Beware positive thinking

Many of us have been schooled to “stay positive!” Ultimately I think there is a grain of wisdom in this, but it can also blind us. Sometimes we need to address important risks or vulnerabilities. In a group setting, if you insist on only focusing on the positive, you can also lose credibility with people who consider themselves realists.

On the other hand, some of us are by training and inclination problem-spotters. We believe that if we can find and fix what’s wrong, everything will be fine. As with the positive thinkers, this of course is useful to an extent. The problem comes when we find ourselves continually worrying or complaining no matter how well things are going. And again, in a group setting you might find that your legitimate concerns are easily dismissed if you have a reputation for being too pessimistic. 

Here’s something that gives you the best of both worlds. I learned while I worked at the amazing Interaction Associates (they rock, check them out). Instead of focusing exclusively on problems or just being positive, we would teach clients to ask two evaluation questions after every meeting:

1. What went well? (Let’s call those the “pluses”)

2. What would have made it Even Better If? (Call them EBI’s)

Taken together, I call it +/EBI. Giving this a quick handy name is key to making it a regular practice for your teams.

Recently I had a group of talented bankers from around the world in Brazil with me for a week. One of the tools we used every day after interviewing local organic farmers was +/EBI. These were long, hot days spent traveling around remote farms and community centers, and by 11pm you can bet the group was bushed. But in a very simple, quick way, we captured the learnings of the day. People who felt that something important needed to be fixed called out their EBI’s. But we also celebrated all the good work.

When you do this every night, or at each team or project meeting, people get in the habit. It also legitimizes some of the difficult things people may want to say, because you’re asking for EBI’s. It’s a great structure for individual feedback too. When people expect EBI’s it’s that much easier for the giver and receiver. And if they tend only to focus on EBI’s, I make them give themselves a bunch of Pluses to balance out their assessment.

One last bonus from this: it saves time. If you ask a group “what worked, what didn’t work” you then spend time developing fixes for the second list. If you go straight to “what would make it Even Better If” you already get solutions. They may not be the best, the group may have to modify them, but you’re closer to a more effective iteration next time. And you’re more motivated than if you had filled a whole flip chart with Things That Didn’t Work.


One response to “Beware positive thinking

  1. I love the “Even Better If” for the embedded idea that there IS a better future ahead of us…if only we can name it. Now THAT is irresistible!

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