When I was growing up, my mom had a ritual. Every night at dinner, despite the real challenges we were facing as a family, she would look around the table at her six kids and say, “Tell me something good that happened today.” As simple as those words are, they changed the energy in the room. Instead of harping on the dysfunction in our home, we were connecting and laughing and acting like a family. Wow Mom, how’d you do that?
Some business leaders pride themselves on creating cultures of “joy” or “happiness.” That’s a beautiful goal; occasionally it’s a beautiful reality. At Life is good, we strive for a culture of optimism, which is a little different. We know that every day is not going to be perfect or easy. In life and in businesses, there are real challenges. As optimists, we model ourselves on my mom at the dinner table. We start by focusing on what’s good and build from there.
Years ago I read an article about something called “positive deviance.” It told the story of a couple working for Save the Children in Vietnam, trying to combat malnutrition. The assumption was they’d figure out ways to bring in more food. But this couple took a different approach: They went into villages looking for families that had somehow avoided malnutrition. Those relative success stories, they learned, were the result of people bucking conventional wisdom. For example, they gave children shellfish and sweet-potato greens, which were readily available but considered indigestible by the young. They also continued feeding children who had diarrhea, a practice criticized in that country as a waste of nutrients. Such practices deviated from the norm. And in deviating from the norm, they produced positive outcomes. The lesson was this: Focus on what’s broken and it can consume you. Focus on what works and you begin to build solutions.
Searching out positive deviance is an act of optimism. Unfortunately, when things go wrong in a business, leadership often locks onto what you might call the “negative norm.” Say a company has 20 sales reps, and 18 of them are sucking wind. Managers descend on those 18 territories looking for the culprit. They want to know, “Should we shut down this product line? Should we fire these people?” The business world loves “trouble-shooters.” But if the goal is to shoot trouble, all you’re left with is stuff that’s dead.
Optimistic leadership would concentrate on those two territories where things are working well--the positive deviants. Find out why those people are hitting it out of the park. Then send them on a tour of the other territories to educate their struggling colleagues.
That’s not to say you should ignore your weaknesses. Rational optimists acknowledge when the organization is falling short, especially when they’re part of the problem.
Four years ago, during the recession, Life is good shrank for the first time in our 20-year history. We couldn’t wait around for a reviving economy to save us. That would have been “blind” optimism, the only kind of optimism not practiced here.
My brother John and I suspected that one key issue was a lack of clarity from leadership, beginning with us. (John is my co-founder and Life is good’s chief creative optimist.) So we formed a six-member task force charged with getting to the root of things. The team’s report exposed a lot, including a lack of alignment between John and me. We were making people’s jobs harder, and they didn’t know how to talk to us about it.
It was a difficult experience, and yet the solution was deeply rooted in optimism. The message we wanted to convey to our people was, “We know we can get better. We trust you to tell us how.” And they did tell us. We took a step back and began to see our efforts objectively. And we got better. We hashed out some differences, clarified roles and structure, and made ongoing dialogue a larger part of the process. Now we know how to empower healthy criticism in a culture of optimism.
Soon after that, we saw our sell-through at retail begin to climb back. We had enabled our staff to accurately assess the obstacles, and then we all poured our resources into the opportunities. Boom!