Most of us have been transformed in unexpected ways by the pause in our life forced by COVID-19. We can dwell on the negatives, but the inspiring people we’ve interviewed at Ever Widening Circles teach us that the future belongs to those who find the positive gift of insight through chaos and negativity.
I believe one of the positives to come out of this pandemic will be that being helpful and thoughtful will come back into fashion.
The pandemic got us in the habit of celebrating the “givers” and the “doers”—the tireless good people in essential services, neighbors doing what they can for neighbors, and the businesses that are finding ingenious ways to carry on and serve their communities. In fact, the people getting shares on social media are those who have stopped complaining and started solving common problems in clever, often funny ways.
The upheaval has many of us expecting others to be more patient, ingenious, light-hearted, and flexible. And I suspect the new thought leaders in our businesses and organizations will be the people, at every level and in the boardroom, who can use those same qualities to nurture collaboration.
What if we take the first few months of this “opening back up” phase to really celebrate what we can agree on?
Here’s the system we use for problem-solving on the Ever Widening Circles team, inspired by an organizational approach called “Appreciative Inquiry.” At its core, this approach starts at a position of strength and goodwill and then stays there.
Here’s how it works:
First, without blame or contempt, we succinctly state the concept that needs improvement (the problem).And then, we lead a lively, positive discussion to get answers to seven questions that foster unity and keep the tone positive.
Here are three of them:
1. “ What is really working well?”
After you state the issue at hand with clarity, have everyone contribute a comment about what he or she thinks is working well in the organization. It’s important to constantly remind each other that the problem you are working on is only a part of the story and that there are so many places of positivity for you to draw from. This gets some goodwill and hopefulness going and demonstrates that everyone’s opinion is going to be valuable.
2. “What do we care about?”
Then, regarding the concept that needs improvement, you go around the table again and have everyone offer a word or two about what he or she thinks everyone cares about.
I have never done this exercise without being surprised by the remarkable diversity of positive answers that come out of people’s mouths. People you almost never hear from will often nail something that resonates with the entire group.
The heroes of collaboration—the thoughtful people—will start to emerge at this point.
Bonus: In both steps one and two, the playing field of ideas is leveled, and the former, louder voices are neutralized. And often, they are the first to look surprised at how much better the interaction feels and how lovely and smart their coworkers are!
3. “What do we all want more of?”
This is where the positive lessons from the pandemic start to emerge because if we’ve learned one thing from the upheaval, it’s that we all have a lot more in common than we thought!
This question will start a profound, relationship-building conversation if you manage it carefully. In the beginning, the impulse in your group will be to dive into what you want less of, and of course, with that comes who we should blame. But someone needs to speak up encouragingly immediately when that downhill slide happens.
Stick with answers to “What do we all want more of?” And after your group gets the hang of that, you will see the spirit of collaboration grow immeasurably. It’s actually quite hard to stay on task with this question because we have gotten into the habit of letting the contempt creep in when the focus of the conversation goes to who and what is “wrong.”
The other four questions help the team get to the core of what is possible. And if you use this road map through problem-solving right, meetings can become surprising opportunities for relationship-building, something we all learned to crave during the quarantine period.
Let’s Learn from the Pioneers on the Front Lines of Innovation
My experience talking to thought leaders all over the world demonstrates why we should foster a helpful, thoughtful problem-solving ethos from day 1 when we go back to work. I’ve noticed the inspiring people I speak to almost never give much attention to what’s wrong or who’s wrong. The innovators I speak to tend to focus on creating the most fertile ground from which ingenious ideas can sprout. You can barely get them to say a harsh word about anyone because they know that anyone could have the right experience or skill to enable a leap in progress.
The thought leaders and “influencers” in the new era will be people who are thoughtful and have a way of bringing out the best in others.
We’ve pointed to the work of thousands of them through Ever Widening Circles. If you feel a bit rusty on how to go back to work with the sense that anything is possible, remember to stay positive for yourself and about others, and you can accomplish anything!