How to Move Forward by Asking the Right Questions

“Don’t dwell on what went wrong.  Instead, focus on what to do next.  Spend your energies on moving forward towards finding the answer.” ~Dennis Waitley, Motivational Speaker

It is great advice to not dwell on what went wrong.

Photo by Collin Kinner

Photo by Collin Kinner

But how, when we have all been schooled and socialized to fix problems, do you do that?  How can you focus on what to do next without thinking about what you did wrong the last time?  The process of Appreciative Inquiry has answers for these questions.  Several years ago I was fortunate to be able to take a class with David Cooperrider, the organizational development psychologist who innovated AI.  I remember a story he told us about the experience that initially led to this process.  As a young 24 year old doctoral student he was assigned to work with Cleveland Clinic doing a conventional organizational diagnostic assessment.  Impressed with what the hospital was already doing, he was reluctant to ask questions about what was wrong with the organization.   He didn’t see anything that he needed to fix.  So instead, he decided that he would ask questions, such as:  What makes this hospital so great?  What is it that you all do to contribute to the hospital being able to do what it does so well?

The response to these questions was surprising to him and led to the first principle of AI, which is referred to as the Simultaneity Principle.  This principle suggests that inquiry creates change.  What Cooperrider found was that the very act of asking these questions created positive change.  As the organizational members thought back about what they did well they became energized and excited.  And, as they reflected on these things they asked themselves more questions, such as:  Why don’t we do more of that?  Why did we stop doing that?  Why don’t we go back to doing that?  As a result, on their own they started doing these things!

This led to another principle of AI, the Poetic Principle.   This principle suggests that what we focus on grows.  When the organizational members at Cleveland Clinic focused on what they did right, they were motivated to do those things more.   If you have ever noticed that when you become aware of something that it seems to pop up every time you turn around, then you can understand how this works.

So the next time you are trying to figure out what to do next, definitely don’t dwell on what went wrong and DO ask what went right!  Try asking these questions:  What went well?  Why did it go well? How can I build on what went well?  Try asking others for their feed forward instead of their feedback.

If you find that you can’t get past something that really did seem to go wrong and the questions about what went right don’t seem to hit the mark, then ask:  Can I eliminate the aspect of the project that didn’t go well and develop the parts that did?  Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  You can usually drop something that didn’t work the way you had hoped and focus on that part of it that did.  We have a tendency to think that when something is not going well that nothing is, but that is rarely the case.

Has there been a time when you asked the question “What went right?” instead of “What went wrong?” that helped you move forward?



Dr. Lynn K. Jones
Certified Personal and Executive Coach



  1. Shersy on May 22, 2011 at 1:56 am

    What a great article. Thanks for the tips. We have some large projects coming up and I like the idea of keeping it positive to maintain the momentum.

    • Santa Barbara Coach on May 22, 2011 at 2:01 am

      Sounds great, Shersy! I think you will find that keeping it positive does help keep up the momentum. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Linda Menesez on May 22, 2011 at 2:24 am

    Great post, Lynn! There’s way too much negativity in the world, and we don’t want to bring it into our own lives. Thanks for helping us keep a positive focus when we want to move forward on our personal & professional goals. Sometimes we all need help in quieting down our inner critic, and I’m glad that you are there to provide that help.



  3. Santa Barbara Coach on May 22, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Sometimes all someone needs is a nudge to move forward positively. It is amazing how we frame the questions we ask can help make that shift. Thanks for your positive support!

  4. KymberlyFunFit on May 22, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Hi Lynn:

    Interesting principle that I will implement in my next class and project. I had not thought of the aspect of Simultaneity and the questions themselves promulgating more positive change. My kind of momentum! Thanks for the post!

    • lynnkjones on May 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      Let me know how it works out with your class! It is exciting that simply asking the right question can create change. If you are talking about a fitness class, for example, you might want to ask: “What worked well for you the last time you took a fitness class.” We are so oriented to think about our failures, that it probably never even occurs to them to think about the successes.

  5. Cliff Walters, MD, EMBA, ACC on May 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Lynn,

    Great blog. I have used this technique in a large medical clinic with the middle managers. Over 12 months, they went from mediocre to the top performing clinic in their entire university organization. Their patient satifaction rates were at an all time high. When we assessed it, “What did you do right?” . . . it was all about the application of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. They are all asking different questions and it is pushing positivity and different quesions into the trenches. The clinic culture shifted!



    • lynnkjones on May 22, 2011 at 4:13 pm

      What an exciting story. I know you have been working on this project for a couple of years, so congratulations! When an effort like this is consistently used, it does indeed result in shifting minds and cultures. It thrills me to hear this story. Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Calla Gold on May 22, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I love it! We really do tend to focus on the negative, the what went wrongs, in life and business. We spend time and energy trying to fix those things instead of focusing on what actually did work. Thanks for sharing such great information!

  7. lynnkjones on May 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    So true, Calla, that focusing on the negative has a big cost–time and money! Now that is a great bottom line argument for asking what is right instead of what is wrong!

  8. Jan on June 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Recently I was on a dinner committee for a non profit. One person was very negative and it was very difficult to work with her. She complained to me about what the group was doing wrong. I saw that she had great ideas and contributed to the success of the event, so I tried to promote the good things she brought to the group. I try to look at the positive side and how we can improve too. I will share this article. Great insights!

  9. lynnkjones on June 2, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Excellent, Jan! Were you able to get her on a more positive track with your approach?

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