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.

Reference

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

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