What problems are we having? What's working around here? The questions we focus on first determines the health of an organization, its brand story, and the level of engagement of its people — it changes things measurably.
Strategy requires trade-offs — to choose what we don't do, so we can free up energy for what we want to achieve. It's also human nature to see what we don't want faster. Bad experiences stay with us much longer than good ones, but that's likely because we're trained to look for the worst.
Yet, success creates success and not the other way around. We can take change the hard way, or we can welcome it by learning from history and iterating on what works. A primary focus on what's broken, on looking for what's wrong, ensures we find plenty of it.
Our belief that we can fix anything, that there's a right answer to any problem or challenge makes us overlook all the things that are right with a situation.
Learn from what works, repeat
Even as we dive headfirst into new technologies and their possibilities, human nature evolves more slowly than we'd like to admit. Is that bad or good?
In the 1940s neurosurgeon Temple Fay developed a methodology to attempt to reprogram the brain of people who could not move normally. At that time, Glenn Doman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Physical Therapy and started working with Dr. Fay at Temple University Hospital.
Doman was a person of character. On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and served as second Lt. Infantry Platoon Leader and Rifle Co. Commander in combat in Europe. He returned to his work with multiple decorations — the British Military Cross for outstanding heroism in action awarded by George VI, the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat, the Silver Star for gallantry against an armed enemy, and the Bronze Star for heroism in close combat, and he was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Duchy of Luxembourg decorated him for services rendered during the Battle of the Bulge.
It's fair to say Doman participated in the making of history. In 1955, he founded The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. Doman and Fay believed that the brain had great capacity for recovery. They did not call it the center to fix people, instead they focused on the aim — achieving human potential.
At that time brain-injured patients were routinely warehoused and considered hopeless. Doman insisted, “the brain grows by use.” He also believed from observation and careful measurement, that when we grow one area of the brain, the whole brain grows. In other words, we build capacity.
To figure out the path to bridging the gap between what a child who could not walk, or move, or talk, and one who could do all those things well, they set out to study what well meant. The successful work with brain-injured children led to vital discoveries about the development of well children.
In 1964, Doman published How to Teach Your Baby to Read, a book that helped hundreds of families who needed help find the center, and thousands more treat milder issues before they escalated at home. Millions of people all over the world have read and used the book to teach their children in a fun and playful manner.
Today the concept of neuroplasticity embraces the work of The Institutes. Every child at the time of birth has the same potential as Leonardo da Vinci, used to say Doman as I recall from my simultaneous interpreting days. Over the years, I've seen it happen with hundreds and hundreds of children.
We're just starting to understand more about the incredible capacity and potential of the brain, which helps us do things that are uniquely human and make it challenging to replicate with artificial intelligence (AI.) Doman worked with anthropologists, neurosurgeons, and researchers and found ways to help children catch up by increasing the quantity and quality of input into the brain.
He literally found out what worked and found ways to create the right combination of stimuli for each individual. In other words, he enrolled a souped up version of the external environment to help access the untapped internal resources common to every human being.
Make it happen, see to believe
A whole industry of advice and coaching focuses on the power to make things happen. If we can envision it, we can make it happen. With a caveat, that we often need to see to believe. Although it's behavior that creates change and belief, we often want proof first.
In the mid-70s, David Cooperrider and his associates at Case Western Reserve University introduced Appreciative Inquiry. The idea of the appreciative eye came from Cooperrider's wife Nancy, an artist. She saw art as a beautiful idea translated into concrete form.
If we apply it to an organization, we focus on what works, grounded in history and real experience. People know how to repeat success, which energizes, creates greater commitment, and confidence. What's interesting is that we can see the inverse mechanism at work, even as we know better.
There's still much focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, negative, rather than positive. For example, very few organizations learn enough about what delights customers to do more of it for the neutral ones. Instead, they focus on the small percentage of unhappy ones.
The same happens with too much emphasis on what competitors do, and not nearly enough on what we do, especially on the behaviors that lead to positive outcomes. We don't see them, nor map customer success to them.
We can learn from mistakes, but it's preferable to learn to be less wrong, save our energy to focus on what creates better outcomes instead of constantly fixing and repairing. Preparing is much better than adapting — in this sense, a pre-mortem is more useful, including to avoid personal error.
Make it personal, make it better
The average person doesn't exist, yet science tends to reduce everything to average. If we're interested in our potential, or happiness, creativity, energy, productivity and look to science for answers, we bump against average.
“How fast can a child learn how to read in a classroom?” becomes “How fast does the average child learn how to read in that classroom?” and results in tailoring everything to the average. Anyone falling below needs fixing, so that it gets to normal. But normal is merely average in science, and not what is possible.
In fact, in the course of his research on well children, Glenn Doman found that is was also very possible to overshoot average ability at any age for the main functions that make us human — language, mobility, visual, auditory, and sensory perception that gave us the fine manual capacity and comprehension.
Positive psychology posits that if we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average. Psychologist Shawn Achor says instead of deleting outliers to get to average, we should ask a better question.
Why are some people high above the curve in terms of intellectual, athletic, musical ability, creativity, energy levels, resiliency in the face of challenge, sense of humor? Whatever it is, instead of deleting these outliers, we should study them.
It's the lens through which we see the world that shapes our reality. If we can change the lens, we change our happiness, along with the outcomes. Achor says our external world impacts 10 percent of our happiness. The remaining 90 percent of our long-term happiness depends on how our brain processes the world.
Psychologists found that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ, the remaining 75 percent are predicted by our optimism levels, social support and ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat. Our pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon has skewed things.
We think if only we can achieve a goal we'll be happy. But once we get there, we also get a bigger goal, and so on. So we keep pushing happiness beyond our reach and out of our hands. Our brains work in the opposite order. When we're happy, we do everything better.
Our intelligence, creativity, and energy levels all rise when we think positively. Achor found that every single business outcome improves. A brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than one at negative, neutral or stressed. We're 37 percent better at sales.
Doctors high on dopamine are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis. Dopamine is in charge of happiness, but it also turns on all the learning centers, allowing us to take in the environment around us differently.
Better nutrition, exercise, and sleep are great environmental levers we can use. When we create better habits, including better thought habits, we transform our world.
This also works for organizations, where groups beliefs or assumptions cause people to think and act in certain ways. Over time, unless we verbalize it in principles and conscious choices, the way we do things around here forms culture or the reality for an organization.
Build the team of teams
An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Things like carving out time to reflect on experiences, to practice skills, read and exercise can give us a sense of control over our day. This is an active alone, rather than a virtually connected lonely.
To help with being alone well, we can decrease noise and information overwhelm. Two researchers from the University of San Diego found that the amount of information Americans consume has increased 60 percent from 1980 to 2008 — going from 7.4 hours a day to 11.8. Excluding working hours.
Even when we're the star, we work with others. The people who surround us create a certain type of environment for us. What we need, says Achor, is a star system — “a constellation of positive, authentic influencers who support each other, reinforce each other and make each other better.”
We should bring into our circle 1) Pillars — people who have our back no matter what; 2) Bridges — people who have connections outside our world and provide new perspectives; and 3) Extenders — people who push us out of our comfort zone, make us take risks and try new experiences.
In a study conducted with two Yale researchers, Achor found that “if we could get someone to change their mindset around stress to see it as a challenge instead of as a threat, they had 23 percent fewer stress-related symptoms like headaches, backaches and fatigue. The stress was still there but the effect upon the body was completely changed. So stress is inevitable but its effects on us are not. The question is how can we take things like holiday stresses and see them as enhancing instead of as a threat or something that takes us away our energy.”
It helps to be otherish givers, as Adam Grant says, to give selectively and focus on the people in our circle and help them find their light. In organizations, our praise should be authentic, frequent, direct (vs. comparative), and include the team. Award winners thank all the people who contributed to their success, and so should we. Other people helped us get to where we are today.
There are multiple realities at any one point in our lives. When we pick the most adaptive, remember to learn from what worked (for us and others), have a can do attitude, and surround ourselves with positive reinforcement and support, we start with success and build from there.
Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond
The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor
Eat, Move, Sleep, Tom Rath
Big Potential, Shawn Achor