Nearly 20 years ago Paul Z Jackson and I were writing the first business book on using Solution Focused (SF) approaches in management and coaching – published as The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002, second revised edition 2007) . We found that, in order to move beyond the therapy context of helper-helpee, we needed to reconceptualise the ideas of SF away from a two-part dialogue into ways in which team leaders, facilitators, managers and others might use the ideas in different settings. This led to our SIMPLE principles, and our six Solutions Tools – pieces of conversation which were not based simply on a question to be answered but on chunks of conversation around a particular topic.
One of these tools is ‘Future Perfect’ – discussing life with the solution in place, or (in the old pre-SF 2.0 days) the problem vanished. I had an email last week asking about the origins of the name of this tool, and it’s worth a blog post to expand on why we chose Future Perfect and why I still think it’s a good name.
Future Perfect is, of course, the name we gave to conversations based on the miracle question (or other future-oriented starting points). The idea is to get descriptions of life ‘the day after the miracle’ – when suddenly the problem is resolved, or the client’s best hopes are realised. This is more than just the miracle question – it’s a whole piece of work with lots of building, details, different perspectives and so on. It’s a very distinctive piece of work which is not found, in the same way, in other approaches. So, we thought it deserved a name of its own. It’s not a goal (although to some people it looks like one), so a different name makes the distinction between this future description and a normal goal.
Why did we choose Future Perfect? Several reasons.
- It’s a grammatical play on words. There is a tense in English grammar called the future perfect, characterised by the form “I will have(done something)”. So it’s a past take on the future – “I will have completed my degree by this time next year”. It’s about moving into the future and looking back (as opposed to the simple future tense – “I will complete my degree next year”). This is precisely what the miracle question does – asks the client to ‘beam into the future’ (albeit only to tomorrow) and then look around them for signs of change.. It’s not a perfect (ho ho) match, but there was enough similarity to appeal to the punning funsters that Paul and I are.
- It’s not a goal – so if we call it something different, people will not confuse it with a goal. A goal, much used particularly in the business/organisational world, is a target, a result with a timescale. It is used to measure success – has the goal been met or not? This is not the purpose of the Future Perfect conversation, which is to discover and enrich descriptions of ‘how would we notice things have improved’.
- It is (potentially) about things being ‘perfect’ – at least, the things relating to the Platform or topic of conversation. The thing about a miracle is that it can bring anything at all to pass. So, the possibility of having a conversation about what ‘perfect’ would look like (or 10 out of 10 on a scale, to put it another way) is very real. In normal goal setting and organisational talk, the topic is not usually ‘perfect’ but ‘achievable’ – what could we actually aspire to? The Future Perfect cuts through this – it’s not a goal, so there is no worry about being judged against it.
- It’s a very incisive tool – you can use it to cut through the fog of the problem and get right to what’s really important. The phrase ‘preferred future’ – used by some SF folk – just doesn’t cut it for me. A preference is about whether I want sugar in my coffee or not – not a bold leap into a new and emerging future. The phase ‘preferred future’ is still around, and I still think it’s weak and feeble.
- We wanted to get away from ‘miracle’ in the title of this tool. The miracle question is of course one way of launching a Future Perfect conversation – but there are others. A time-quake is one – where time slips and suddenly it’s six months ahead. Another is a magic wand, or something magical in the coffee. The key point is that a sudden, unexplained and inexplicable thing happens which somehow causes things to be resolved. This is asking the client to make a leap of imagination, it’s a creative process. So, getting past the miracle into a broader concept made sense to us.
This idea of broadening the concepts and tools of SF work was a central part of the book. So, rather than look simply for ‘exceptions to the problem’, we introduced the idea of Counters – things that count/matter – which includes example of the Future Perfect happening already, useful resources, skills, co-operation and anything else which is connected to movement in a useful direction. There’s another story about why we chose the name Counters for this (hint – it’s nothing to do with the thing shop assistants stand behind), but that’s for another day.
Thanks to Nick Burnett for asking the question and forcing me back in time to revisit all this.
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