The useful side of ‘simple’ – avoiding complication bias with Solutions Focus

One of the counter-intuitive aspects of working with Solutions Focus is the way we focus on small, everyday, detailed language, even in complex and messy situations. There is a great power to helping people look at the small details – partly because it helps them turn intention into action, and partly because it helps to avoid ‘complication bias’.

When Paul Z Jackson and I wrote The Solutions Focus book (nearly 20 years ago now!) we built it around the acronym SIMPLE. Not only did our six key principles of SF work fit these initials, but the whole focus of SF is to ‘stay simple’ and not get drawn into complex theorising, assuming and debating but instead to listen to what people had to say and stick with it. This also avoids ‘complication bias‘.

This is the way that most people seem to prefer complicated ideas to simple ones. There is something impressive about lots of long words presented confidently that has many of us nodding along – but might in the end either be confused, manipulative or downright wrong. The ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine above is a humorous example of a complicated machine to do a simple task, but this phenomenon can have debilitating outcomes. Paul and I were impressed by the way in which SF work not only helps to avoid this, but actually gets things moving and changing without it. We referred to a study from the 1960s in our book – “The Bavelas Experiment” (The Solutions Focus, 2nd edition, pp 13-15):

“There are three areas where it is worth taking particular care to stay simple: 

  • Theory – setting aside theories and assumptions which are not confirmed in this particular case
  • Language – tackling vague language which can hide useful details
  • Imagination – avoiding using our imagination to infer ‘hidden’ (and unhelpful) facets beyond those we observe.

When we do anything more complex than is necessary, we may be serving an interesting theory, but are doing a disservice to the people involved in the issue.

We prefer straightforward words, stories and viewpoints that illuminate what works in this particular case.  The rest is ignored.  Although this may sound obvious, it is far from common practice – and, as the following story reveals, is probably not even our natural inclination.

Bewitched by the complicated:  The Bavelas Experiment

In a classic psychological experiment, first conducted by Dr Alex Bavelas (reported in Paul Watzlawick, ‘How Real Is Real?’, Random House, 1976), a series of two volunteers are asked to work out the differences between healthy cells and sick cells. They go to separate rooms, and volunteer A – let us call him Adam – is shown a series of slides of cells, with the instruction that he must learn to distinguish the sick from the healthy by trial end error.  After each guess, the experimenter gives Adam a signal, letting him know whether the guess was right or wrong.

Adam receives true feedback – the signals from the experimenter correctly tell him how he is doing.  After a while, Adam (and the other As) learn to distinguish the cells and generally score about 80 per cent.

Meanwhile, in the other room, Brian is also guessing whether each cell is healthy or not.  But B’s feedback is independent of his own guesses since he receives exactly the same signal as A – that is, his feedback depends on A’s guess.  This means that B is in fact incapable of discovering the order he seeks.

A and B cannot see each other’s trials and they are unable to communicate with one another until they are eventually invited to discuss their findings. 

A’s rules are simple, based on his sensory observations and the feedback he receives.  The Brians, however, offer a much more complicated theory based on their tenuous and contradictory hunches.  At this point something curious emerges. 

A does not shrug off B’s ideas as unnecessarily complicated or plain absurd. They are impressed by the subtlety and complexity of B’s theory and evaluate their own as naively simple and inferior by comparison.  Before taking a second test with new slides, the subjects are asked to say who will improve most over the first test results.  All Bs and most As say that B will. 

In fact, B shows hardly any improvement, but A, who has taken on at least some of B’s complicated theories, performs significantly worse the second time round.

The experiment shows not only that simplicity can be good, but also demonstrates the attraction of complication.  While you will aim to keep the routes of The Solutions Focus as simple as possible, you will encounter many lures to make your task far from easy.  

One of the temptations along the way is to assume an ‘expert mind’, choosing from a few possibilities, with a pretty sure idea in advance of what is going to work.  Too often, this is how organisational experts work, and too often the results are disappointing because the approach misses the significant differences of the particular cases.

There is, for example, no one ‘right’ way of looking at organisations:  different views may fit the facts just as well.  In finding what works in complex territory, it is helpful to adopt the beginner mind, so as to entertain a variety of views of the situation.

It isn’t always easy because we can be distracted from our search by theories, complicated language and metaphors – the ways in which we naturally talk and think – which draw our attention into arid areas.  Just like the Bavelas experiment volunteers, we can also be distracted by people who arrive with an ‘expert’ label and a persuasive way of telling you just how complicated your organisation must be.

This element of Solutions Focus is becoming even more important in the latest developments, with a stronger focus on helping clients to create descriptions of better futures, presents and pasts. My new book The Next Generation of SF Practice (Routledge, 2021) will show the developments through time and details of current practice.


Jackson, P. Z. and McKergow, M. (2007). The Solutions Focus: Making coaching & change SIMPLE. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2nd edition)

Ways to try something new: ‘McKergow’s Matrix’

As some of you will know, I am Chair of Sunday Assembly Edinburgh, the city’s ‘secular congregation’ which meets twice a month (at the moment) to do church-like things without religion.  We sing, hear poems and inspiring talks, reflect on how we live life and how we can live it as fully as possible – our motto is Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.

Our assembly on 1st November was on the theme of Happier Living, with speaker Simon Wallis talking about the 10 Keys To Happier Living framework produced by Action For Happiness.  We agreed that rather than try to talk about all 10 keys, Simon would briefly introduce them and then focus on one in particular – trying new things.  This was Action  For Happiness’ theme for the month, and they published an excellent monthly calendar with ideas for every day.  (They do this every month, with different themes – excellent and well worth looking at.)

The assembly was excellent, and we continued to discuss how we might try new things.  It struck me that the boundary between ‘new’ and ‘old’ is actually rather fuzzy.  I did an MBA degree many years ago and learned about the Ansoff matrix for product and market development.  Inspired by this, I improvised a framework for different ways to try something new:

One of the key aspects of working in a Solution-Focused way (an approach I’ve been using and developing for nearly 30 years) is to ‘do more of what works’.  So, the first option for trying something ‘new’ is, in fact, to think about things you’ve enjoyed and found beneficial but have somehow stopped doing – trying an old thing in an old way (again).  Maybe you used to take 10 minutes of mindfulness before breakfast but since you changed job it hasn’t been convenient to do it?  Maybe you enjoyed getting your watercolours out and taking an afternoon painting in the countryside?  I think searching back for things that have helped you before and revisiting them is a great way to do something new – indeed, the fact that it’s helped you in the past is a good reason to think it might be useful again. 

Stretching out a little, something that helped you in the past can be up-cycled by trying an old thing in a new way.  Perhaps that mindful moment might make more sense at the end of the day, rather than before breakfast?  Maybe watercolouring from photos in the warmth of your own home might be more appealing?  Or perhaps it’s time to have a go with oil paints?  The list of variations is very long indeed, all building on something that worked for you at some point and could be worth revisiting. 

The third box is about trying a new thing in an old way.  So rather than being mindful before breakfast, you could maybe take a walk around the block instead?  Or go outside for the afternoon and birdwatch rather than paint?  Fit something new into an existing ‘point’ in your day or week, which already works for you.  So if you enjoyed doing evening classes about film appreciation, try an evening class about medieval architecture or writing poetry. 

The fourth and final box is about trying a new thing in a new way. This is the biggest stretch of all, and is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we are asked to think about ‘new’.  So, this might be about trying hill-walking or even Munro-bagging rather than morning mindfulness, or video performance activism in the street rather than country watercolours.  Whatever is grabbing your attention at the moment is well worth investigating. 

However, as we have seen above, there are lots of ways in which new things can come in somewhat more familiar guises.  And even if it’s something really new for you, think about what you can gather about the way you might approach it. Maybe you learn well with others, perhaps with someone who does this kind of thing already?  (It you are taking up parascending, I recommend this heartily!) Or perhaps you like to team up with a fellow novice (perhaps a friend) and explore together? Or maybe  you love to read up on something before trying it.  Or even write directly to the world champion and ask for advice? (I was out with Jenny at Cramond near Edinburgh yesterday, and we saw some amazing balanced stone sculptures which had been made earlier in the day by the European Stone Stacking Champion… who knew that was a thing, let alone that we have an expert right here in Edinburgh?)  

So, ‘try something new’ is an excellent idea to expand your life. And it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from revisiting the old to a totally new concept.  Perhaps you can have take the simple matrix above, which some of my Sunday Assembly colleagues have started to call McKergow’s Matrix, fill in each box with something relevant to you and then see which is the most appealing?

Dr Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work (sfwork) based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He brings new ideas into the organisational and leadership field which are effective, efficient, counterintuitive and humane, and is currently developing work on post-heroic leadership ( and micro-local community building ( His book The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice will be published by Routledge in April 2021.

The sting in the Rose Garden – how Dominic Cummings used a double bind to suspend reason

The sting in the Rose Garden

How Dominic Cummings changed the rules of debate while his oblivious audience nodded along

Mark McKergow

In all the analysis and discussion of Dominic Cummings’ Rose Garden statement, one curious sentence has so far gone unremarked, even in the filleting of the wordsmithing by legal commentator David Allen Green. Towards the end, Cummings says this: “I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this.”

This looks like a generous admission of uncertainty, an acknowledgement of conflicting demands, and an olive branch towards critics. He adds “of course” to make it sound even more like an innocent and everyday acceptance of the difficulties of his position.

It is nothing of the kind.  Cummings has pulled what therapists call a ‘double bind’ on us all.  Once we accept this statement, as has everyone did on the day and in subsequent debate (including Nick Robinson interviewing Health Sectretary Matt Hancock on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:18:31), there is no way out.  Cummings’ position is unchallengeable.

It works like this.  We have agreed that there is room for reasonable disagreement.  Therefore any ‘reasonable’ disagreement cannot be decisive, as there is room for it without changing position. Any ‘unreasonable’ disagreement, however, is as unimpressive as it always was.  The only other options are to agree or to say nothing – both of which accept Cummings’ position.

So no amount of disagreement, reasonable or not, can change the situation as offered by Cummings.  What he has achieved, in relation to his own position, is to dismiss reason (and presumably its trusty sidekick logic) from the field of play.

The double-bind communication paradox was first noticed by anthropologist and systems thinking pioneer Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto California in the 1950s.  It has been employed for decades in strategic and systemic therapies as a way of looking at stuck situations and a means of producing new responses in those suffering mental ill-health.

I had no idea on Sunday afternoon that Dominic Cummings was about to employ it to hoodwink us all into suspending logic and reason from interfering with his family adventures. I hope that by shining a light onto his sleight of hand I can make journalists, interviewers, commentators and citizens more aware of what is being done, and how, in our name.

Mark McKergow is an author, speaker and consultant. He is currently working on a book about the development of Gregory Bateson’s ideas in the therapy world for Routledge.

Thursday 28 May 2020

Mark McKergow’s ‘Greatest Hits’

The McKergow MatrixI have been asked to collect up all the various models and frameworks I’ve developed over the years, alone and with others, for quick and easy reference. Here they are!  Enjoy browsing this little slice of history.

The ‘McKergow Matrix’ – Progress or explanation focused? (see pic on the right) 

The Albert Model (aka the Solutions Focus model) (with Paul Z Jackson)

OSKAR coaching  (with Paul Z Jackson)

Six Solutions Tools (with Paul Z Jackson)

Host Leadership (original paper) 

Host Leadership: Six Roles (with Helen Bailey)

Solutions Focus 2.0

Solution Focused work as Focused Description Development (with Chris Iveson)

Narrative Emergence (with Gale Miller)

Users Guide To The Future (with Helen Bailey and also Peter Roehrig)

The art of Platform Building (with Jenny Clarke)

Nine Keys to Accelerated Learning (with Paul Z Jackson)

Stretching The World: a friendly explanation of Solution Focused practice

IFlow – time management you’ve got time for (Roy Marriott with Mark McKergow)

PARTNER – SF and conflict management (Antoinette Oglethorpe with Mark McKergow)

MAGIC negotiation (Roy  Marriott with Mark McKergow)

Rutenso – the art of working with constant change 

Solution Focused Reflecting Team (John Henden, Harry Norman and the Bristol Solutions Group) 


I am aware there are other things I’ve developed but that aren’t (yet) written up properly – what else would you like to know about?


Keeping going in time of crisis: Luc Isebaert’s ‘Three Daily Questions’

Here is one small idea which might be very relevant in the coming weeks – Luc Isebaert’s ‘Three Questions’. Luc was a pioneer of using Solution Focused ideas with people who could only think short-term (alcohol abusers initially) and came up with these three questions to help them value and recognise what was useful to them in their immediate environments. As we enter a time of great uncertainty, I suggest these questions might be useful as a way to focus daily on our immediate surroundings and what we value and want to keep hold of.

1. What have I done today that I am happy with?

2. What has someone else done that I am happy with (or grateful for)? And how did I react? (So that the person might be encouraged to do it again?)

3. What do I see around me – hear, feel, smell, taste – that I am happy with or grateful for?

Please feel free to share and use. Luc was a great man, a friend and colleague, and he would wish us to use his work in whatever way helps us tackle the situation today.

New video: The User’s Guide to the Future as a coaching tool

Peter Roehrig and Mark McKergow led an online webinar for SFiO about applying the ‘User’s Guide to the Future’ (from Mark’s book Host) as a coaching tool. The webinar is now available online, and is packed with useful ideas. Mark explains the concept and framework of the Users’ Guide, which helps people to take huge ideas and quickly bring them into focus as coherent small actions.  Peter has added a couple of very useful elements to the framework to make it even more useful as a coaching too.  Peter demonstrates this by coaching one of the webinar participants. We then hear feedback from the coachee, and there is a discussion.  This is a valuable resource for any coach working with people who want to translate ideas into focused action.


Building scenes and stories with improv – Adam Meggido leads the way

Adam Meggido – Improv Beyond Rules: A Practical Guide to Narrative Improvisation

Nick Hern Books 2019, £14.99pb, ISBN 978-1-84842-731-0

Book review by Mark McKergow

With this experienced-packed and well-written book, Adam Meggido instantly raises the bar for everyone involved in long-form and narrative theatre improvisation. Every page has a multitude of ideas to explore, and with 284 pages that’s the basis for a lot of exciting, fun, daring work in the rehearsal room and on stage.

London-based Adam Meggido is probably best known as the co-creator and director of the Olivier Award-winning Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. He has also worked with improvisers all over the world, teaches at LAMDA in London and also in scripted drama (directing the West End hit Peter Pan Goes Wrong amongst others). Here he sets out to explore how to create great improvised drama (reminding us of his mentor Ken Campbell’s exhortation that improv must aspire to be better than scripted shows), with a strong focus away from the quickfire Whose Line Is It Anyway type of format and onto longer, more sustained and ambitious work.

Meggido has performed in over 1000 Showstopper! performances, along with years spent in practice sessions (yes, you DO have to practice to be spontaneous), and this wealth of experience shines through in every paragraph. The main part of the book splits into three sections: the Moment, the Scene and the Story. The secret of narrative improvisation (and its cousin long form, which has a pre-determined structure) is to be able to work on these three levels simultaneously. Taking each element in turn, the author explores the practice and dynamics involved and presents a multitude of exercises, games and ideas to build more compelling and vital threads on stage.

The title of the book – Improv Beyond Rules – is revealing. Fromm the outset Meggido rails against the simplistic rules which are routinely offered as the basis for improvising. This of course makes for a spicy read from the off. The author implores us to take these rules not as rule per se to be kept at all costs, but as guidelines which can be varied in service to the unfolding story. For example, the well-known rule of ‘Don’t Say No’ is morphed into a more subtle context-dependent idea where there are many levels of saying ‘No’ which may come into play as the character, relationships and emerging storyline develops. Everything is context-dependent, and it is this realisation which makes this book such a valuable source of potential in the world of narrative emergence where nothing is (totally) fixed, things change and appear all the time, decisions are made, relationships forged, broken and retrieved, and nothing is ever the same twice. (Meggido is quite explicit about this, talking about the time he started with the ‘same’ performers, characters, location etc and ended up with three different stories.)

The book really flourishes in the sections about the Scene and the Story. The sections about Status, Rank and different ways to combines these endowments open up vast possibilities. Likewise the description of Ken Campbell’s ‘Numbers Grid’ opens up another set of new angles on using space, as well as personality, to create relationships and direct audience attention; this section is worth the price of admission on its own. Meggido is full of ideas for practicing narrative improvisation out-of-sequence, with (for example) the ending done first, before the beginning and middle are added. Every new idea is explained concisely, illustrated with a couple of relatable examples (Macbeth, Legally Blonde and Star Wars are all used on multiple occasions), and then the reader is encouraged to try things out for themselves.

So why am I, a leadership consultant, coach and jazz musician, writing about this book? To start with, I’ve been interested in improv since watching, videoing and then wearing out the tapes of Whose Line some thirty years ago. The energy and thrill of great improv, even in short form, is addictive, and I get it in the jazz club as much as the Comedy Store. I think improv is a great coaching skill ((and life skill too, come to that). But seeing Showstopper! took my awareness of this skill onto a whole new level. I’ve seen it more that a dozen times over the past six years, and it’s always amazing, in a way which is very hard to pin down.

Adam Meggido is addressing some of the fundamental questions about how we live (and can live) our language-saturated lives. Science writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart posited some years ago that our species, rather than being called homo sapiens, would be better named pan narrans – the story-telling ape. The story we tell, live and make constitute our lives in ways which overarch and embrace mere physical, genetic and physiological qualities. I’d like to pull out three points from this book which are worthy of wider consideration.

Firstly, Meggido shines a light on the minutiae of how we enter and participate in relationships. This is not the kind of light you read about in psychology texts and problem pages, it is (to me anyway) a much more fundamental and practical look at how we present ourselves, how we react to others and how that can change and turn as time goes along. Want to know about how to _do_ (as opposed to ‘be’) high status and yet engaged with people. There are clues in here. Want to know about (and therefore be able to recognise) the difference between someone who’s a trickster, a helper, a guardian and a nemesis? That’s in here too (again with helpful examples).

Secondly, he is quite clear that as human (and in particular as pan narrans), we as the audience can follow the developing narrative as it emerges. We don’t need it explained. We don’t need a helpful psychiatrist to assist us in ‘joining the dots’ of the story, even if it comes out of sequence. It’s a great human quality to make sense from a series of scenes, and we routinely do it effectively.   (Whether the sense is always the most useful sense is of course another story). This is a key aspect of my work in Solution Focused coaching – our coaches describe a series of scenes in their lives (from past, present and future), often in an ‘out-of-time-sequence’ way. That’s it. As coaches, we don’t need to explain the new narrative, join the dots for them, interpret their words in a clever way – as fellow members of pan narrans, that’s precisely what they CAN do for themselves. It takes patience and professionalism not to jump in – but that’s the art of our work.

Finally, Meggido touches on what is for me an even bigger question. Is the improvised story revealed, or is it created? Lots of people like to think that it’s revealed – it was always there and the performers have now made it clear. One might say the same about Michelangelo’s statue of David- it was always there in the marble, all that the sculptor had to do was remove all the extraneous bits and boosh! There it is. It’s a tempting thought – but wrong. Clearly (and it’s particularly and starkly clear in the case of narrative improv theatre) the story is created, a step at a time, by skilled performers paying close attention to one another and carefully using the possibilities that emerge on the night. It seems to me that a good and satisfying story has the appearance of being revealed – it all hangs together, it all makes sense, how could it possibly be any different? And many people seem to take comfort in the illusion that it was ‘ever thus’, that it was all predetermined, that the gods always had this in mind, that finally the truth will out. Except that it’s only the truth with this precise sequence of events, and other truths were (and are) available.

Does it let you do a Showstopper! show right off the bat? No, that will take a great deal of time, trust, calamities, rehearsal space, tea and biscuits. Also there’s nothing here about how to improvise songs, learn about different musical styles, organise a band to improvise an accompaniment and keep going for more than a decade. Whether you’re buying this book to explore the nature of life’s performance or, at least, to be a better narrative improviser, you will find it absolutely packed with stage-tested wisdom, activities and possibilities. Adam Meggido shines a light on narrative improv and a whole lot more. This book is surely worth a place alongside Keith Johnstone’s Impro and Viola Spolin’s Improvisation For The Theater on the improv bookshelves of tomorrow,




New from Mark McKergow: The Host Leadership Field Book is now available!

We are very excited to announce that the Host Leadership Field Book is published today and available world wide in paperback and Kindle formats.  This collection of 30 chapters shows Host Leadership in action all over the world in many settings including business leadership, agile, education, social care, coaching, virtual teams, volunteer organisations, organisational change, conflict resolution, training, community building and leadership development.

The Host Leadership Field Book, edited by Mark McKergow and Pierluigi Pugliese, Foreword by Helen Bailey. Published by Solutions Books on 12 November 2019 in paperback and Kindle formats. ISBN 978-0-9933463-3-0. 276 pages. Paperback £12.99/US$17.

“Puts Host Leadership at the forefront of leadership development approaches, where it deservedly belongs” Paul R. Scheele, PhD. in Leadership & Change, CEO, Scheele Learning Systems, co-founder, Learning Strategies Corporation

“Crystal clear distillations of a key leadership practice suited for our times” Chris Corrigan, global steward, Art of Hosting community of practice

“The key principles of hosting that will help you effectively and quickly build cooperation, trust and results” Dr Ivan Misner, Founder of BNI and NY Times Bestselling Author

Judging success from the 2019 UN Climate Summit: look for next steps, not long-term goals

The United Nations Climate Change Summit is going on in New York as I write. World leaders, activists and experts are gathered to make another push towards tackling the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg has made an impassioned speech. Donald Trump decided to go to another event on religious freedom. The struggle goes on.

What are we to make of it, the vast majority of us not in New York but following the developments with more or less sense of frustration? Much of the discussion seems to focus on goals; when are we aiming for a carbon-neutral? The UK Government under Theresa May was shifting to a goal of carbon-neutral by 2050. The Scottish Government (where I live) is ahead of that – aiming for 2045. Others fret about the fact that China is still building coal-fired power stations (which will presumably operate for decades). Yes others point to the millions employed around the world in carbon extraction and refining, and wonder how they can be helped to transition into other fruitful work, in the energy sector and elsewhere.

Let’s look at this situation from a Solution Focused (SF) perspective. Agreement on the direction of travel – decarbonisation – seems to be becoming increasingly clear. That’s our platform, the general thing we’re hoping for. The precise goal – 2050, 2045, whatever – is much less important. Things will happen between now and then – events, developments, breakthroughs, crises – which will buffet things one way and another. In SF we don’t really work with goals – they may be there or not, but the key thing is useful change – movement in broadly the right direction today.

So the key success measure for the UN Climate Change Summit should not be the goals (welcome though movement in that direction might be), but the immediate next steps. What is happening by the end of the week that would not have happened otherwise? Who is doing what? Who is connecting with whom? What new impetus is there? The risk of agreeing goals is that politicians could mistake the agreement for the action. The current generation of world leaders will be long gone by 2050 – who will be taking accountability?

And it’s not just next steps that we must be looking for – it’s steps in a newly coherent direction. I wrote a while ago about the difference between SF and ‘Kaizen’, the ancient Japanese art of making gradual improvements. That’s a valuable thing to be doing – but simply taking small steps along a well-trodden path is not particularly brave or innovative. SF work promotes the crystallisation of small next steps in a new direction, with a new awareness, with new purpose.

So by all means let’s support the Climate Change Summit and those participating. And look for new awareness, new directions and small next steps. Here’s one area where the goal is not the point.

What makes Solution Focus work beautiful? New podcast appearance from Mark McKergow

Dominik Godat and Elfie Czerny have been going around the world their minibus Hearty, interviewing all sorts of people about Solution Focused work.  They have finally reached Scotland, and the latest podcast episode is a (very well edited and produced) conversation about Mark McKergow’s latest work on ‘what makes SF work beautiful’.  In this 40 minute conversation Mark discusses SF work as an aesthetic – like a school of art – in that what we find beautiful is not the same as in other fields of practice.  It’s a great conversation – check it out!

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