It interests me how readily people stop themselves in their tracks by honing in on Barriers, Obstacles and/or Challenges. (More on Opportunities later.)
I hear these words in the office every day. And I see them in training blurb and in business/change management books. Along with equally disagreeable phrases such as dealing with resistance to change. This approach speaks of an expectation of failure and, especially in the latter case, constructs a reality where people are problematic.
Thinking this way – about barriers and other such business buzz words – is a habit, a tradition – something that people sustain because tradition equates to comfort. There are other reasons people continue such traditions; perhaps to conform – believing conformity ensures acceptance and success – or because they’ve learned a way of behaving/speaking from a source deemed reputable and knowledgeable. We’re very good at respecting the voice of authority. Few people question what the men in white coats say. People that are accustomed to this habit sometimes tell me – usually with All Due Respect – that looking for barriers is essential.
Analysing barriers isn’t conducive to success. In my experience, a focus on all that is wrong – or could go wrong – inhibits progress, drains motivation and perpetuates a cycle of failure.
Given that we can’t predict the future, what is achieved by asking “what barriers do I foresee?” Do we need to identify them so that we can put them across our path? Are we considering barriers that others will put in our way? If so, there are limits on what we can predict about the behaviours of others.
What I (and Appreciative Inquiry) propose instead is to consider where you’re heading. Ask:
- What do I want to achieve?
- What does success look like?
- What will things be like?
- How will life be improved?
And, in thinking about how to get there, ask:
- When have I achieved things like this before? How did I do it?
- What strengths/skills will help me?
- Are there other skills that would be useful? Who could help?
- What are the smaller tasks I can break this down into?
- What can I do right now to get started?
Focus on the outcome that you want – not the problem that stops you getting there.
For example: don’t seek to “tackle poverty” – seek to work with the community to “create a prosperous society” (prosperity being about much more than money). Or; don’t look at all the things that stop you getting work. Think instead about what you love to do and how you will earn a living from that.
It’s also worth thinking about why and how you use the word barrier. Sometimes it can mean “stuff I don’t enjoy doing” – eg bidding for funds or doing a tax return. If you identify such hindrances; dispose of the negative weighting. All things belong in the list of tasks to do. Some will be more enjoyable than others. If there are things you find difficult to do, or to get motivated to do, is there someone you could contact that would love to do these things? Or that might do them for a fee, or for a trade?
So that’s a bit about barriers, but what about this – surely positive word – Opportunties. Why do I dislike that..?
I dislike it for the same reason I dislike “challenges”. For being disingenuous – not what they seem. I dislike these words for the inverted commas you hear people putting around them – an indication that the words are a veil of empty positivity over a “problem”. In this context the words aren’t constructive. Empty positivity is irritating and unhelpful. It’s akin to someone, dealing with depression, saying “I am happy! Everything is great!” when that’s not the case at all. No one is convinced – not least the person repeating the words. Positive words and phrases mean little when they depict a reality we can’t believe in.
Furthermore, opportunities are often defined with reference to threats – as in the SWOT analysis model. The SWOT model invites one to consider possible opportunities tha a situation provides; then to look at all the threats inherent in the situation – effectively taking the wind right out of your opportunity sails. (My feelings on SWOT will come as no surprise; a leadership and management staple that’s great at keeping you exactly where you are.)
I find the appreciative version of SWOT, SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results), more useful. We’re asked to consider all the strengths we have available that can be used in the current situation. And then we think about how these strengths empower and enable us to create opportunities out of the situation. With SOAR we’re producing conversations about what’s within our power and what we can, and will, make happen. For me, that’s more meaningful.
Notice the words you use in a business sense. (And the models you apply.) What do they mean? What function do they have? Why do you use them – because they’ve proved effective for you, or because it’s “what we do around here”? Is there something that would serve you, and your organisation/community, better?
As Peter Drucker (successful business guru who saw no need to worry about weakness or barriers) said: The best way to predict the future is to create it.
You’ll create it faster if you stop telling yourself it’s necessary to find stuff to throw in your way.
This post was written by Southend Passionate Women’s Ambassador Sherry Fuller who specialises in Appreciative Inquiry, she brings people together through story-telling that concentrates on what makes them, and their world, come alive. Sherry also runs Southend Philosophy Group, and community project Southend Soup. She can be found on Facebook as Fuller Inspirations and Twitter @FullerBobs.