What Went Right?

My last post rather morbidly focused on using KM Autopsies as a useful way of figuring out what went wrong with knowledge management projects. Sometimes, however, it’s much more effective to ask “What went right?”

This apparently contrarian advice is rooted in the field of Appreciative Inquiry, which starts from the perspective that it’s ultimately more productive to identify and build on your strengths than to constantly battle your weaknesses. This approach may not sit well with our Puritan forebears, but it can provide valuable insights as we think through new projects and old challenges. By contrast, the Puritans would more likely have championed a problem-solving approach in which you identify a problem, analyze its causes, and then work to ruthlessly stamp them out.

The focus of Appreciative Inquiry is to figure out what we’ve done well in the past and then determine how to do more of it in the future — building from strength to strength. Because the plan for proposed action is grounded in what was successful before, the people involved in executing the plan start with the advantage of working from a position of demonstrated success.

So going back to that knowledge management project we want to evaluate, how would it look through the lens of Appreciative Inquiry? First, we’d need to identify what actually worked — where that project actually succeeded. And then, identify what steps we took or what circumstances were in place to make that success possible. Next, imagine what more could be done and focus on how to repeat those steps or circumstances in order to facilitate another, bigger success. Then, just do it.

The key is that we are simply doing something we’ve done well before, with every expectation of success. That’s very different than taking a chance on implementing untried methods in order to address a perceived problem. However, Appreciative Inquiry is not about sticking to the status quo or mindlessly repeating prior actions. One of Appreciative Inquiry’s key strengths is that the confidence people experience from their demonstrated success gives them the creative energy to think productively about how to expand on that success. This constant raising of the bar allows incremental improvement without causing paralysis from fear of failure.

We’ve had years of training to think critically about our work and the work of others. We can spot a problem a mile away. It’s much harder to think as carefully about what went right. It wasn’t all just luck or good timing. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients of your past success, you’re in a much better position to deploy those elements to create a new success. And isn’t that a lot more satisfying than focusing on failure?

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