Two Paradigms [appreciative inquiry #010]



Imagine yourself on a winter’s night at a beautiful square in your hometown. The square is quite empty and your attention is drawn to the numerous lamp posts surrounding the square. It appears to you that one of the lanterns has a broken lamp. What is your first inner response?

“Oh, what a pity, the entire setting is ruined now that I’ve noticed the faulty one and I can’t get it out of my sight.”

Or: “The broken lamp creates a shadow, that might be a dangerous spot. Tomorrow morning I’ll notify the local council and inform them that it needs to be fixed.”

Or perhaps: “Interesting. It seems to me that all those lanterns at the edges of the square look nice, however in the middle it’s still quite dark. What kind of lighting would be required to really ‘enlighten’ the square?”.

It’s rather fascinating to see how the story of one broken lantern can cause several reactions. If you dig deeper, you might distinguish two approaches. Firstly we have the problem-oriented approach:  one faulty lantern ruins the surroundings and only by fixing it does the ‘bad situation become a good one. On the other hand we have the possibility-oriented approach, where one lantern is missing, the place is still well-lit. In this case we ask ourselves,  how can we improve the lighting? How can we make an ‘enlightened’ square of this place? This is the Appreciative Inquiry approach, to recognize the existing good and dream about possibilities to make it even better.


  1. Starting from ‘bad’, we can fix it, resulting in ‘not bad’. This is a very useful approach when minimum quality is needed to guarantee smooth functioning, for example in the case of loose bolts in aircraft construction.
  2. Starting from ‘good’, there are no boundaries in getting better. Personal health is more than fixing a broken leg. Organizational change is more than ‘reorganizing’, this is where Appreciative Inquiry can provide miracles…

Business School Netherlands (BSN) is part of an international business school organization that enables students to pass an Executive MBA. The students are mostly executive professionals in the heat of their careers, hard working with young families and on top of that investing lots of energy (and money) in this four-year time consuming study. I’m not always so sure whether the MBA-title produces the leaders of my choice.

I was surprised and honored when BSN invited me to be a guest lecturer on AI on a voluntarily basis. (Of course, I don’t lecture AI; we spend the afternoon experiencing AI.) In doing that a few times a year with great pleasure, I encountered our two paradigms again. When I deliver my ‘AI-performance’ in the afternoon; the morning sessions have been filled by another lecture on ‘Risk Management’. Here the students can really experience the difference between the two. What a perfect ‘bridge’ for me to make a start after lunch. As I said, there are situations in which it is suitable to manage risks, and there are situations where discovering possibilities is recommended. The fact is, that in the morning session all the chairs and tables are lined up, a lot of Powerpoints are presented and the lecturer speaks, sharing his valuable knowledge. In the afternoon session the group is mixed and divided around randomly placed tables, talking with each other in pairs (throughout the building, walking outside) or in roundtable dialogues. The room is regularly filled with music. Sweets are on the tables. The session ends with all (approx. thirty) people in one circle, everyone sharing their insights. They all get a flower, inviting them to share their experience with the family at home. The lecture is called “The appreciation of the manager”.

How do you perceive a situations before you?

Do you carry both paradigms in your system?

Are 50% filled glasses, half empty or half full to you?

You’ve just read one of the 110 chapters of my book Appreciative Inquiries of the 3.0 Kind. Find out more (and a special pre-ordering offer) on