(905) 880-8827 [email protected]

Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus

Is there too much focus on problem solving?

Over the past several years we have become very interested in a variety of approaches that reject problem solving as the major focus. Whether called “Appreciative Inquiry”, “Solutions Focus” or “Positive Deviants” these approaches all focus on finding what is working, instead of trying to understand why something isn’t working.

Although problem solving techniques have an impressive track record in the physical world governed by the laws of physics, they have a far less stellar record dealing in the complex world of human behavior. In this article we briefly describe two alternative approaches (Solutions Focus and Appreciative Inquiry) and then describe a third (Positive Deviants) in more detail.

Solutions Focus

Tremendous amounts of effort are spent in the area of psychotherapy understanding why someone is having problems. Often this effort yields conflicting explanations and little improvement. Therapists practicing a Solutions Focused approach don’t worry about why the problem exists. Instead they focus their attention on finding occasions when the problem does not exist so they can find what is working. Once they know what works they help the client do more of it. For a more detailed explanation of this approach you can read our article on Team Building with a Solutions Focus

Appreciative Inquiry

Companies using Appreciative Inquiry as part of their change management approach will start off by discovering examples of times when things are working inside an organization. (For example, Instead of dissecting all of the times when gender inequality was a problem, one company started off by looking for stories of times when people had enjoyed a terrific experience of men and women working together.) Next these companies will let themselves dream about what it would be like in the future, if these terrific experiences were the norm instead of the exception. Then they will go on to develop a plan for how they will get there. No mention of “problem solving” anywhere along the way.

Positive Deviants

When working with large communities you can either focus on the problems and try to solve them or you can take the “Positive Deviants” approach and look for the exceptions. “Positive Deviants” are those cases that deviate from the norm by not having the problem even though their circumstances are the same as others who do have the problem. This is an approach that comes to us from the domain of community development. It is associated with Jerry Sternin who built upon earlier work by Marian Zetlin.

The best way to describe the approach is through an illustration. In 1990 Sternin and his wife were working on the problem of malnutrition in children of poor families living in Vietnamese villages. Faced with a six month deadline to do their work and get out, the Sternins decided to forego “problem solving” approaches and to instead focus on finding solutions that were already in place and working. Sternin knew that malnutrition was related to other significant problems with respect to sanitation, drinking water, poverty, and education. But he had neither the time nor the resources needed to solve these problems. So instead of trying to solve these problems he began a search for “positive deviants” i.e. children who were not mal nourished yet were living in the same circumstances as their neighbors.

He did this with the assistance of native volunteers who were first trained to chart growth by age and weight to help identify whether or not a child was malnourished. These same volunteers were then asked to identify children under the age of three in poor families who were not mal nourished. Once he had identified the deviants he then needed to understand what is was that this group was doing differently than everyone else.

Finding the difference that made the difference
Before he could understand what was different though he needed to understand what was the norm. Again he used the native volunteers, this time to closely observe how mothers feed their children. By establishing the “norm” for the group he could now identify what it was that his deviants were doing differently.

He found several unique behaviors. First the mothers of the well nourished children all collected tiny shrimps and crabs from the rice paddies and fed these as well as sweet potato greens to their children. Conventional wisdom said these were low-class foods. Second these same mothers fed the children frequent small meals instead of infrequent larger meals. They also took a much more active role in feeding their children than was normal. And they went against conventional wisdom in other areas as well. For example they fed their children even when they had diarrhea even though conventional wisdom said that you should not.

Making a change
Now that Sternin and his team knew how this group was being more successful he needed to figure out how to help the others change their behaviors. The unconventional had to become the conventional. He did this by encouraging new behaviors, not by trying to transfer new knowledge or descriptions of best practices. (For example his volunteers offered “medicinal food training courses” where the price of admission was that you had to collect tiny shrimps and crabs and sweet potato greens. These were used in the course, in combination with the traditional rice, to prepare meals for the entire group.) Once positive results were being produced these were posted for all to see and to become curious about.

And the results did come. They saw a huge drop in malnutrition rates in the villages they were working in over a two-year period. More importantly a follow-up study showed that children born long after the original intervention were still benefiting.

Facilitating the approach

We don’t propose to layout an entire facilitation approach here. We do want to make a couple of key points though.

The first point we wish to make is that Sternin in an article (See below) suggests that this approach is best suited to situations where the percentage of deviants is very low compared to the general population. Furthermore he cautions that everyone needs to see himself or herself as coming from the same circumstances and having access to the same resources. It is far too easy to reject an idea if we think that it does not apply to us because we are somehow different. Given these constraints the first step in facilitating this approach would be to only use it when these two criterion have been met.

The other key point we want to make is that it is probably important to keep people out of problem solving mode, even though their natural tendency is going to be to want to start problem solving. This likely means some up front work to make sure that people understand the approach and are willing to give it a try. It also means careful development of materials and training for teams doing the fieldwork and careful facilitation of the change management planning process.


Fast Company has published an article about Sternin and his work, which can be found at https://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/41/sternin.html

It's not just a better meeting, or a better plan, it's confidence that you will achieve results

Pin It on Pinterest