The Organizational Strategist

December 2, 2009

Strengths Based Change – It’s Not Fluffy Stuff


Frequent challenges surface against Appreciative Inquiry (AI), strength’s based coaching/consulting, and ‘soft skill’ focused activities. Those challenges often state that those kinds of activities are “fluffy”, offer little to no paths to business success or any real grounding in real or true business challenges. I won’t argue that some approaches do not match those challenges. However, those challenges are invalid if the strengths based change is done in such a way that it takes into account the whole picture (the good, the bad, and the not so pretty).

-Focus on the Strengths and Positives-

Grounding on the present reality, letting go of whatever is troubling, and being negative is ok. That’s true for strength based change initiatives as long as the process is meant to be a level setting experience that can then be catapulted into the positive focus.

Strengths based consulting/coaching builds upon whatever the best parts of an organization or individual has. The weaknesses are not meant to simply be avoided. On the contrary, they should be identified. Then, if there is energy around improving challenging areas, it’s a very helpful pursuit. However, it is often not as interesting, rewarding, or easy to improve a tough area. If that is the case, then finding where and how the weak area(s) can be compensated for or simply overcome by focusing on the best part(s) should be a priority task.

In AI summits, the negative baggage that people bring can, at times, be such a roadblock to the workshops that it must be addressed. Allowing time and ‘space’ for people to vent, acknowledge the challenges or difficulties that they have faced, and to understand what has happened previously in the organizational system can help people let go of their anxiety. Once the collective mindset has let go of the past, the group is more open to the future and the summit can resume.

-Example Activities & Framework-

To start with, identify the strengths, “best parts” and difficult areas from pursuits like these:

  • Search for positive deviants in an organization (AI activity)
  • Identification of best self for an individual (AI activity)
  • 360 feedback process for an individual (my favorite being Hay Group’s ECI and ESCI)
  • Strength Finder identification of an individual’s strengths
  • The well known SWOT activity for an individual or organization (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats)
  • Core competency analysis and breakdown for an organization
  • Competitive analysis comparing organization against target competitors for an organization

Doing these kinds of activities should give a lot of information regarding how performance has been, what areas have shined and those areas that are challenging. Map those findings against the intended strategy to see what pursuits would be the most fitting with the organization or personal aspirations. Focusing on strengths is often more energizing, fun, and empowering because the intent would be to build upon what is already going well and to extend and find the optimal usage and fit of the strong areas. As a means of leveraging strengths, it is possible to find ways of eliminating or severely reducing the weak areas. For example, you may have an individual who is great at inspiring and leading her team. She can motivate and energize them very effectively, but has trouble creating strong analytically based presentations. A positive resolution to this weakness might be to find a finance team manager who does not have solid leadership skills. Each, in turn, could benefit from pairing up to mentor each other and potentially help with engagement or presentations. In a similar fashion, using a SWOT on an organization can be beneficial in a strategic manner if the pairing of strengths and opportunities can make the threats and/or weaknesses lessened or, better yet, completely irrelevant.


It does make sound business sense to have a strengths based approach. I’ve experienced people being very closed off and dismissive of an AI or positive-centric technique. However, once they experience the process, I’ve seen them transform into the most outspoken champions.



  1. Thank you for sharing the experience. The balancing act is quite a challenge in the business environment. Somehow people are used to methods that work work with machines – searching and eliminating mistakes instead of looking for positive deviants.

    Comment by Baldur — December 3, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    • Hi Baldur, I do agree that it’s a balance. There are many helpful changes that can be made through gradual process improvements and eliminating the rough spots. However, the balance should be maintained so that there is not an over emphasis on either the rough spots (deficit focus) to the best spots (positive focus).

      Comment by Whit — December 7, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  2. You mentioned that AI is met by resistance within the business community. I am wondering if AI would face less resistance if you could reference quantitative scientific researches from the psychology field for your article or workshop? People may be more inclined to listen and take note when there’s measurable, repeatable, and quantitative evidence resulting from psychology research studies. Do you have any such references?

    Positive psychology had similar roadblocks to acceptance until decades of research studies quantified the results which historically thought positive health to be immeasurable. Even the United States’ army is now in the midst of positive psychology training with the top researcher in the PP field, Dr. Martin Seligman.

    You also mentioned a framework in your article. Which framework are you referring to for your workshop? And what are the components of your framework for AI?


    Comment by Danny Luong — December 3, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    • Hi Danny, you’ve brought up many good points. Like positive psychology, AI does have references. I know that the from classes taught by Dr. Cooperrider and Dr. Fry there has been research pieces that have quantifiable results that bring in aspects of neuroscience to compare brain scans from those that have been focusing on the positive instead of negative. However, I do not have those studies on hand.

      I’ll admit that I was using framework rather loosely for this article. The activities in the bullet list each have their own process and steps involved. The result from doing one or more of those activities would be to help establish a holistic snapshot of the person or organization being scrutinized. That snapshot should identify areas that are strengths or weaknesses.

      Here’s how the framework could play out:
      – Establish the snapshot of the individual or organization
      – Identify what would make most sense to augment, amplify or otherwise work on based upon the individual’s or organization’s strategy
      – Brainstorm to find out what synergies can be found to help (like the example of the inspirational leader that needs help with analysis)
      – Create goals, plans and a timeline that suit the individual or organization’s planning style(s)

      I’ve used AI in many different ways. One element about AI that has been very helpful for me is the ability to modify it based upon the organizational circumstances. If I were to make a blanket statement though, I would go with the AI summit planning and execution using a 5D cycle. The 5 D’s are Define, Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny. The only change to the traditional 4D cycle is to call out the Define aspect. Define would be the part that creates the overall approach and plan that should align with the organization’s strategy. “Words create worlds” is a phrase that comes to mind for this process.

      Comment by Whit — December 7, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anna DeBattiste, Whit Tice. Whit Tice said: Strength Based Change- It's not fluffy stuff: Check it out, comment, subscribe! I look forward to your thoughts. […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Strengths Based Change – It’s Not Fluffy Stuff « The latest and greatest from Whit -- — December 4, 2009 @ 6:03 am

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