilly and Company
General Motors
Habitat for Humanity
Hughes Electronics
Iron Out
Lincoln National Life
Louisville Gas & Electric
Old Kent Bank
Purdue University
Purdue Extension
Reynolds & Reynolds
Standard Telephone
Tri State University
United Way
Vera Bradley Designs
Zollner Pistons

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