Here’s a great way to define a ‘problem space’ and reframe it to a quest for what you want instead, without ignoring the negatives or being accused of brushing problems under the carpet.

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The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t have be familiar with Appreciative Inquiry to use it, so it will fit with whatever form of individual or group coaching you use.

Referenced in this video: The Neuroscience of Appreciative Inquiry
Our Built-In Negative Bias And Why We Need To Redress It


Here’s an issue that anyone working with positive change methods is going to face, especially working in a business context. Here also is an elegant way to handle it.

The Problem With Problem-Solving

This issue is more complex than you might think, so it will take a few steps to outline it fully:

  1. We know that to find creative ways to solve problems, to work together effectively, and to be open to the new ideas that we need, we have to activate our ‘Default Mode Network’ or ’empathic network’ (remember this is the neurological network associated with empathy, openness to new ideas, and creativity).
  2. But we also know that, because of our inbuilt negative bias, we pay more attention to problems and negatives than we do to opportunities and negative aspects.
  3. So when faced with a problem, we usually look for the causes of problems and who is to blame – and this activates the ‘Task Positive Network’ or ‘analytic network’, which is great for hitting deadlines and executing defined steps, but terrible for trust, working relationships, openness, and creativity.
  4. And any attempt to get people to look beyond the boundaries of the problem – as we do with Appreciative Inquiry or solution-focused practice – may face objections like “You can’t just ignore problems” or “You want us to look through rose-coloured spectacles and pretend the problems don’t exist.”
  5. We know that we’re just trying to redress the balance and get people to look at the strengths, resources, and possibilities that they’re ignoring, even though those are what they need to get them out of the problem.

    But if people are already in Task Positive mode, as they usually are in business, they’re not going to be open to that idea without a lot of skilled reframing (or, ideally, ‘preframing’) to get them to give solution-focused methods a chance.

An Elegant Solution – The “Problem To Possibility Tree”

So – here’s a great exercise that I found tucked away in a PDF mostly written by Mac Odell on the Center For Appreciative Inquiry website. It’s called the “Problem to Possibility Tree” or “Problem to Opportunity Exercise”.

The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t have be familiar with Appreciative Inquiry to use it.

 In fact, you could use it as part of a problem-solving session or team meeting considering a particular issue.  If you’re using a different method than Appreciative Inquiry you could leave out the final step of defining an affirmative or generative topic.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Use two flip charts, side by side. Draw a ‘problem tree’ on one.
  2. Ask “What is the problem?” and when you get agreement, write it on the trunk of the tree (in this case, it’s “Lack of Communication”).
  3. Ask “What’s feeding this ‘Lack of Communication'” tree? What are the roots?” Write the suggestions on the roots.
  4. Ask “If that’s what we’re feeding the tree, what will it bear?” (i.e. what will be the results of the problem?) Write those on the leaves.
  5. Draw a second tree and ask “What is the positive opposite of the problem?”  Write that on the trunk of the tree (in this case, “Strong Communication”).
  6. Ask what would be the best nutrients for this tree? Draw them on the roots.
  7. What will be the results of Strong Communication? Draw them as leaves.

Now they have moved from analysing the problem, to the causes of success and the possibilities it will generate.

If we’re not sure exactly how to characterise the overall problem yet, you could start by writing up all the symptoms and smaller problems that you see on the leaves of the tree. Write the factors contributing to those problems on the roots, and then decide what the overall problem is that you can write on the trunk of the tree.

And if you want to use this exercise to firm up an affirmative topic for an Appreciative Inquiry process, you can go further:

“Looking at the leaves on the possibility tree, what is that topic that will generate enthusiasm, energy and life for our inquiry?”

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Appreciative Inquiry: How To Flip Any Problem To An Affirmative Topic Without Ignoring Negatives (video + transcript)

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