A different kind of AI
“Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.” This quote is from David Orr an American journalist, attorney, and poet who is noted for his reviews and essays on poetry. I was introduced to this quote during a recent AI summit. This AI summit wasn’t about artificial intelligence, although we did talk a lot about that topic, rather this one was focused on appreciative inquiry, a model that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change. If you haven’t heard of this type of AI it came about as a pivot from the mid-1980s methods of assessing and evaluating that focused on deficiencies. These types of assessments predominantly ask questions such as "What are the problems?", "What's wrong?" or "What needs to be fixed?". Appreciative inquiry, first published in 1987, was the first serious managerial method to focus on what works and the positive that already exists in organizations.
This idea of starting from a place of positivity instead of negativity leads to building a vision for the future in organizations that focuses on strengths. I am a fan of focusing on one’s strengths for career development rather than trying to fix areas of weakness. I suspect the same thing exists for organizations. If we spend all of our time and energy focusing on how to make things that we’re not good at and probably don’t care much about slightly better, then we take all of that focus away from leveraging something we might be the best in the world at. A silly analogy would be to ask an amazing tennis player such as Serena Williams to work her bench press strength because some other athletes are better at that than her. Of course, I have no idea how much Serena Williams bench presses but I’m sure you understand the point I’m trying to get across. Nobody has strengths across all areas of their domain, especially leadership or management. I might be particularly good in crisis leadership but not as good at leadership development for junior folks. You could ask me to get better at leadership development at the cost of me not focusing on an area of strength for me. Is this the best use of my talents for the organization? Instead, you could ensure some of my teammates are great at leadership development and let me focus where I’m best suited. Given that almost everything we do is in teams, this seems the better approach to me.
Stepping back to appreciative inquiry and focusing on positives within an organization, I found that this all revolves around and builds upon hope. We can define hope in many ways but essentially it is a feeling that things will go well in the future. Put a slightly different way, it is an optimistic state of mind based on a belief of positive outcomes. People need hope in their lives. There are even psychological theories about the importance of hope such as Snyder’s hope theory, which postulates that higher levels of hope are linked to better outcomes regarding mental health, physical health, academics, athletics, physical health, and psychotherapy. If we don’t have hope, we give up. A very disturbing experiment conducted by Curt Richter, a professor at Johns Hopkins, in the 1950’s demonstrated this need for hope. I’ll summarize it below but if you want more details you can read about it yourself, and of course if you’d prefer not to read any details just jump to the next paragraph. Richter’s experiment involved torturing and eventually drowning rats. He placed rats in a bucket and allowed them to swim until they eventually drowned, which took between two and fifteen minutes. He conducted the same experiment with another group of rats but right before they drowned, he took them out of the bucket, dried them off and allowed them to recover briefly before placing them back in the bucket. This later group didn’t just swim for two minutes, and not even for two hours. They swam for upwards of 60 hours! The rats that had hope of being rescued could push their bodies hundreds of times further than without hope.
So if you skipped that last paragraph, suffice it to say that the power of hope can be tremendous, allowing us to accomplish things that we never dreamed of. Hope within the organizational realm can be likened to the unseen glue binding employees together, fostering a nurturing environment where innovation and progressive ideas can thrive. When employees harbor hope for a better future, they are naturally inclined to contribute more towards the organizational vision. This essential factor of hope is not just a fleeting emotion, but a dynamic force driving positive action and engagement.
The corporate world is abundant with examples where hope, instilled within the organizational fabric, has paved the way for remarkable achievements. One such instance is the transformation journey of the technology giant, Microsoft. Under the leadership of Satya Nadella, the company embraced a growth mindset which is fundamentally rooted in hope and the potential for continuous improvement. The results were astounding; Microsoft’s culture transformation played a pivotal role in doubling its stock price in just a few years, rejuvenating the organizational spirit and placing it back on the pedestal of tech leadership.
Satya Nadella's tenure as Microsoft's CEO has been marked by a significant cultural transformation within the organization. Nadella shifted the focus from being a traditional software firm to becoming a cloud-first, mobile-first technology powerhouse. He highlighted the importance of empathy, a growth mentality, and a continuous learning culture within the organization. This change in focus and culture is encapsulated in the modification of Microsoft’s vision statement from: "Put a computer on every desk and in every home" to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” signifying a shift from a product-centric to a human-centric approach.
This culture overhaul had a significant impact on Microsoft’s trajectory. In less than five years as CEO, Nadella transitioned Microsoft from being perceived as a Windows-centric lumbering giant to a $700 billion tech player, with strategic bets on artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing paying off. This was a dramatic turnaround after a decade of flat growth, and the company's resurgence is often credited to Nadella's emphasis on a growth mindset and continuous learning culture, which encouraged innovation and adaptation to the rapidly evolving tech landscape. After Microsoft’s 2023 Q3 earnings call, RBC Capital Markets equity analyst Rishi Jaluria said, “It’s an unparalleled year for Microsoft. Who would have thought if we were … having this conversation a year ago and I were to tell you, ‘Hey Microsoft is the leader in Big Tech AI, not Google,’ you probably would have laughed at me and told me to get off of your show.” Through these changes, Nadella was able to instill a sense of hope and potential for continuous improvement and growth within the organization, empowering employees to contribute towards realizing the vision of a better future.
Moreover, the concept of hope within organizations is not merely a theoretical proposition but is backed by an array of empirical research including that of appreciative inquiry. A study led by Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside found that fostering hope among employees led to increased work happiness, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Another recent study, post-pandemic, demonstrated that small and medium-sized companies should place a stronger emphasis on their organizational psychological capital such as hope, as it will help them to come up with innovative ideas coping with the effects of the crisis, ultimately increasing their performance and survival rate. These and many more studies reinforce the idea that hope is not just a feel-good factor, but a tangible asset that can significantly enhance organizational performance.
The power of hope coupled with empowerment within organizations is not to be underestimated. It forms the bedrock of a conducive work environment, spurring individuals and teams towards achieving remarkable milestones. By nurturing hope and empowerment, organizations are not just building a positive work culture, but are actively investing in a future replete with possibilities and success. Through real-world examples and academic insights, the narrative of hope as a formidable organizational asset is both compelling and inspiring, beckoning leaders to foster and harness this powerful force for a thriving organizational future.