Focus on What Works, Not What Doesn’t

donna-milgram-iwittsRecently, I became acquainted with “Appreciative Inquiry” — a positive change theory from the field of Organizational Development. In a nutshell, this theory suggests that an organization that inquires into problems will continue to discover more of the same, while an organization that strives to appreciate what is best in itself (and others) will discover more and more of what is good.

This theory affirms what my intuition has always told me — that the best way to get where you want to be is to look at how others have successfully done so.

For instance, in my desire to run IWITTS effectively, I have participated in several courses and some coaching for non-profit executive directors.  I learned best practices for running the business-side of IWITTS and I implemented them. On a personal level, when I wanted to lose weight a few years ago, I joined WeightWatchers. After learning what worked from the leader and other participants, I lost a size and changed my lifestyle.

I think most people would agree that the best way to learn something new is to focus on positive models. Why then, do many of those in the diversity community focus on what’s not working rather than what is as their primary strategy to effect change?

For example, many workshops and publications on recruiting and retaining women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focus on the barriers women and girls face with very little information on how to overcome them — the ratio is usually 90% barriers, 10% solutions. I’ve noticed that many of those working on diversity issues seem most animated when describing the “wrongs” committed by offending parties.  This, I fear, may create a culture of victimhood among equity practitioners that does not promote change. Don’t get me wrong, it is critical to understand barriers and discover what has not worked; however, if the goal is to bring about positive results, focusing on the negative can be counter-productive.

I get much more energized when I hear about strategies that have worked — whether it’s for personal issues, such as losing weight, or for professional challenges, such as recruiting and retaining women to STEM. Sure, at WeightWatchers we talked about “food pushers” who insist on heaping food on our plate, but in the next sentence we learned how to resist them.  That’s also true of the WomenTech Training I designed.  Ninety-five percent of it focuses on positive solutions.  And for every barrier discussed, a research-based solution(s) is proposed.  Over the past 15 years, we have collected evaluations of every IWITTS training, and a recurrent theme among participants is that our workshop provides practical solutions that can be implemented right away.

All in all, I think the field of diversity needs to make a shift — to have a primary focus on the positive and what works rather than what doesn’t.  What do you think?

8 Responses to “Focus on What Works, Not What Doesn’t”

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  3. Donna Milgram  on July 6th, 2010

    Hi Jan
    It’s so good to hear what you are up to in the UK – you are so ahead of us in so many ways, I’ve learned so much from your efforts! Future vs. Legacy – nice way to put it. And Science Sisters making bath bombs, how cool and fun is that!

  4. Jan Peters  on July 2nd, 2010

    Hi Donna

    I loved to read your comments on ‘focus on the positive’ and what can be done! That’s just what we tried to do in the UK SET Fair report – to catalyse change and have a few specific recommendations and create a shift in effort. We have the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET now and that has done some of what was expected. Let’s hope the current funding crisis in the UK doesn’t undo the great work of the last 10 years!
    I was involved in the Inter Academy Council report led by Anneke Levelt Sengers of the USA and again we focused on the future and not the legacy of the Academies. We are where we are and we cannot fix the past but we can influence the future!

    On a personal level I have just finished preparing my ‘fizzy fun’ workshop for year 6 students, led by our project Science Sisters! So I have had a fun filled Friday with volcanoes, bath bombs and geysers. All in the name of challenging perceptions of science and scientists. Who says it can’t be fun! Happy Holiday!

  5. Donna Milgram  on June 15th, 2010

    I am glad to see there are supporters of Recruiting Women to STEM and diversity that also value appreciative inquiry – lets recruit more so the field reaches a tipping point!

  6. Kathy Tarnai-Lokhorst  on June 15th, 2010

    The values of appreciative inquiry align with the values of most women in engineering. I have found that I am most comfortable and productive in this type of environment. If corporations and educational institutions focused on positive and constructive assessments, educational or business or personal, then retention of women would rise which in turn would increase recruitment.

  7. David Gatewood  on June 15th, 2010

    Donna, I am a huge supporter of the positive focus your work and the work of IWITTS embraces, and agree that Appreciative Inquiry provides wonderful tools and resources based on a great theoretical framework. If readers are interested in learning more about AI, I highly recommend the resources available at David Cooperrider’s AI website:

  8. Susan  on June 15th, 2010

    The Research Institute for STEM Education (RISE) at the University of Oklahoma has used the paradigm of studying success to ground our research for over 8 years. It is indeed a change from how most diversity and equity research is conducted.

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