How to build your creative resilience capabilities

We see the world through pre-existing frames and these frames help us interpret reality. Frames provide a focus, but they can also limit our thinking. The ability to change how we frame our experiences and beliefs about any given situation is key to creative resilience. Reframing helps us to see our situation from a different perspective. The facts remain the same, but we can see things in a new light. When we shift our frame of reference, we discover new perspectives and creative insights.

This post explores Stoicism, Positive Psychology, and Appreciative Inquiry as…

1) pathways to creative resilience, re-invention, and innovation, and
2) how Positive Psychology and Appreciative Inquiry created a revolution in personal development, and organizational change.

1. The Stoic approach to reframing a negative into a positive

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into TriumphThe Stoics provide us with ancient wisdom for overcoming obstacles and adversities. To the Stoic, everything is an opportunity. The things that test us make us who we are.

Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, [i]  quotes the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” In other words, Holiday says, “No matter how bad or seemingly undesirable a situation becomes—we always have the opportunity to practice virtue, to use the situation as an opportunity to be our best selves.

We can’t control hardship, but as Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, we can always control how we respond. We can choose to embrace virtues such as patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.

Benjamin Franklin, another Stoic, observes

All great victories, be they in politics, business, art, or seduction, involved resolving vexing problems with a potent cocktail of creativity, focus and daring. When you have a goal, obstacles are teaching you how to get where you want to go – carving you a path. The things which hurt instruct.

Holiday says the Stoics had an exercise called “turning the obstacle upside down” to train their perception so that the obstacle can be regarded as an opportunity. He describes this perceptual reframe as a two-part mental shift: “Firstly, to see disaster rationally, to see the reality of the situation, to not panic, or make rash decisions. Secondly, to see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, a virtue or a fortune.”

We can see stoicism at work during COVID-19. The pandemic has been a major market disruptor that has led to unprecedented levels of innovation. Due to the lockdown, many businesses turned this into an opportunity to reinvent themselves, reimagine their business model, undergo rapid digitalization, and offer their services online. BBC reported in Oct 2020 that Billionaires saw fortunes rise by 27% during the pandemic.

Distinguishing between problem-solving and creativity

I want to pause for a moment to distinguish between problem-solving and creativity.

Problem-solving is about making the problem go away. You can put out fires all day long and never create anything. Creativity is about bringing something into being.

The pandemic has been an opportunity to learn all about our problems, many of them hidden until Covid-19 exposed them. We now see how interconnected we are. We have experienced the limitations and fragility of our systems, especially our healthcare, supply chains and social safety nets. We can, and must, choose a better future.

2. Use Positive Psychology to focus on your strengths and persevere

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-beingStudies in Positive Psychology show we boost our ability to persevere when we can reframe our failures or setbacks as learning opportunities or as ideas for growth. When we view setbacks as providing useful information so that we can overcome obstacles, we are less inclined to give up and persist toward our goal. [ii] We develop our creative resilience when we learn to reframe.

Positive Psychology is itself a reframe. It is a movement founded by Martin Seligman who was frustrated with the traditional model of psychology which focuses on fixing deficits. So much attention is paid to mental illness, abnormal psychology, trauma, suffering, and pain. Seligman reframed the focus of what can go wrong with us by asking what could go right?

The goal of Positive Psychology is to identify, study, and enhance the human strengths and virtues that make life worth living. Rather than trying to fix deficits, positive psychologists emphasize that people should focus and build upon what they are doing well. Positive Psychology has become a movement dedicated to understanding and fostering happiness, wellbeing, exceptionalism, strengths, and flourishing. To flourish is to be creatively resilient.

3. Take an appreciative approach to problem-solving

One of the most profound insights into management practices occurred in the ’80s when David Cooperidder was conducting a study at Cleveland Clinic. By reversing the deficit-problem analytic methods of the day, and experimenting with an appreciative inquiry to find out what works, and what gives life to the organization, he discovered an untapped source of strength and energy within employees. Appreciative Inquiry not only served to catalyze a huge momentum at Cleveland Clinic but also sparked an era of unprecedented growth for the company.

What is Appreciative Inquiry (AI)?

Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in ChangeAppreciative inquiry is a strengths-based, positive approach to leadership development and organizational change. The aim is to build – or rebuild – organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t. AI is a co-creative process that empowers groups to find what’s working, create an ideal vision for the group, and design a way to get there together. AI can be used by individuals, teams, organizations, or at the societal level.

Appreciative Inquiry is a constructive inquiry process that searches for everything that “gives life” to organizations, communities, and larger human systems when they are most alive, effective, creative and healthy in their interconnected ecology of relationships. To appreciate, quite simply, means to value and to recognize that which has value – it is a way of knowing and valuing the best in life… Appreciative Inquiry has a positive bias – toward the good, the better, the exceptional, and the possible.

— David Cooperrider

I’m fascinated by how Cooperrider came up with the idea for Appreciative Inquiry. His wife Nancy, who was studying art appreciation at the time, subscribed to the notion that “in every piece of art there is beauty.” He wondered why we don’t have “business appreciation” and came to believe that instead of asking “What’s wrong,” we should ask, “What’s right, and what’s going well?”

Cooperrider believes that like art, every organization has beauty and is an expression of spirit. If we can uncover and focus on that beauty and that spirit, we can envision a future of where we want to be, and we will be more likely to succeed. [iii]

Focusing on problems (a deficit bias) creates inertia that clouds our ability to feed strengths and fuel opportunities. We are better able to meet our challenges creatively by defining and using our strengths, instead of spending so much time defining our deficits. Appreciating what works fuels positive energy, excitement and creativity.

Comparing problem-solving to Appreciative Inquiry

Traditional problem-solvingAppreciative approach
Focus on what’s wrong; search for root causes of failuresFocus on what works; search for root causes of success
Obstacles treated as barriersObstacles treated as ramps into new territory
If you look for problems, you’ll find (and create) more problemsIf you look for successes, you’ll find (and create) more successes
Can lead to blamingCan lead to greater creativity
De-energizingEnergizing

 

AI has become a worldwide movement that contributes to transformational change in individuals and organizations. AI is a contributor to the strengths revolution in management and the emergence of positive psychology.

Typically, an appreciative inquiry involves 5 stages [iv]:

  1. Define – What is the topic of inquiry? – It is important to define the overall focus of the inquiry (what the system wants more of). Definition is used to clarify the area of work to be considered. In spite of being the starting point of the cycle, it’s a recent addition – the 5Ds were originally the 4Ds, including discover, dream, design and destiny. Definition defines the project’s purpose, content, and what needs to be achieved. In this phase, the guiding question is, “What generative topic do we want to focus on together?”
  2. Discover – Appreciating the best of ‘what is’ – Discovery is based on a dialogue, as a way of finding ‘what works’. It rediscovers and remembers the organization or community’s successes, strengths and periods of excellence.
  3. Dream – Imagining ‘what could be’ –  Imagining uses past achievements and successes identified in the discovery phase to imagine new possibilities and envisage a preferred future. It allows people to identify their dreams for a community or organization; having discovered ‘what is best’. They have the chance to project it into their wishes, hopes and aspirations for the future
  4. Design – Determining ‘what should be’ – Design brings together the stories from discovery with the imagination and creativity from dream. We call it bringing the ‘best of what is’ together with ‘what might be’, to create ‘what should be – the ideal’.
  5. Deliver/Destiny – Creating ‘what will be’ – The fifth stage in the 5Ds process identifies how the design is delivered, and how it’s embedded into groups, communities and organizations. In early appreciative inquiry development, it was called ‘delivery’, based on more traditional organizational development practice. The term ‘destiny’ is more prevalent now.

Appreciative Inquiry in a Pandemic: An Improbable Pairing

As the pandemic wears on and many of us feel we are in a kind of purgatory, some have asked “Isn’t it an oxymoron to be appreciative while experiencing unprecedented states of angst and disruption?” David Cooperrider and Ronald Fry respond:[v]

What we would like to underscore here is that AI is not about being or thinking positively or negatively. Its call is to transcend this polarity. It is not about positive versus negative human experience, but the choice to inquire into what is life. The task of AI is the penetrating search for what gives life, what fuels developmental potential, and what has deep meaning—even in the midst of the tragic.

In so many times of disruption, there is always the radically increased potential to summon our better humanity. That is why the best in human systems can burst forth just as life, even a blade of grass can bust out all over, even after a heavy cement highway has been placed over it. Resilience, even amid tragedy, CAN grow. It is not a noun, not a thing, but a verb; something that can be built and forged in the crucible of crises.

Leveraging the 80/20 ratio

Cooperrider and Fry’s recent research has shown that disruption can lead to great strides forward in organizations. Think about how so many organizations during the pandemic swiftly pivoted their offerings and enabled their workforce to work remotely.

They argue that having a strengths-based focus can lead to even greater change than focussing on deficits. Instead of focusing 80% on what’s not working and 20% on strengths, it is important to put this 80/20 rule in reverse to harness the transformative power of the “positivity ratio.”

Gallup and others have, for years, documented the nearly unchanged 80-20 ratio where the bias in management is to overlook strengths in deference to an assumption that people and organizations will develop fastest or furthest by repairing or focusing on weaknesses. It’s a pervasive assumption in parenting, in the deficit-based media, in diagnostic medicine, in political discourse, and in management and bureaucracies everywhere. Hence the radical nature of the positive strengths movement: it’s about studying what happens when the 80-20 rule is reversed. [vi]

AI can be used in everyday practices such as improving our relationships, improving emotional and mental health, developing our strengths and contributing to the wellbeing of others. From an organizational perspective, it can be used for a wide range of changes from increasing and strengthening collaboration and team building, to co-creating and designing innovations and large-scale culture change.

Summary

To become creatively resilient, make a habit out of reframing situations in ways that invite new perspectives and inspire creative solutions, especially now when circumstances are challenging. Look for the silver lining in any negative situation, and find ways to turn  your insights into action.

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References:

[i] Excerpted from The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday

[ii] VIA Pro Strengths profile. VIA Institute on Character. 2011

[iii] Cooperrider, D.L. and Avital, M. (Ed.) Constructive Discourse and Human Organization (Advances in Appreciative Inquiry, Vol. 1), Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

[iv] 5-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry, AI Commons, retrieved March 12, 2021,

[v]  Cooperrider, D. L., & Fry, R. (2020). Appreciative Inquiry in a Pandemic: An Improbable Pairing. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 56(3), 266–271.

[vi] Cooperrider, D.L. (2012). The concentration effect of strengths: How the whole system ”AI” summit brings out the best in human enterprise. Organizational Dynamics, 41, 106-117.