This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

April 27, 2006 - for positive change, think positive

Someone told me about a recent study of long term survivors of open heart surgery. They were surveyed to find out what motivated them to recover. The reason was not, as you might suppose, "to avoid death."

It was for some more positive outcome: to spend time with their grandchildren. To tour Europe. To learn to play a musical instrument. To finish the garden.

It makes you think. Many people work in businesses that have problems, too. At some point, the question becomes, "how do we get better?" In some cases it might well be "to avoid bankruptcy."

But it's hard to for people to really enjoy their jobs with that attitude. You may work hard to avoid losing your job, but you're probably not doing your BEST work.

One typical planning exercise has the friendly acronym of SWOT. What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats faced by an organization? And when I've participated in or even lead such exercises, I find that people often relish the weaknesses and threats discussion. We're in trouble! We're in terrible, terrible, trouble!

You can almost see the energy drain from a group.

Just possibly, the way many organizations choose to plan, undercuts the best motivations for accomplishment.

I'm willing to bet that most of my readers work in places where MOST of their time is spent solving "problems." Maybe the focus is on one cranky customer, or one surly employee. That customer, that employee, almost certainly represents a tiny fraction of the whole business -- but they somehow get first call on your resources.

That approach minimizes the aspects of the organization that work well. It says that what's wrong is more important, more worthy of managerial attention.

A new alternative is emerging, called "Appreciative Inquiry." Appreciative Inquiry, or AI for short, is based on the idea that creating positive change is easier when you take a positive approach.

So instead of a SWOT exercise, the exercise begins with this question: what are we doing RIGHT?

I've tried this with a couple of groups, now, and the difference is striking. With this question, you begin to discover the things that people are justifiably proud of, the real accomplishments.

The next question is: what could we do better? It may sound like a small difference. Isn't this just like, "what's wrong?"

No. Now people have just described things that they're good at. And they can see the gap between the things they did right, and things they haven't brought that same level of care or attention to. But now they want to.

I've tried to carry over this insight to other parts of my job. When somebody brings me a problem so dire that it strikes to the very heart of the organization, I try to sit back long enough to see if the essentials of the organization are still right. It puts things in perspective.

Any organization will have things go wrong. And those things do have to be dealt with, preferably when they are still small enough to fix relatively easily.

But we need to remember that most of our customers are terrific. Most of our employees are bright and painstakingly conscientious. The more time and energy we spend with these people, the more we'll enjoy our jobs, and the more we'll get done. We'll let those people know that THEY are the ones we value most.

Most of the time, the issues faced by an organization are nowhere near as life-threatening as open heart surgery. But the lesson is powerful.

The right question is not, "What are you afraid of?" It's, "What's worth living for

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