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.