Author Archives: Paul Wood

Identifying Success and Knowing How to Replicate it.

Many of us have broad developmental goals, but how many of us have a really clear idea of how to identify and measure our progress on these goals?  Or where to best focus our attention when attempting to achieve them?  This blog introduces two related questioning techniques that can help people further identify, understand, and build on their goals to identify concrete indications of success and progress.  These are the “miracle question” and “exception question” techniques.

The “miracle question” technique helps identify specific concrete behaviours that can become the focus of change/development work.  It normally asks an individual to imagine that they have gone to sleep and sometime during the night a miracle has happened, the change/development they desire has occurred.  The question now becomes, how would they discover this miracle had occurred once they awoke?  What would be different?  What would they notice?  What else?

“Exception questions” look to identify circumstances in which the desired future is already occurring. These are based on the idea that there are always times when examples of successful behaviour are already experienced.  Exception questions seek to encourage an individual to describe the circumstances in which this occurs, or what was done differently. On this basis the individual becomes better able to consciously repeat what has previously worked and can identify the behaviour that links into their goal.

Let me provide you with a personal example of how these questions can facilitate development.  When attempting to provide one of my brothers with “advice” I would often become overly directive and emotional.  I understood that my response was based on how much I love him, but I also understood my emotion caused a distraction and the directive nature of my advice was reducing his buy-in.  When it came to asking myself the miracle question I was able to identify that if I was calmly dealing with my brother, engaging in active listening, and non-directively exploring options, then a miracle had occurred!  Furthermore, through considering exceptions I was able to identify that this “miracle” experience is exactly what occurs when I am dealing with clients.  I was also able to identify what made dealing with clients so different (e.g., a solutions focus and not feeling a need to protect them from the world!).  These realisations have enabled me to switch my thinking into client mode when dealing with my brother on previously emotive subjects.  I still occasionally slip into a protective mindset.  However, my conscious awareness of what a productive interaction looks like in this context, means it now happens less often and for shorter periods.

My example illustrates how the miracle and exception questions can be used within an informal coaching context.  Yet these questions can be scaled to fit broader organisational development.  As with most things, the skill of using these questions well is belied by their apparent simplicity.  A good way to really get a feel for them is to experiment with them yourself.  Think of your preferred future.  How would you know if the miracle occurred?  What are the circumstances in your life that already closely resemble this preferred future?  I’d be interested to hear how you get on.

Accentuate the Positive

Look carefully at the below equations.  What do you notice?

 2 + 2 = 4
7 + 1 = 8
5 + 2 = 7
4 + 4 = 9
3 + 4 = 7    

 If you are similar to most people you will have noticed that one of the equations is incorrect.  This is what will have stood out to you, not that four equations are correct. 

 The tendency to focus on what is wrong is a common one and one I often encounter when coaching high achievers.  For example, when I go through 360 assessment results with people they generally skim over the positive comments and zoom in on what they perceive as critical.  Sound familiar?

 It is entirely understandable to want to identify and manage the areas in which we have deficiencies.  We need to know about these and manage them if we want to advance and be the best we can be.  Yet we lose sight of positive results to our detriment.  Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, cites considerable research suggesting that building on our strengths has a greater impact on our performance than focusing on our deficiencies.  Furthermore, focusing on the positive does not mean burying our heads in the sand about the things we don’t like.  Taking a strengths-based approach just looks to address developmental issues by better understanding and replicating the ingredients of our previous successes.

 Let’s look at an example to better illustrate how this positive approach works in practice.  In the past I have received 360 results that suggest a significant gap between how different stakeholders perceive my performance in similar areas.  My traditional approach to this would be to try to understand what I am doing wrong when interacting with the lower rating group.  A more positive approach is to instead look at what I am doing right with the higher rating group(s) and then consider how this can be replicated when interacting with the lower rating group.

 As a general exercise for yourself, think about one of the best experiences you have had a work.  What was it that made this experience a good one?  The more concrete and specific you can be the easier it will be to replicate the relevant elements of this experience in future.  For example, if you really enjoyed something that was intellectually stimulating, think about what exactly it was that made that activity intellectually stimulating (e.g., it made you look at old knowledge in a new way or it was challenging to undertake and required a lot of concentration).  Once again, the more concrete and specific you can be the easier it will be to create opportunities for similar experiences in the future.  This will in turn increase the proportion of your work-life that you are truly engaged and productive.

 Once again, the tendency to focus on deficiencies is common.  Yet the research suggests that the greatest returns on our developmental investments will occur when we look to learn from our successes. 

 For more information on Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology visit:

The Importance of Mindsets

What does failure mean to you?  Is it an indication that you lack talent, are dumb, or otherwise incapable?  Or does it suggest an opportunity for growth and development?  Carol Dweck has devoted a lot of time and research to exploring these different mindsets and their associated outcomes.  The former reflects a fixed mindset and is defined by an underlying belief that human qualities are carved in stone.  The latter reflects what Dweck calls a growth mindset and hinges upon the assumption that human qualities can be changed by effort. 

The growth mindset’s belief that success comes from hard work and dedication helps people to conceptualise failure as an opportunity for growth and development.  Alternatively, the fixed mindset’s assumption that success is an indication of innate brilliance creates expectations that talented people shouldn’t have to work hard for success.  This in turn leads to an aversion to challenge, a constant need for external validation, and the avoidance or denial of anything that could result in perceptions of failure. 

There are lots of examples of the disastrous consequences of fixed “talent” mindsets in organisations.  Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s account of Enron provides a great example (The Smartest Guys in the Room).  Enron’s leadership created a culture that worshipped talent.  This led Enron “stars” to constantly feel the need to prove how great they were.  It also led them to be more concerned about appearing deficient than actually addressing shortfalls or questioning their decisions.  We all know how that story ended. 

To see examples of where a growth mindset takes companies you just have to study the success stories in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great.  The manner in which Jack Welch took General Electric from a $14 billion dollar company to a $490 billion one exemplifies the power of the growth mindset.  Welch saw himself as a guide of others, not a judge.  He selected people for their mindset rather than their pedigrees.  He wasted no time communicating his message to GE employees: This Company is not about self-importance, it is about growth.  And he walked the talk.

So what can you do to foster a growth mindset within your organisation?  According to Dweck there are a few steps that really make a difference.  One is to stop thinking and talking about talent in terms of “naturals”, but instead start thinking and talking in terms of potential.  Another is to praise the process that led to success, not ascribe it to innate qualities.  In other words, praising hard work and dedication rather than brilliance or intelligence.  So…good to great, or Enron, the choice is yours.

Collins, J. (2001).  Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t.  New York: HarperCollins.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.  New York: Random House.
Dweck, C., Chiu, C., & Hong Y. (1995). Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A World from Two Perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.
McLean, B., & Elkind, P. (2003).  The smartest guys in the room: The amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron.  New York: Penguin Group.     
Welch, J., & Welch, S. (2005).  Winning.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

The Characteristics Of Exceptional Coaches

Executive level coaching appears a fairly common practice these days.  As someone engaged in coaching at this level I regularly wonder how to improve the service I provide.  In order to increase my own capability I recently attended a workshop on exceptional executive coaching run by Dr Gavin Dagley.  Dr Dagley’s workshop was based upon his findings that there are eight coaching practices or attributes that differentiate the exceptional coach from a good coach.

The first three characteristics held by exceptional coaches form the basis of the working relationship between coach and executive.  These are the factors of credibility, empathy and respect, and holding the professional self.   Credibility is based upon both performance in-the-moment and accumulated experience.  Empathy and respect are important among other factors leading to build rapport and trust.  Holding the professional self refers to the ability to stay in role when under personal or professional pressure.

The next two characteristics held by exceptional coaches are diagnostic skill and insight, and flexibility and range in approach.  Both of these characteristics lead to deeper conversations between the coach and executive.  Diagnostic skill and insight relates to a coach’s understanding of the human condition and an awareness of the systematic issues that may be at play.  The second characteristic regards a coach’s ability to flexibly adapt their approach to the particular needs of the executive and task.

The remaining three characteristics of exceptional coaches assist executives develop greater insight into themselves and an accompanying sense of personal responsibility for making changes.  These characteristics involve working to the business context in which the executive inhabits, maintaining a philosophy wherein the executive retains personal responsibility for change, and skilful challenging of the executive by making them aware of confronting and difficult observations and messages.   

Through experience some coaches will naturally develop and enhance the above attributes and practices.  Yet having an explicit outline of exactly what it is that differentiates exceptional coaches presents an excellent opportunity to identify our own areas for development, and expedient this process.

Copies of Dr Dagley’s findings and other studies in the Exceptional Executive Coaching Series can be downloaded directly from:

So Little Time And So Much To Do: The Impact Of Pacing Strategies On The Accuracy Of Ability Results.

It’s a job you really want and the first interview went well.  Now they’ve got you sitting in front of a computer in a testing room.  You have been given the instructions and tried some example questions.  The administrator has left the room and the ability test has begun.  Seven minutes fifty-nine seconds, seven minutes fifty-eight seconds…there are 30 questions and you now have less than eight minutes in which to attempt them.  Should you devote as much time as necessary to trying to answer each question correctly?  Or should you try and get through as many questions as possible by spending a limited amount of time on each question before having a guess and moving on?

This is a scenario encountered by untold candidates on a daily basis.  How people apportion their time in such circumstances is known as a pacing strategy and it can have a big impact on how well they perform on ability tests

When I teach people how to interpret ability results I suggest they look at the number of questions answered and proportion correct if the results are lower than expected.  This helps identify deflated scores caused by respondents spending too long on early questions and not answering many questions as a result.  The problem with this advice is that it can’t account for people who have realised they are short on time and started rapidly guessing the answers to questions.  Moreover, research has suggested this is exactly what many people do when running out of time on ability assessments (Wise & DeMars, 2006).  The problem with this behaviour is that it reduces the accuracy of test results.

So what can you do to reduce the likelihood that candidates will adopt poor pacing strategies?  Most good ability assessments already instruct respondents to focus on both speed and accuracy.  Perhaps more explicit pacing instructions would be useful.  If candidates have eight minutes in which to answer 30 questions then they have approximately 16 seconds per question.  This is approximate, as easier questions may be answered more quickly, freeing up additional seconds for more difficult questions.  While there are no guarantees that communicating this information will allow everyone to complete all questions, a general awareness of rough time per question may encourage the use of better pacing strategies.  Reasoning tests assess performance in an area believed to be indicative of an underlying ability.  They are not direct measures of that ability.  Therefore the most accurate assessments of that ability are likely to occur when all candidates are given information allowing them to perform to the best of their ability.  Although there will be different and additional considerations for different tests, I would recommend letting all candidates know approximately how much time they will have per question.

This post has barely skimmed the surface of one of many influences that can impact upon the accuracy of ability test results.  What are your thoughts on pacing strategies and/or some of the other potential influences on test results (e.g., distractions, nerves, poorly written questions)?

Wise, S. L., & DeMars, C. E. (2006).  An application of item response time: the effort-moderated IRT model.  Journal of  Educational Measurement, 43, 19-38.