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Home » Appreciative Inquiry » The happy complexity of organizational productivity (#lean #solutionfocus #appreciativeinquiry #systemsthinking #positive #psychology)

The happy complexity of organizational productivity (#lean #solutionfocus #appreciativeinquiry #systemsthinking #positive #psychology)

I think you will spend 410 seconds reading this post

I’ve been reading that article in Havard Business Review about “The power of small wins” (paying article) and somehow some things felt down together in place:

  • Lean management and any continuous productivity improvement approach for that matter
  • Solution Focus
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Positive Psychology
  • Happiness (at work)

The power of small wins

This blog post starts with my reading of the aforementioned HBR article. Authors of the paper found that the number one factor for work motivation is not incentives or emotional support, but progress. That’s the result of a study they’ve described in a book : “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work“.

Other more classical themes they’ve discovered that help or hinder employee engagement are catalysts and nourishers on the positive side and inhibitors and toxins on the negative side. These are indeed important to employee motivation and satisfaction, but not as much as progress or its counterpart: setbacks.

Indeed, they also discovered (or rediscovered in a new domain, more on this later) that negative events are far more effective at degrading motivation than their positive opposite could be to increase it.

In itself, this work may not seem new to readers of this blog. See for instance “Start with why” from Simon Sinek, or Dan Pink book “Drive”, both about motivation.

Happiness (at work)

Recent work on happiness also tends to confirm these findings, for instance:

Of these I retain the fact that a happiness reinforcing loop is triggered when your positivity-to-negativity ratio is equal to or more than 3-to-1. That means that you experience three times more positive emotions than negative ones. It also means that negative encounters are three times more effective at dragging your mood down than positive ones. Ouch!

Of course, a reinforcing loop is a two-edged sword: by amplifying things, it can be amplyfying more and more of a positive thing or more and more of a negative one. That’s less and less of the positive counterpart.

That means that should you be in a 3:1 positive mood, you’d bring more and more positive attitude, reinforcing that positive mood.

But, should you be in a negative mood (less than 1:1 positive to negative ratio), you’d be in such a bad mood that it would drag you down to dark thoughts, which would keep your bad mood down.

Positive Psychology

This is where the cathartic decision of Dr Seligman during his term as president of the American Psychology Association to focus work on researching what makes people flourish rather than treat broken minds comes into play.

That focus gave birth of a wide movement of “doing more of what works” rather than “fix problems” in the field of psychology. That, in turn also helped the happiness movement to grow (see previous section).

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is one of those “whole-systems change” methodologies (others worth mentioning are World Café, Open Space methodology, Future Search, Positive Deviance) that tries to bring on board most, if not all, of the system to change. Moreover, it does that by giving the keys to the change to the very people making up the organization.

Appreciative Inquiry basically works by helping people re-discover what brings life to them and what their strengths are (as individuals, team and organization). Building on these, the people dream of their best possible future for the organization and devise their way to achieve it. By bringing the best of themselves, by doing it as a (big) group and by speaking only of their best selves, Appreciative Inquiry brings a level of energy that’s still unsurpassed when talking about change.

Of course, that means top management does not fully decide the direction of the change. AI requires from management that leap of faith in order to trust people to change and for the best of the organization. It’s not that AI is risky (far from it actually) but that management does not get to steer the change and the direction where it’s heading. Management need to trust the people that that direction will be the best possible for the organization now (with its people) and later (with its customers).

So AI is indeed a great way to raise happiness levels of employees by calling to the best of them and helping them shape their destiny (as is often said in AI: “let their co-created vision of the future influence their present“).

Solution Focus

Moving down from whole systems to people, Solution Focus is an approach that helps people identify what’s working for them in terms of knowledge and behaviors to solve their problems. Its root assumptions are that people are capable and that they already know the solution to their problems, at least partially.

So, SF is a great way to appeal to people and wake them to the fact that, with respect to progress, they’re not at the bottom of the ladder, but already mid-way and that they already know how to climb the rungs (because they did it before).

How’s that for helping employees become aware of their progress, as advocated by the HBR article?

Lean and continuous improvement management

There we are at the end of my demonstration.

Lean management is (should be?) known for its strong focus on “respect for people”. It insists on the fact that the very people doing a work should be the ones improving it. There are usually quite some justifications for this:

  1. People doing a work are the more capable of improving it, just because they’re the ones knowing it the best (in systems thinking terms, we’d say that they have the more requisite variety)
  2. It respects their intelligence
  3. It prevents management from becoming problem solvers and, more importantly, bottlenecks in the improvement of work
  4. It develops their knowledge of the way the organization works

I could go on, but you get the point.

Fitting it all together

So, where are we now?

  • we have people not necessarily happy in their work because of broken processes
  • we have managers that take on themselves to solve their collaborators’ problems to the detriment of themselves (they become a bottleneck) and the very people who they’re trying to “help” (these don’t get a chance to learn, furthering the need for management to solve problems themselves. I’ve just wrote about that here)

But now we also know that:

  • we can make people create their own future
  • they know how to improve things because they’ve somewhat already done it
  • people strive on progress

So, I conclude and affirm that it’s management’s role to get people to work on continuous improvement and get an eye on progress toward an efficiency goal (being quality, delays, productivity or safety) and that it will also improve happiness in the workplace in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

By coaching their people on what already worked for improving things and what the best destiny for the company could be, they would, at least, get the chance to remotivate people for their work, have everybody get the benefits of an improved organization and finally get that reinforcing happiness loop running in the company: progress would improve processes, that get measured and praised, thereby reinforcing people’s motivation and furthering progress. Besides, improved processes would mean an improved efficiency, which, if also praised, would reinforce people’s motivation.

Systems Dynamics view of the power of small wins on improvement and happiness at work

Systems Dynamics view of the power of small wins on improvement and happiness at work

Continuous improvement being, well, a continuous activity, it can be done all the time and every small progress can be used as a way to praise people’s work and affirm their skills, knowledge and results. Isn’t it a good way to counter-balance all the problems as experienced by your workforce on its day-to-day muda-filled activities? Further, by focusing on what works for people (in a pure SF way), you’d reinforce that positivity-to-negativity ratio. See side diagram.

As the TV ad would say: “Happy people, no prize”.


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