Make desire more important than fear: “Change the Way You See Yourself (Through Asset-Based Thinking)”

cover for CTWYSEKathy Cramer and Hank Wasiak’s new book is out, a gorgeous and well-focused follow-on to their Change the Way You See Everything, one of the Microsoft Ad Astra project’s signature giveaways.* In May 2007, we did an amazing two-day workshop with Kathy, Hank and his colleagues from the Concept Farm, and folks from Extreme Arts and Sciences and Telstar oriented around the “Hero’s Journey” archetypal narrative as a metaphor for innovation. We also steadily refined a series of Asset-Based Thinking workshops involving customer-focused brainstorming and problem-solving. So it’s safe to say I’m a fan.

Change the Way You See Yourself starts with a very brief introduction to Asset-Based Thinking (ABT). ABT is a lens, a way of viewing reality, through the eyes of what’s working and your current strengths and potentials. It complements the far more common Deficit-Based Thinking (DBT), which is focused on threats, gaps, and weaknesses. DBT is important as well; it’s just that our default tendency is to reverse the ratio and spend almost all of our time in this negative, defensively-focused mode. The key insight for me is that situations where the vast majority of your thinking and energy is going in an ABT way — 80/20, five-to-one, something like that — are far more productive and enjoyable.

Building on that, the rest of the book is organized as a call to action, and then chapters on power, influence, impact, and the future. The visual layout complements the text brilliantly, starting from the square/circle/triangle/film clip in the table of contents through the sign-in page at the end. It’s filled with gems like this from page 115, Make desire more important than fear:

abt axiom

It looks better in the book of course. Did I mention how beautiful it is?

Obviously, I’m far from being an un-biased reviewer of the book — and I’m so deeply immersed in the material that I read it differently than others would anyhow. (“Oh look! There’s Iris Lemmer on p.125 featured in “Meru Meets Microsoft” — I remember working with her on that in some of the Ad Astra workshops!”) I’ll link to reviews as they come out; interviews with Hank Wasiak by Derrick Kwa on Sui Generis and Paul WIlliams on Idea Sandbox are worth checking out for some good info including a discussion of an upcoming ABT book focused on teens. For now, let me spend a few paragraphs talking about ABT more generally.

One of the things that really appeals to me about ABT is its rigorous theoretical and empirical grounding; its very specific focus makes it very easy to apply strategically — for example, by always reacting to unexpected events by asking “what new assets did this create?” A good example of this: when a meeting with Ray Ozzie I had been working towards for literally months was postponed a week with no notice, I realized that since I was already prepared it was a unique opportunity, and thus was born the incredibly-successful “Open letter to Ray”.

ABT also gives a framework for thinking about ways to build on the past. When Susy Struble first proposed the fantastic idea of a “letter to the next president” for a collaborative exercise at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference, I mentally riffled through my list of related assets and said “hey, I know how to do that! suppose we do a workshop at dinner … etc. etc..” and thus was born Dear Potus 08.

One of ABT techniques that’s useful in a wide variety of strategic situations is to imagine your competitors in other roles: competitor, but also potentially scout, marketing foil, benchmark, and ally. The “Team of Rivals” strategy**, where a set of adversaries cooperate towards a common goal, is a good example of this. This is something that’s becoming increasingly important in politics as well, especially after an extremely divisive nomination process for the Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and both the “progressive” and “conservative” movements. Dear Potus 08 also attempts to leverage this dynamic: even though there are significant differences in the candidates’ positions, it’s in everybody’s interest to have a more informed and higher-quality discussion of technology issues.

A lot of intellectually exciting things are happening in ABT, positive psychology, and the emerging field of positive organizational studies. Sara Orem’s Simultaneity describes a workshop looking at an Asset-Based Thinking/Appreciative Coaching (ABT/AC) mashup — An ABT Call to Action for Coaches and Clients (pt 2), on the Asset-Based thinking blog has some more discussion. I was there for the wrapup afterwards, and it’s clear that sparks are flying. Some former colleagues of mine are working on a book on innovation also set in an ABT context; and of course Kathy and Hank are working on follow-on books.

From my perspective, I’m continuing to look at ABT-oriented strategic thinking, which take a much more dynamic view of assets and influence than traditional static (four-fources, strategy maps, balanced scorecard, etc.) models. It’s a highly narrative approach, and so lends itself well to exploring in a blog format. My current style of blogging with ongoing comments in each thread, and occasional updates in the main post, leads to a lot of reusable assets: I can send a link to a comment to somebody who’s interested in a particular issue or angle on a story, and if they want it’s also easy to for them to read the thread as a whole for context and related information and links.***

Many of the threads on Liminal States are experiments with this, such as the Indeed/pwn2own/RSA sequence on security and static analysis, and the Gender, race, age, and power/Cognitive diversity in the 2008 US election pair focused on the nexus of social computing, oppression theory, intersectionality, and diversity. Dear Potus 08 is an attempt to apply these insights on a broader scale; and my consulting work for Coverity involves applications in the more traditional business strategy space. [For example, as an outside pair of eyes, I can help find new uses for valuable assets they might be overlooking.]

So expect to continue to hear a lot about ABT as things move forward. Here, it’ll mostly show up behind the scenes … so if it’s the kind of thing you enjoy, please amuse yourself by playing along: as you read posts trying to identify the assets, and the connections between them, and the kinds of opportunities this lens helps reveal and clarify. The Asset-based Thinking site is the best place to find out more about ABT in general, and Kathy and Hank blog there from time to time. Worth checking out — as is the Facebook page for Change the Way You See Yourself, which has a great short video. Oh, and consider buying the book, too 🙂


Thanks to the participants at the ABT/AC mashup workshop for feedback on earlier versions of this post!

* John Sweeney’s Innovation at the Speed of Laughter was another, as were t-shirts (of course) and my less-than-fully-successful attempts at collectable stickers. But I digress.

** originally named by Sarah Blankinship and me in homage to Doris Kearns’ Goodwin’s book back in 2006 for a ThinkWeek paper we never actually wrote — a great example of how even tiny assets can continue to have value over time.

*** thanks to Alex Bratman and Brian Holland for the insight about context at Andrea Matwyshyn’s CFP Charismatic Content session.