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Leadership & Culture, Performance | Nov 16, 2020
Dan Clements of Welsh Rugby Union explains how appreciative inquiry leverages the strengths of individuals, organisations and cultures to drive and sustain change with the ultimate aim of enhanced performance.

We all have that leader we respect or that coach we enjoyed playing for but have you ever taken the time to sit back and think why that might be?


By Dan Clements

I will take a bet that amongst some other things, at some point they nurtured you, recognised your strengths and made you feel valued. Strengths-based thinking has had a lift in modern times within sport as more and more people seek to learn and find an edge in their practice or their organisation as a whole.

The exploits of world class coaches have been extensively documented and have offered a small window into the potential of such an approach. World class leaders such as Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, British & Irish Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland and Richmond Tigers supremo Damian Hardwick have offered an insight into the possibilities within coaching when your starting point in a relationship with a player or a group of individuals is their strengths and what they can do, not what they can’t.

Delving deeper, October’s National Rugby League Grand Final in Australia between perennial powerhouse Melbourne Storm and 2020’s highfliers the Penrith Panthers highlighted the potential for strengths-based thinking.

The modern coach is no doubt used to the pre-game interview, they are part and parcel of the territory and give the avid viewer a sneak peek into mindset and the thrill of the occasion. It was interesting to listen to master coach Craig Bellamy of the Melbourne Storm that weekend when 20 minutes prior to kick off he was asked ‘what will your final message to your team be?’. With the watching millions no doubt expecting a small insight into a rousing Churchillian speech, it was interesting to watch the multi-championship winning coach answer simply and clearly that he would remind his team of who they are representing, what they do well and what got them there.

Craig Bellamy. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Now just consider that for a second, what they do well and what got them there. It might only seem small, but when you consider the narrative in performance sport in the main is about negating the opposition or working out how to solve problems you start to become intrigued about the differences between a strengths-based approach or a deficit finding lens.

Strengths-based coaching or thinking is clearly not a new thing, however what this article and lifts the lid on is the subject of strengths-based change through the medium of coach learning.

It is a topic covered in even greater detail with my colleagues Kevin Morgan and Kerry Harris in our  research paper titled Adopting an Appreciative Inquiry Approach to Propose Change within a National Talent Development System, which was published in September.

Performance leaders are acutely aware that coaches play a vital role in the change process within any organisation. Now this alone might jump out as an interesting point when you consider change. The old adage ‘the only constant is change’ may resonate, as time and time again leaders in any aspect of performance sport seek to find a way to enhance performance, but they must do it in a way that engages and collaborates with their people.

Appreciative inquiry leverages on the strengths of individuals, organisations and cultures to drive and sustain change with an ultimate aim of enhanced performance

Change and people development has traditionally been approached as a top down leader knows best’ scenario that leads to mixed results and ironically sometimes leads to even more change. What this article investigates is the potential for strengths-based change within performance sport, through the process of appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is an unashamedly positive change process borne out of the work of David Cooperrider, who sought to seek an alternative approach to the traditional ideas of change management.

Appreciative inquiry leverages on the strengths of individuals, organisations and cultures to drive and sustain change with an ultimate aim of enhanced performance. When you consider this in relation to performance sport, it paints quite a compelling picture for organisations that are constantly looking to improve to stay ahead of their competition whilst working in a collaborative manner. Why is this any different to traditional change you may ask? Well, it has been suggested that society has many years of experience in problem solving and have gotten very good at it. On the flipside though, we have very little experience in looking for what works and finding new and innovative ways of doing more of the same.

Ric Charlesworth. Photo: Jack Atley/ALLSPORT

What our recent research paper uncovers is that the power of positivity within appreciative inquiry could play an integral role in designing change interventions within sport. Working with 12 talent coaches, we sought to discover what they do well and what gives vitality to the group through a series of personal and collaborative tasks. Why do they coach, why here, and what gives them the most satisfaction as a group? This built into an investigation of strengths, what they do well, and what gives them pride.

Interestingly, by allowing them to start from a position of strength it encouraged the participants to be more open to change as well as the identification of areas for personal development. Positive thoughts and positive thinking led to critical dialogue that fostered collaboration. An important element of appreciative inquiry then asks the group to imagine a preferred ‘vision of the future’ or simply put, what would great look like for you? Asking participants to articulate and share this vision drove creativity and engagement, as the group were eager to share.

Finally, with a vision laid out the group designed a route map to get there. Leveraging their strengths, the coaches identified areas of practice that they could tangibly develop in a quest to achieve the identified goal. This process highlighted the capacity within strengths-based change for innovation and collaboration as coaches worked together to build a framework for development.

The positivity principle that lives at the core of the process is something that cannot be ignored. It led to a heightened state of collaboration amongst the coaches which is often seen as utopia in performance sport both on and off the pitch. Australian coaching legend Ric Charlesworth highlighted this in his book World’s Best when he shared that as a team ethos starts to become embedded within any culture it becomes infectious and redoubles itself when evident and drives team members on to ‘do more’. The results highlighted that the positivity within the process allowed the coaches to collaborate and uncover new ways of working, or quite simply, achieve the holy grail of ownership and buy in to the change process.

This process highlighted the capacity within strengths-based change for innovation and collaboration as coaches worked together to build a framework for development.

Now anyone that is responsible for people development or learning within their organisation would know that things are never that straightforward. Learning and specifically coach learning remains a complex endeavour as organisations seek methods that make it a meaningful and worthwhile process for the coach. Results here showed that this scenario was no different, with coaches getting lost in rhetoric and semantics within parts.

What appreciative inquiry and a strengths-based approach did show though, was that a positive lens within the process encouraged participants to ‘break through’ stumbling blocks that stalled the progression and identification of areas to concentrate efforts on. This positive lens asked the group to imagine ‘what next?’ and encouraged the design of a ‘route map’ for change.

More and more in high performing organisations we are seeking the next advantage or area of innovation. Could that answer lie internally, within our people? The final point to consider relates directly to strengths-based change, as we will all go through or lead a change process as some point within sport. Have you considered where your strengths may lie? Are you an expert who will lead from the front and struggle to capture learning or innovation? Or is there a way where we can collaborate with our people and innovate and learn along the way? Perhaps starting with a positive focus will encourage this.


Dan Clements is the Performance Coach Manager at Welsh Rugby Union.

Click here for access to Adopting an Appreciative Inquiry Approach to Propose Change within a National Talent Development System by Dan Clements, Kevin Morgan and Kerry Harris.

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