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From “Problem to Opportunity Exercise”, Mac Odell, Center for Appreciative Inquiry

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’ (the neurological networks 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’, 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 on the Center For Appreciative Inquiry website. It’s called the “Problem to Possibility Tree” or “Problem to Opportunity Exercise”.

Here’s what the creator, Mac Odell, says about it:

I ask participants to give me the absolutely worst, most horrible, difficult, hopeless problem they can think of – anywhere in life or work. Often they come up with things like HIV/AIDS, urban violence, corruption, civil war (as
in Nepal)… things like that. So we do a quick ‘problem tree’ analysis of root causes and its impacts/fruits… and I ask them the chances of solving it, and to draw a face that represents their feelings about… from which I usually
get miserable sad face with tears…

Then I say, “OK, let’s flip this into an opportunity.. What’s the opposite look like?” Defining the ‘problem’ as its opposite, we take that as the topic and go on to do a 40 min. 4D analysis coming up with action plan and personal commitments… always full of energy and fun… sometimes even skits and dances… Whereupon I do a quick “Opportunity Tree Analysis” and ask for new pictures of faces reflecting how they feel about it all… for which I get, of course, lots of smiling, happy faces and great optimism.

Then I ask, “OK, what happened? Did the problem go away? Did the world change during the last 40 min.?” And that opens a lively discussion on the heart of AI, how changing our language, our questions, changes reality… that we have the power to change the world through the questions we ask, through the approach we take… and that leads us into taking their organizational ‘problems,’ issues, hang-ups, headaches, and hopeless situations and building an AI workshop around them.

It’s an eye-opener… powerful stuff… and I can assure you that I never get any further questions about how AI doesn’t really deal with problems…

From “Problem to Opportunity Exercise”, Mac Odell, Center for Appreciative Inquiry

How To Switch A Problem To An Opportunity – Step By Step

The PDF then switches writers (I know the writer of the second half isn’t Mac Odell, because they mention him in the third person) and goes on to describe the step to step process.

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 not familiar with Appreciative Inquiry you could leave out the final step of defining an affirmative or generative topic).

They go on to set out the detailed steps of how to run the exercise. I’ve edited their version slightly for clarity:

  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.

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?

From “Problem to Opportunity Exercise”, Center for Appreciative Inquiry

(Here’s my quick and easy process for defining an affirmative topic)

Finding this exercise tucked away in a PDF makes me wonder what other great exercises, interventions and tips for positive change work are hidden away in obscure corners of the internet – or just in the heads of people who use them.

If you have a tip or process for making positive change easier that you think should be more widely known, why not share them in the comments below?

Next week’s article will be another tip for clarifying and perhaps supercharging an affirmative topic statement – that you can also apply to developing a mission statements or the early stages of goal-setting or finding a new direction.

If you want to get started with using Appreciative Inquiry with teams and small groups, consider joining the Practical Appreciative Inquiry online facilitator training – the next one starts soon!

How To Flip Any Problem To Find Positive Ways Past It – Without Ignoring Negatives

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