My attention was drawn recently to this blog about the issues faced improving professional practice in schools in Australia. First amongst these issues is the possibility of ‘solution-itis’, a disease afflicting those who wish to implement ‘solutions’ without properly examining the problems. As the blog puts it:
Solutionitis’ happens when schools are so focused on using ‘evidence’ that they jump to a potential solution without first analysing the students’ learning problem.
My correspondent in Australia, the estimable Nick Burnett from Brisbane, was interested to hear my thoughts. How does this connect to Solutions Focus (SF)? Does this mean that SF practitioners are guilty of solution-itis on a regular basis, assuming they are not interested in analysing the students’ learning problem. This is an interesting question, which I will seek to answer here.
In SF, it’s correct to say that we don’t see much value in analysing problems as a route to producing progress. We are much more interested in what’s wanted (in the future) and what’s working (in the past and present) that connects with the preferred future. However, that’s not to say that we are blinkered to the kind of change that’s desired – far from it, the definition of ‘better’ is a key piece of SF work in most cases.
The thing that the blog is objecting to is when over-eager practitioners seize on ‘evidence’ (from some trial or pilot) that a particular intervention will improve results, and then proceed to implement it in their own school without thinking about how it fits, what they are seeking to achieve, and what difference they are hoping it will make (and whether that is a valuable difference). That sounds like a not-very-good idea to me, although I am always encouraged when I see people inclined to experiment and adapt in their work.
There are two key SF principles in play here. The first is the importance of ‘building a platform’. In SF, we usually start by having people consider the current situation and build a platform for the work – what are they seeking to be better, the benefits of that, who is interested to participate, what gains are hoped for. This is a kind of ‘project definition’, and forms the basis for the work to proceed – after all, if nobody wants anything better (or different, at least), then there is no work to be done!
The difference between SF and more problem-focused alternatives is that we don’t see a necessary connection between what’s wanted (the better future) and the causes of what’s wrong now. So, a conventional problem analysis is not necessary, and may even make things worse by distracting attention and effort from more fruitful lines of enquiry such as ‘when are these things better already, even slightly’.
The other principle relevant here is that ‘every case is different’. The fact that something works in one place is not a guarantee that it will work everywhere else. While we as keen as the next person to try things out, this should be done with paying attention to how well the new thing will ‘fit’ with everything else. Maybe it could be implemented as-is. Maybe it needs tweaking to fit better in the new school. Maybe it should be rejected entirely – at least for now (there being either no demand for the anticipated change, or it interferes with other more important priorities for the time being.
So, SF practitioners are not prone to solution-itis. On the contrary, they are very well equipped indeed to recognise it and to find better and higher-value ways to proceed in improving professional practice – in schools, in businesses, in hospitals, in public service and elsewhere.
Dr Mark McKergow is the director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work (sfwork), based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He works with managers, coaches, consultants, facilitators and change agents to apply SF principles to organisational change and coaching. The benefits of this are working with tough situations in an agile and inclusive way to build progress quickly and efficiently.
Mark teaches the Solution Focused Business Professional certificate course with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. This 16-week online course includes everything from the basics of the SF approach, using the basic tools, applying these tools in various situations and expanding the ideas into leadership, complexity, evaluation and more. It attracts participants from all over the world, ranging from experienced consultants to those new to management. The next course started 22 October 2017 – click here for details.
I am very delighted to announce that there is a new leadership book on the scene! ‘Inspiring Leadership’ has been written by a group of the Ashridge faculty, taking in different aspects of contemporary leadership thinking and scholarship with particular connection to leading in a VUCA (volative, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. And it includes a chapter on Appreciative Leadership from Mike Brent and me!
This chapter brings together different aspects of appreciative traditions, and includes some very practical ideas about how to stay appreciative in tough times, as well as the benefits of doing so. The chapter draws on Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology as well as Solutions Focus. As a taster here is one short extract, about using one single word – “Suppose”:
This is a very useful word in the leader’s vocabulary. “Suppose” is a word which invites people into a different world – one where things are a little different. Exploring this different world can illuminate all kinds of possibilities. It is a two-syllable gateway to creativity, an invitation to join in a discussion on a different basis to the usual everyday real-world need for facts and accuracy.
Another way to think about this is in terms of using the term, “What if….”
As in saying, for example, What if something was different – what would we do then? This is a useful thing to do when the way ahead is unclear, and new ideas are needed.
- “What if… we had double the budget, what would we spend it on?”
- “What if… we had no money at all next month, how might we keep going?”
- What if… we found a way to get instant customer feedback?”
These are all invitations to explore an alternative reality, to extend our thinking and to draw people together in a novel way.
Some people worry that by asking “Suppose” or “What if”, they are implying that the thing might (or even must) happen. This is of course not the case – as long as you make it clear why we are supposing something.
(The next section gives practical down-to-earth tips on how to do this!)
I hope you will want to check out the book, with this chapter as well as many other fascinting contributions. See the book on Google Books, or check it out on Amazon. There is a Kindle edition available which also saves money. Here is the complete contents list:
With Chris Iveson of BRIEF, I have published a paper which seeks to set out a new focus for the way solution-focused (SF) practice has developed and will continue to develop. Here is the abstract:
We present a potential new view of solution focused brief therapy (SFBT), based on the development of descriptions in therapy conversations. This version of SFBT leaves out many accepted aspects of the model, so far, including: tasks, end of session compliments, exceptions to the problem and compliments. We address the issue of theory in solution focused practice and make a distinction between theory as mechanism and explanation – a ‘scientific’ approach, and more philosophical theory which can act as a useful guide to attention for practitioners. We point to potential connections between this view of SF work and recent developments in the field of enactive cognition and post-Wittgensteinian philosophy of mind, including narrative philosophy.
The paper is published as
Iveson, C. and McKergow, M. (2016). Journal of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Vol 2, No 1, 1-17
And what’s more, you can read it online at
Last week I took part in a fascinating online summit. Canadian colleague Martin Rutte had invited many transformational and inspirational leaders to discuss the topic of ‘Heaven On Earth’ with him. Those who know me well will know that this kind of overblown (to British ears at least) talk usually doesn’t excite me – but I’ve known Martin for many years and am keen to support his work.
Martin invited me to talk with him about the power of small steps. What emerged in our 40 minute conversation amazed us both: a clear, insightful and energizing look at exactly HOW a small step can be so powerful. We covered how small steps work, and I produced a new model of ‘5 Ways To Recognize A Great Small Step’ to help the listeners put together some impactful steps for themselves.
Great news – this recording is now available here for download. It’s free, and you don’t have to give any details – just download, listen, enjoy and learn. And if you like it, sign up here for more blogs on the subject of solution-focused (SF) coaching and practice.
Just to let you know, the recording is so great that Peter Szabo (author of Brief Coaching For Lasting Solutions with Insoo Kim Berg herself) emailed me four times WHILE he was listening to it! So join us now and make some great small steps in your own life.
Update 22 November 2016: You can also download a transcript of the conversation (which will take less time to read than listening to it!).
The small print: This interview is part of the Co-Creating Heaven On Earth Event a free online event featuring innovative luminaries offering insights and practices for creating a true Heaven On Earth. For more information, please visit http://heavenonearthsummit.com/. This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights
Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change
Gervase R. Bushe and Robert J. Marshak (editors)
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015, 496 pages, ISBN 978-1626564046, £45.89 hardback (Kindle edition available)
Review by Mark McKergow
Even though solution-focused (SF) practice has its roots in therapy, it has for some years been increasingly used in the field of coaching, team coaching and organisational development (OD). The first two of these area have been the subject of a lot of attention and several books, many of them reviewed in this journal over the years. The area of OD has received less attention in the SF world.
Even though SF offers both a lens to look at OD (every case is different, focus on language, take small steps, do more of what work whatever that turns out to be) and a way to do OD (using familiar SF tools like scaling, future perfect etc), there have been relatively few reports of large-scale SF organisational change work. The Solutions Focus Working casebook from the SOLWorld community (McKergow and Clarke, 2007) and interviews with Susanne Burgstaller (McKergow, 2015) and John Pelton (Brooker, 2015) show this kind of work in action, and Susanne Burgstaller’s book Lösungsfokus in Organisationen: Zukunftsorientiert beraten und führen (Burgstaller, 2015, still only available in German) is an excellent introduction for those lucky enough to be able to read it.
So why am I telling you all this at the start of a review of another book – Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak’s excellent and ground-breaking Dialogic OD? Because Bushe and Marshak are both aware of SF work as a dialogic (as opposed to diagnostic) practice, and have produced a remarkable collection of chapters which sets the move from diagnostic to dialogic work into a much bigger OD context. The opening chapter lists some 40 different strands of dialogic OD work, from the familiar (Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, World Café) through historic (talking stick, Stafford Beer), to the emerging (Art of Hosting, Theory U). And, to my delight, they have included Solution-Focused Dialogue in their list. So many lists of these practices seem to miss our community, and it’s very refreshing to see SF up there with the others.
The 17 chapters in the book range through introductions to dialogic practice (with helpful tables showing distinctions from diagnostic practice), and both theoretical and practical elements. The theory comes from the likes of Frank Barrett (known to me for his work on improvisation and jazz along with Appreciative Inquiry) and Ralph Stacey (whose complex responsive process framework connects well with our idea of turn-taking and turn-making in conversations). All these chapters have a nice ‘starting from first principles’ feel to them. The authors have usually written much before on these topics, but here they start at the beginning without assuming familiarity – which makes the book an exceptional primer. To give an example, this is a juicy and relevant snippet from Frank Barrett’s chapter ‘Social Constructionist Challenge to Representational Knowledge’ about the link between knowledge and action:
Plato and the Enlightenment philosophers held that the highest form of knowledge is contemplation. In that view, we contemplate and then we act. But social constructionists propose that the arrow is reversed. We act into the world, we engage with things we care about, and then reflect or contemplate. Knowledge is an activity rather than an internal representation. (p.70)
What a pithy and relevant statement! The book is crammed with insights and pieces such as these which, while not new, make clear and helpful connections between the thinking behind dialogic work and the way it comes into practice.
The second and longer part of the book is concerned with practice. The chapter by Tova Averbuch on ‘Entering, Readiness and Contracting for Dialogic OD’ is outstandingly useful. Averbuch looks squarely at all the practical difficulties in engaging with clients who may be more accustomed to dialogic work, with greater alleged certainty of process and outcome. She shows different ways to engage with both the situation and the stakeholders, build connection and trust, make contracts and even how to bill when the work appears uncertain and emergent. This is not a cheap book, but for those engaged professionally in OD work this chapter alone provides great value.
I was particulary interested to read Chris Corrigan’s chapter on ‘Hosting and Holding Containers’ with its potential connections to my work on host leadership. Corrigan is a long-term expert on thinking about hosting conversation, but as in the theoretical chapters he too holds this expertise lightly and starts from the beginning. A container in this case is not, of course, a Tupperware box but is rather a combination of topic, group, facilitator/host and boundaries. Careful thinking about how these elements interact can make all the difference between effective work and a complete mess, and Corrigan brings the topic to life with stories connecting to initiating, building stability, supporting inquiry and finally ending a container. One simple tip – “If it’s about us, don’t do it without us” gives a flavour of the work here.
There is not space here to go into all 17 chapters. Each one has its own topic and flavour, and the whole work comes together as a unit with Bushe and Marshak’s careful curating and editing. There is also a website, http://www.dialogicod.net/, with resources, articles and details of the book. If you’re engaged in OD and want to think broadly about your work, this is the most important book to appear for many years – a very bold move in a field which has been emerging for decades and yet seems now to becoming more formed and confident.
Brooker, J. (2015). Achieve Tough Targets: John Pelton on using Solution Focus to achieve a tough target and resolve a difficult challenge at HS2. InterAction: The journal of Solution Focus in organisations Vol 7 No 2 pp 97-103
Burgstaller, S. (editor) (2015). Lösungsfokus in Organisationen: Zukunftsorientiert beraten und führen. Heidelberg: Carl Auer
McKergow, M. (2015). From diagnosis to dialogue in Organisational Development: Interview with Susanne Burgstaller. InterAction: The journal of Solution Focus in organisations Vol 7 No 2 pp 104-110
McKergow, M. and Clarke, J. (2007). Solutions Focus Working: 80 real-life lessons for successful organisational change. Cheltenham: Solutions Books
We are in the middle of my new series of SF masterclasses here in London. The first, about ways we can work with the future, was in February, with the next two (working with the past and working with the present) in April and June. After the masterclass I received a message from Steve Creffield, an experienced consultant who participated in our online Solution Focused Business Professional course a few years back. Steve worked with an organisation in 2014, at which point they were in his words “a bit lost, rudderless and very problem focused about their recent past”.
As part of the work, Steve went through a Future Perfect process with them. This is a signature bit of SF process, where the customers beam themselves forward into the better future they are imagining at the time. Steve takes up the story:
“…we used a form of the miracle question to develop a shared destination… the question went like this… “
Suppose…that we were finish our day here and go home…do what we do… and then go to bed… And while we are asleep…a miracle happens… a miracle that transports us forward to the morning of the 10th July 2019… and not only have those years past they have been a tremendous success…but we were asleep so we don’t know that the miracle has happened… When you wake up, what are the first signs that let you know miracle has happened?…. what do you see… what do you notice… what else?… what else… how do others know/notice that things have changed?
The vision that Steve captured for them is below:
The Morning of 10th July 2019
You enter our office and it’s a place that is valued and utilised. It’s clear and clean, it is spacious and it has a distinct identity. It has a buzz about it, people are coming and going, it’s both lively and quiet. It’s a place where you want to be and has a sense of real purpose. There is a CEO who is supported and holding the big picture in mind. The technical team are excellent at spotting opportunities for cross-collaboration, new funding and ways of enhancing our own capacity and that of our partners individually and collectively.
The team are working in multiple project groups who are clear about their remit and committed to the new team Purpose. It’s a team where we know what each other is doing and what strengths everyone has. There is opportunity for progression, peer learning and professional development. It’s a team that values social interaction and spending time together.
It’s a productive team operating under a clear brand that is aligned to our Purpose of ‘informing a sustainable future’. It is a team that is actively pursuing that purpose by researching, disseminating and teaching. It’s a team that is great at sharing and promoting its work, it uses multiple forums and formats to share knowledge and stories of success. It’s a team ready to make a high-quality submission to REF2020 and also capable of high impact policy-relevant outputs. This team has a voice and uses it well to inform a sustainable future.
It’s an organisation that is trusted, rigorous in its approach, sought after and engaged with a wide research and policy network. It is a highly valued ‘independent’ partner, an organisation that has excellent relationships with the University, key donors and clients.
It’s a team who are excelling at:
Conducting high quality, insightful and impactful research,
Applying innovative and rigorous research designs,
Spotting and creating opportunities,
Engaging in policy and research debates,
Communication – in multiple contexts and via different media,
Collaboration with University colleagues and external partners,
Predicting needs and trends,
Synthesising, assimilating and communicating ideas,
Getting things done, on time.
There are lots of great elements here, and lots of ways in which the group is joining with others. I might have been tempted to get a few more tiny details about the very first signs that these things were starting to happen. However, maybe that wasn’t necessary… Steve continues:
What was lovely was going to visit them in their spanking new offices, to meet their new CEO and to hear the news of them winning a host of new contracts that secure their future for some years ahead. I came away feeling both proud of them, pleased with the work, and deeply appreciative for the SF work you and others have done. Looking forward to what the next masterclass brings.
It’s always excellent to hear of useful and successful work! This is an excellent example of how a detailed and desirable view of the future can play a huge role in orienting a team – and being part of them creating better futures for themselves and others in an energising and direct way.
The RSA in London have just released another of their wonderful RSA Animate videos – short talks by key researchers set to customised animations drawn apparently in real time by the ‘hairy hand’. The latest features Carol Dweck speaking on ‘How to help every child fulfil their potential’.
Dweck is well-know for her work on the difference between treating intelligence with a ‘fixed mindset’ (intelligence is fixed at birth) or a ‘growth mindset’ (intelligence develops and changes). This video gives an excellent summary of her ideas and research.
Towards the end of the video, Dweck speaks about the power of the word ‘yet…’. One of the schools she mentioned doesn’t give ‘failing’ students a ‘Fail’ grade – instead they get a ‘Not Yet’ grade. I’ve been teaching this in my accelerated learning workshops since the 1990s, and there is a very solution-focused flavour to the idea.
I think it’s about presuppositions. ‘You’ve failed’ sounds like a statement of fact, once and for all. ‘You haven’t passed yet…’ is much more grounded in the now, and has the presupposition that you might and indeed will pass – in the future. The same phrase can then lead into a conversation about what will happen in between now and passing. It’s so simple to try, and can make such a difference.
Now enjoy the RSA Animate film of Carol Dweck:
I have just started the sixth running of my Solution Focused Business Professional course with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. In the first week, a very interesting question came up from a participant about root cause analysis and what would SF do instead. I thought you might be interested to read it.
I have a question about SF not focusing on root causes of problems (or please correct me if I am mistaken). In intervention research we often look at root causes of problems in order to develop interventions to alleviate social ills. So – if I look at organizations, sometimes there may be a root cause of a problem – such as a mentally unstable leader that leads to significant issues (I know of an organization where the unstable leader would sometimes be rude to major clients in meetings). With SF, I would imagine folks would think of ways to address how to win the clients back, rather than look at the root cause of the problem – i.e., the leader. Likewise, the staff would be creating a lot of extra work having to regain the relationships with clients on an ongoing basis as long as the leader was in his/her position.
Might you speak to how SF would approach the above situation? Thanks so much.
Excellent question! There are a number of points to be made.
1. We are sceptical of the whole idea of a ‘root cause’ in complex/social systems. While this idea works well in mechanical systems, the many inter-relating interactions and dependancies in a complex system mean that trying to find a single cause is a doomed effort – there is so much going on, and it changes all the time so what’s the case today may well be different tomorrow.
2. Even if you think you’ve found such a root cause, it brings with it an element of blame and accusation. In your example it’s all the rude leader’s fault. While this may certainly be a part of the situation, it leads us down a route to thinking that this is the sole cause and that therefore we have to focus on getting the leader to stop being rude. This then appears to be a ‘magic bullet’. Two practical problems – firstly, the rude leader may well not appreciate this attention (and will probably get ruder, especially towards staff members bringing them this news). Second and much worse, it takes our attention away from other possibilities, other people and other routes.
3. SF embraces the ideas of complex systems and emergence – so there are no magic bullets, things emerge a step at a time, and focus on what everyone WANTS as opposed to what is wrong. So, while there may be a rude leader, what do they and everyone else want? This takes the inquiry down a completely different line. So the first step of an SF inquiry on your example would be to gently ask the various people want they want from these client meetings. It would be very interesting to hear what everyone including the rude leader said! Then we can go from there.
4. As we will see in week 4, the idea of a Platform and a ‘customer for change’ is crucial here. Who wants something different? If the ‘rude leader’ wants something different we can work with them. If they don’t but others do (such as the staff who have to do extra work) then we work with them. If the latter, then we start to look at when they get the thing they want (even a little) and what helps to do that. So, it may be that someone notices that the rude leader is more polite in the afternoons (let’s say) – in which case a small step might be to start to hold more of these meetings in the afternoon and see what happens.
As part of my work with the HESIAN research hub at the University of Hertfordshire (http://herts.ac.uk/hesian) I compile a list of recent research into Solution-Focused therapy, theory and practice (link). Part of this involves keeping an eye on what comes up in Google Scholar under the search term ‘solution-focused’.
I’ve been monitoring this quite closely one way and another over the past year or so. One thing I am seeing more and more is the term ‘solution-focused’ used (with a small s and f) as a general term relating to coaching, social work and other caring practices. For example, the definition of coaching offered by the Association for Coaching in 2005:
“Coaching is a collaborative, solution focused, result-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and person growth of the coachee.”
Now, this is not a bad definition of coaching at all. However, there is no indication (and I think no intention) to point to Solution-Focused work as developed by Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and many others around BFTC Milwaukee. To be fair to them, Steve always insisted that his field was called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT for short), as the ‘Solution-Focused’ was an adjective qualifying the noun ‘brief therapy’. However, as the reach of BFTC’s thinking has extended over the past two decades to include the helping professions, coaching, teaching, managing and so on, it has become more common to refer to such work as Solution Focused coaching or whatever. I myself can take a share of the blame for this, having co-authored a book entitled The Solutions Focus in an attempt to draw attention to the more general applications of these ideas.
Recent years have also seen editorial style moving away from using Initial Capital Letters in written prose. The Guardian newspaper’s style guide, a common reference point and a surprisingly fun read, now recommends that terms like prime minister are now rendered in lower case. This is in part because using too many Initial Capitals is Often the Sign Of A Madman writing in Green Ink. (The initial capital is supposed to suggest to the reader that some special meaning of the word is in use, but any more than a few of these is a clear sign of someone attempting to redefine the English language. English, by the way, should still be spelled using a capital E.)
Under these circumstances, it would be no surprise if enthusiasts for BFTC-rooted SF work started writing it as solution-focused. However, this potentially gets confused with the more general solution-focused described above. Other forms of work such as CBT have an advantage here – even if cognitive behavioural is written in lower case, the term is unlikely to be used in a general sense.
Chris Iveson of BRIEF started a discussion recently about whether people referred to themselves as solution-focused or Solution-Focused. I was shocked to see some very experienced practitioners from the SF world being reluctant to identify themselves as Solution-Focused, not wishing to tie themselves to any particular approach. Presumably, they so much wish to help their clients that they are prepared to do anything to achieve that.
I find it quite shocking that there are those in the SF community who are reluctant to identify themselves – possibly skilful mavericks, possibly people who just do whatever they think is right, possibly people who are seriously misguided as to their abilities. If you just do anything, then whatever you do must be right. And this again muddies the waters around what people might expect when seeing a ‘solution-focused’ practitioner.
I am concerned that there is a risk that we may lose sight of the huge progress produced by Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues. In my view, they have shown us a new way forward. Now we have to find a way to build on it without either dissolving into a not-knowing mush or forming bands of brothers/old comrades who are unchallengeable and gnomically diffident. Thoughts please?
Today’s the day! After eleven years of work, interviews, workshops, discussions and writing sessions, my host leadership book is published. The book, written with Helen Bailey, presents a fascinating and practical exploration of leading as a host, leading up to our six new roles (not rules) of engagement.
“A genuinely new view of leadership – practical and profound.” – Jack Canfield
Join us both for our live tweet chat this evening Monday 6 October at 7pm-8pm UK time, #HostLeaderHour. And also follow us @thehostleader.
Our first online course in Host Leadership starts Wednesday 5 November for seven weeks – more news about that soon. In the meantime please enjoy the book and share your thoughts with the Host Leadership community at http://hostleadership.ning.com.