How Ole Gunnar Solksjaer leveraged Appreciative Inquiry to overturn despair and raise Manchester United's game to new levels.
As a soccer enthusiast, I’m celebrating the dramatic turnaround that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has effected at Manchester United (ManU). As Solksjaer tirelessly recants ManU’s heritage and harks back to the days of attacking soccer, his style seems almost simplistic and under-stated compared with the complex strategising and micro-management practised by his predecessors Jose Mourinho, Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes. If anything, he seems to have taken a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s playbook. Maybe Solksjaer is on to something: delve a little deeper and you’ll see a fundamental truth at play behind ManU’s resurgence.
Peter Drucker, the godfather of modern management, said it succinctly: “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” He was prescient in understanding that organizations overcome their weakness and succeed when they work in an aligned fashion to leverage their unique strengths. David Cooperrider crystallised the ‘strengths-based approach’ into the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) method that even today raises the hackles of many hard-boiled Organisation Development (OD) theorists, who label Appreciative Inquiry a naive and unrealistic approach to chronic organisational challenges. After all, if the issue is complex, the solution has to be complicated, right?
Solksjaer has helped ManU re-discover a ‘strengths-based’ approach to playing and winning. A strengths-based approach asks, “what’s the force multiplier we get when we focus and build on the talents and capacities of people, versus focusing on weaknesses that can only be worked around?” This flips the traditional ‘deficit-based’ approach, which focusses on things that need fixing. While Solksjaer encouraged his men to enjoy soccer and built his strategy around their strengths, his predecessors focussed on areas that were perceived to be weak or problematic, ignoring what was working well and bringing success. His philosophy is that the past glory and heritage of ManU that inspired him and his team-mates to dizzy heights in their playing days should be used to motivate the team. No surprise therefore that with the same squad and no new budget, Solksjaer has turned around ManU’s fortunes, culminating in an impossible win over a strong Paris Saint Germain team, with 10 of his regular players unavailable due to injury or suspension! Solskjaer won more Premier League games in 2 months, than previous coach Jose Mourinho did the entire season. His players testify to his positive approach even in adverse circumstances, an example of which is Luke Shaw’s post-match interview when his mistake led to ManU losing a crucial FA cup quarter-finals match.
Appreciative Inquiry is based on the premise that individuals and organizations grow in the direction of the questions they ask. So, it asks questions like “what gives life here?” – questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to enhance the positive potential of its people. In the true spirit of Appreciative Inquiry, Solksjaer is paying attention to the best in his people, not the worst; to their strengths, not their weaknesses; to possibilities, not problems. He recognises that the ManU system has things that are already working and captures them so they can be amplified for the benefit of the team. In leveraging Appreciative Inquiry as part of his leadership toolkit, Solksjaer has demonstrated how leaders can help raise their peoples’ game to new levels.