The actor Tom Hanks loves stories of survival, ingenuity, and triumph. We are drawn to his portrayals of real life and fictional characters because he is so relatable in the face of extraordinary odds and extreme adversity. From the real-life Apollo 13 to the fictional Castaway, Hanks enlivens stories that are both inspirational and instructional.
You might be thinking, “Inspirational sure, but instructional? No way am I going to perform dental work on myself with an ice skate!” (If you haven’t already seen Castaway, sorry for the spoiler.) Castaway and Apollo 13 are entertainment blockbusters – and instruct us in a practice called Appreciative Inquiry (AI) – that equips people to bring about extraordinary results from even the most difficult circumstances.
Imagine being stranded in a space module 200,000 miles from earth, the oxygen supply is dwindling and there is no apparent way to get home. That’s the situation in which the Apollo 13 astronauts found themselves. Remember that iconic line, “Houston, we have a problem.” It’s the line everyone associates with Apollo 13, but it’s not the line that turned the mission into one of our most treasured stories of triumph against all odds. Rather, it was the instruction at mission control that engineers should collect only things that were already on board the module, and using only those resources, innovate a solution. And innovate they did. They instructed the astronauts to build an oxygen filter from a tube sock, duct tape, and a binder cover, among other things.
In the practice of Appreciative Inquiry we call this ‘Discovery” – the search for what we already have going for us. It is the first step when faced with any difficult reality. Many leaders meet adversity by asking “What’s our next step?” or “Whose fault is this?” In reality we are best served by asking ‘Where are we” (that’s defining reality) followed by asking ‘What do we have going for us?” Once we know exactly where we are and what we have at our disposal, we can create and chart the way forward.
The next time you find yourself stranded on a desert island or faced with a drastic cut in resources while needing to deliver the same level of service and quality, don’t ask “What do we do now” instead begin with “What do we have going for us?” Clients I have worked with over the years have been amazed at the depth of strengths, skills, resources, and values they actually have at their disposal. Strengths that can be repurposed (like the skates in Castaway) or reused (like the tube socks in Apollo 13) This may not be rocket science. Yet the reality for many companies and in many people’s careers is they get stuck, face challenges, and make mistakes. Too often the focus is on the problem or what is wrong with them and how to fix it. What if instead we asked, “what is right” and “how can we engage what is right to build future successes?
What do you and Tom Hanks have in common? You love a good story about triumph in the face of adversity and challenge. Beginning with discovery of what you already have at your disposal is the first step in writing such a story for your organization.