Wednesday, August 30, 2017

If You Always Look for Problems, That’s Always What You’ll Find

The time is upon us when thousands of fraternity and sorority members will return to campus and begin another year.  Many of those groups will do the smart thing and have a retreat to plan out the year and set goals.  At the minimum, almost all fraternity and sorority leaders will think about questions like: what do we need to do to reach our potential?  To achieve excellence?

This post isn’t meant to answer those questions, for each situation is unique.  Rather, let me offer you some thoughts on how you get to those answers.

Fraternity and sorority life is a “problems-based” industry.  We are constantly talking about problems.  We seem to always be focused like a laser on what’s wrong with us and what needs to be fixed. 

It can be depressing.  I only have my hunches to back this up, but I think one of the reasons there is so much turnover in campus Greek advising is that individuals just get sick and tired of the constant negativity. 

I don’t believe that we can ignore our problems, especially the ones that could jeopardize our future in an instant.  But, what if we focused on our problems just a little bit less?  You might ask, well what would we focus on instead?

We would focus on what’s working.

You have a choice for where you put your energy.  You can put it towards finding problems (and if you look for them, you will find them), or you can put it towards finding the life-giving forces that make your organization thrive.  When you do the latter, you likely increase the exceptional stuff you want and overwhelm the negative stuff you don’t.

This whole approach is called Appreciate Inquiry.  There are scores of books and articles on this very scholarly topic.  I invite you to investigate it further, but here is a quick summary in terms of fraternities and sororities:

Appreciative Inquiry means that you ask questions of each other in order to unlock what is often hidden from view: namely, the parts of our organizations that are working and should be emphasized.   But, we tend to do the opposite.  At a typical fraternity or sorority event, we might ask questions such as:
·         What is holding us back from success?
·         What are the biggest challenges we face?
·         How do we fix our problems?
The answers to these questions would come from the standard fraternity/sorority problem index: poor recruitment, risk management, brotherhood/sisterhood issues, member apathy, Senior member motivation, etc.  We would then try to develop 3-5 targeted solutions for each of these problems.  Sounds reasonable, right?  

The only thing is it’s not very effective.  If it were, we wouldn’t still be as stuck with these problems as we are.  

What if instead, we focused on what’s working?  Maybe your chapter has an awesome calendar of service projects.  Why do your members get so excited about service?  After investigating that question, maybe you find out that members see it as a great vehicle for camaraderie.  Now we know that members hunger for opportunities to work together on significant things.  Can this new knowledge be applied to chapter academics (which haven’t been very good)?  Could this lead to more collaborative and social study sessions at the chapter house?  Let’s try that.

If you had instead started by asking “why does our chapter GPA suck?” you may never have reached the idea of building camaraderie.  You probably would have designed another unsuccessful points system or something like that.

Appreciative Inquiry sometimes is as simple as re-framing the questions that we ask.  See below:
Typical Questions
Appreciative Questions
Why aren’t we getting the number of recruits we want?
Why do we have the recruits we do?  What did they see in us that compelled them to join?  How can we use those reasons to our advantage?
What’s wrong with our brotherhood/sisterhood?
When in the recent past has our brotherhood/ sisterhood felt the strongest?  What was going on that made that happen?
How can we force members to follow our risk management policy?
What was the last social event we had that felt really safe and really fun?  What made it so?
Where did all the Seniors go? 
Who have been Seniors that have been really engaged?  Why did they stay involved?
How do we stop our downward slide?
What is the best thing we did last year?  What made it the best?  How can we apply those lessons to other things we do?
Why do we suck as a chapter?
In what areas do we excel as a chapter?

Do you see how simply re-framing those questions makes them much more exciting and positive?  By using appreciate inquiry, you are learning from your successes, not your failures.  You’re putting a spotlight on what works, not what’s broken.  And yet, in doing so, you are making repairs.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on several principles, some of which are particularly germane to fraternity and sorority life:

The Constructionist Principle says that “words create worlds.”  In other words, how we talk about something helps to create it.  For fraternity and sorority, this means the more we talk about ourselves as endless problems, the more likely we are to become that.

The Poetic Principle simply says that whatever we focus on, grows.  If we focus on problems, they may only get bigger because we are elevating them.  Likewise if we focus on positive elements.  One of the primary tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is that by allowing the positive forces to grow, they will overtake the negative ones.

The Anticipatory Principle says that “what we believe, we conceive.”  If we put in our minds-eye an image of our organization as vibrant and dynamic, that vision will direct our actions.

I think these principles can be a stretch for analytical thinkers who only want to diagnose
problems and prescribe solutions.  There is still a time and place for that.  However, too often  we let that “fix the problem” mentality dominate at all levels of our organizations – all the way up to boardrooms.  Save that for the small stuff.  For the big things – vision, goals, future – focus instead on the best of what you are.  Let those discoveries determine the course you take.

It is a maxim of Appreciative Inquiry that in every organization that exists, something is working.

And it’s there for you to find.

This post was originally published in July 2011 and has been updated


  1. Good post John. There are many movements that focus on solutions rather than problems such as Dowser which may provide ideas to help motivate students to get involved.


  2. Great post! I love the perspective of celebrating the strengths. I always preach to make your time in the sorority so much fun, no one will want to miss out. Love the ideas in this post! Thanks!

  3. Where can I find more info on Appreciative Inquiry? Maybe something short (20-30 pages) that I can read and digest in an hour or so.