James Lovelock CH CBE FRS – author, scientist, environmentalist and futurist – celebrates his 100th birthday today. I first came across Lovelock’s work in the 1970s and was at first annoyed, then puzzled, then impressed, and finally inspired by his life and work. I am inspired not so much by the actual work for which he is best known (the ‘Gaia hypothesis’) but more by the way he has gone about his life and work and his own commitments to those around him and to keeping going. In this short article to celebrate Lovelock’s centenary, I’d like to try to shed a little light on his life and what I have taken from it.
James Lovelock was born on 26 July 1919 in Letchworth Garden City, north of London, in modest surroundings. His dislike of authority made him an unhappy school pupil and he could not afford to go to university – which he later said prevented him from over-specialising and therefore helped him in making cross-disciplinary breakthroughs like Gaia. During the second world war he ended up studying chemistry at the University of Manchester (initially as a conscientious objector, though he changed his stance followed news of Nazi atrocities) and followed this up with researching into the shielding of soldiers from burns. Lovelock refused to use the rabbits provided for this research, preferring to experiment on himself!
Following a post-war PhD in medicine, Lovelock worked for two decades at London’s National Institute for Medical Research. He carried out original work on cryogenics, and started to invent equipment to support his research, including the electron capture detector, a very sensitive way to look for the presence of gases. Engaged by NASA in the early 1960s to work on the Viking programme of Mars landers, Lovelock showed that life (on Mars) could be found not by looking for traces similar to life on Earth but by a much more general method of seeing whether the Martian atmosphere was in disequilibrium (being disturbed by life). In the end, the Martian atmosphere was found to be stable – so no life. However, use of the same thinking and detectors resulted in the discovery of the impact of CFCs on ozone depletion in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Gaia hypothesis emerged from this planetary thinking. Lovelock proposed that the Earth and all its living and non-living components formed a single interacting system which provided (at least thus far) a self-balancing environment, that can be thought of as a single organism. The name Gaia came from the Greek earth goddess via his neighbour and author William Golding, who pointed out that a good name would be important. Lovelock followed this up with his Daisyworld computer simulation, showing how fluctuations in white (reflecting) and black (non-reflecting) daisies could self-regulate temperature. While this hypothesis was accepted by environmentalists, it found less acceptance initially with scientists who didn’t like the concept of an ‘organism’ to be stretched in this way.
With his living expenses taken care of by royalties from the electron capture detectors and other inventions, Lovelock set up as an independent scientist in his barn/research station on the Devon/Cornwall border. He writes, pursues his own interests without interference from university funding proposals and continues to develop his ideas on the future of Earth. He is a strong proponent of nuclear energy as a low-carbon power sources, and is in favour of geo-engineering as a way to tackle the climate crisis. Both of these are (unfashionably) large-scale tech solutions which are out of favour with many environmentalists. His latest writings (Novacene, 2019) discuss how artificial intelligence will eventually combine with the planet’s natural mechanisms to provide a home for electronic, if not human, life.
I read Lovelock’s book Homage To Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (Oxford University Press, 2000) when it first appeared. I love the idea of being an independent scientist. Lovelock described how his ‘pot-boilers’ (way of steadily making money) allowed him to develop new ideas, and I have striven to follow his example. In my case, my early career in management development and in particular teaching corporate trainers about ‘accelerated learning’ methods gave me a good income to support our efforts with Solutions Focus and later Host Leadership. It’s a great privilege to be able to follow my own interests without needing permission or funding from other people.
I also admire the way in which Lovelock takes somewhat contrary positions, backing his own reasoning. He is loved by many in the environmental community for proposing Gaia, and at the same time they dislike his principled stance on nuclear energy. The scientific community were wowed by his instrument inventions but appalled (to start with) at this hippyish proposal that the whole Earth is (or at least can be taken as) an organism. This latter position is now less controversial than it was, with earth systems science an important and growing field. I too have been a long-term supporter of nuclear energy (where I started my career in the 1980s) and have felt the disapproval of friends who (lazily in my view) take a whole group of different causes as one – CND, anti-apartheid, trades unionism, vegetarian, anti-business, anti-big tech (but pro small-tech like smart phones), anti-nuclear energy. I’ll make up my own mind, thank you.
James Lovelock and I are both scientists. I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘recovering physicist’. This always gets a laugh, with its sideways glance at the difficulties of alcohol addiction. It’s only partly a joke though; having had a strong science education to PhD level I have a low tolerance for those who poo-poo science, those who steal and twist its language in their own interests (‘energy facilitation’, anyone?) and those who don’t share my interest in using words as precisely as possible where science or logic are concerned. Only last week, I was asked whether in change management it was necessary to involve top management at the start. Yes, it’s a good idea. Yes, it can pay dividends. Yes, if you don’t do it you may run into difficulties later. But necessary? For something to be necessary it must be present in every single case. So no, it’s not necessary – there are examples of successful work without it. (I have learned since my PhD that not every question is about physics, and that there are many aspects of life to which science is not the answer.)
Lovelock keeps on going, developing his thinking, writing about it and making interesting interventions. I hope I can do the same. Happy birthday James and ‘lang may yer lum reek’ (as we say here in Scotland).
Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He proudly continues the tradition of working as an independent scientist and seeks to show people how things they thought were very hard can in fact be tackled with a counterintuitively modest amount of awareness, skill and capability. http://sfwork.com
Top of the news today in the UK is the story of Isabelle Holdaway, the 17 year-old who has recovered from a serious infection untreatable with antibiotics using ‘phage therapy’. Phages are viruses that eat bacteria. They have been known for a century or more, but have not been seen as a potential mainstream treatment in most circles until now.
As you are probably aware, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’ are a growing problem. Bacteria evolve, just like all life forms – and so it’s only natural that as time goes on, then evolutionary processes will result in bacteria which are adapted to survive antibiotics (which don’t evolve). Phages, being viruses, also evolve, which is what makes them so interesting and useful; as superbugs evolve, then so do the phages which attack them. What makes the Isabelle Holdaway case so interesting is that this is the first time that phages have been genetically modified (deliberately) to make them even more effective in a particular case.
Way back in 2002, Paul Jackson and I featured phage treatment in our book The Solutions Focus. It was very little known at the time. I was pleased that we could both spread the word about this interesting and different form of treatment, and also show it as a great metaphor for Solution Focused (SF) work. Here is what we wrote back in 2002:
There is a close parallel between the antibiotic and phage approaches, and conventional and Solutions Focused methods in organizations. Just as the antibiotic attacks many strains of virus, the popular business and organizational theories work quite well in many cases. In both the phage and solutions approaches, the solution that fits the situation is uniquely and efficiently selected from the whole swirling complexity of the starting point – be it the organization wanting change, or the bucket of sewage.
I’ve just happened across a copy of of Astrid Vermeer and Ben Wenting’s book Self-management: How it does work (Reed Business Information, 2016) (thanks to Andy Lippok). The book is based on the experiences of setting up and running Buurtzorg, the home and community care providers who have been very successful in building a network of independent nurse teams which organise themselves with very little input from ‘managers’. Vermeer and Wenting worked with Buurtzorg founder Jos de Blok, and are well-placed to share their experiences as well as setting out clearly how this model of self-organisation works, and what might get in the way of it working.
My eye was immediately caught by the emphasis on communicating with the Solution Driven Method of Interaction (SDMI), which forms a central strand of the process. As someone who has for over 25 years been interesting in the methods of Solution Focused (SF) practice, a communication framework developed from the work of solution-focused brief therapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (see for example The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching & Change SIMPLE by Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, second edition 2007), I was immediately keen to examine exactly what characterised SDMI and how is compares with SF.
The authors start by saying that SDMI is a style which ‘is concrete enough to allow all members of the organisation to apply it easily, but that nonetheless offers so many possibilities that it can also be used to solve complex problems’ (p. 111). Sounds good. They go on to distinguish between problem-oriented and solution-oriented working – even better. Some key distinctions made are (and I have tried to preserve the author’s words as far as possible in these summaries):
|Problem-oriented working||Solution-oriented working|
|Investigate the problem, look for its causes and then look for solutions on the basis of this information||Takes the present as the start and looks forward to consider solutions in the future|
|Look at who is to ‘blame’, what you no longer want or what you want to avoid||Look chiefly at what you DO want, what you can do to improve the situation, and who or what is needed in order to achieve that|
|Work towards ‘coming up with a good description of the problem’ – which may take time||Work towards ‘reaching a decision’ – as quickly as possible, to get people feeling comfortable again|
|Focus on analysing the past||Focus on analysing the current and future situations and making a plan of action based on this. Analysing the past is sometime useful if a solution can’t be found immediately|
The authors go on to talk about these principles of SDMI:
- Conscious choices and responsibility
The assumption is that people are able to make conscious choices and are therefore able to take responsibility for their actions. The more you make choices ‘consciously’ the less things ‘happen’ to you and the less you end up being surprised by unexpected consequences. This is not to say that people always want the responsibility… but in a self-organising team it’s a key element of how things work.
This is not (of course) about being addressed as Ms X or Mr X! Or even saying ‘with all due respect’ followed by a condemnation of the previous speaker. It’s about wholehearted acceptances of differences between people. It’s only when these differences are accepted that we can get to a place where everyone is viewed as having something to contribute to a discussion, based on their own background. These differences (in say experience, training or education) may make one person more suited than another to certain tasks and activities – but that doesn’t mean that someone ‘deserves’ a lower or higher position as a person.
- Active energy
When we get into a situation that feels uncomfortable or unpleasant, we want to take action. We want to feel comfortable again as soon as possible. That’s good thing, as combined with an SDMI approach we can get things moving relatively quickly. Some people may choose ways which are comfortable for them but not constructive in their colleague’s eyes – perhaps blaming their mistakes on external factors. Even here, the authors argue, there is a certain type of active energy – the person wants to turn away from the problem.
Five points to note in working with SDMI
The authors helpfully give these five points to prepare for discussions about change. There is no right order to these, they say, and they are interrelated.
- Goal: what do you want to achieve?
- Position: what do you have responsibility for? What can you decide for yourself? What can’t you? What are your skills??
- Working method: how are you going to achieve your goal?
- Communication method: communicating with each other in a clear and respectful way.
- Time: how much time do you have to achieve your goal – is there a deadline? How much time do you need? (p. 115-116)
SDMI and Solutions Focus (SF)
As many readers of this blog will know, Solutions Focus first appeared as Solution Focused Brief Therapy with the work of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg leading the way in the late 1980s. The key element has much in common with SDMI – making the starting point about what people want, rather than what’s wrong or broken. This can have an energising and co-operative impact, with the shift in focus drawing the participants together as well as moving away from blame and complain. There is then the ‘so are you prepared to do something’ part, where those involved are invited to take an active role in moving forward (as opposed to waiting for others to act, or for things to somehow change on their own). In the world of therapy in particular, this was a radical stance thirty years ago and it continues in many places to be seen as a heresy; the idea that people cannot move forward until they have addressed the ‘inner causes’ of their strife hangs around like unhelpfully like the smell of kippers in the afternoon.
The principle of respect is also a key part of SF work, although we tend not to talk about it in such an upfront way. Making sure everyone has a chance to contribute their voice, that different perspectives are welcomed, that everyone is listened to, that everyone is seen as their own unique self (‘Frank says he’s been having a tough time of it lately’) rather than as a diagnosis or cypher (‘37 year old male with depression…’) are all key elements of the practice. We also take care to accept, acknowledge and affirm the experiences of all involved – the idea is not to try to decide whose side to be on, but to be multi-partial, to be on everyone’s side, in helping build conversations about positive change.
Possible extensions for SDMI (if desired or useful)
As I read it, Vermeer and Wenting are saying that SDMI is taught and used in Buurtzorg as a normal and everyday way to work together, particularly to resolve issues or conflicts and make decisions. This is an excellent way to go about things in my view. SF, in its original therapeutic guise and now as an approach to personal and organisational change, was originally designed in the context of very tough situation indeed, where people were totally stuck, didn’t know what to do or think, and everything seemed impossible. Most everyday management situations are not, thankfully, like this. However, there are some extra elements in SF which might find some occasional use in SDMI where things are particularly difficult:
- Looking at what’s working
Establishing a shared idea of what’s wanted is only one element of SF practice. Another key piece revolves around looking at what is working already, rather than what is wrong or not working. It is easy to persuade oneself that because something isn’t working, everything has to change. This is not normally the case at all – in fact, it is surprising quite how much of what’s happening now is valued, useful and worth keeping, even in difficult moments.
One practical way to do this is with a scale from 1 to 10. 10 is taken as ‘we’ve reached the better future with regard to this topic’, and 1 is something like ‘things are as bad as they could possibly be with regard to this topic’. Asked this question, people will very often say 2 or 3, and may well say 5 or 6. Whatever they say, the follow-up discussion is then ‘how come it’s a 3 and now lower? What’s working already?’. This produces a solution-oriented discussion of the past and present. It’s good to keep a list of all the things emerging – these may be the basis of new actions to take matters forward, or at least a reminder that the team are not entirely useless. As above, this kind of discussion usually has an energising and co-operative impact.
- Affirm people’s contributions, qualities, skills and strengths
As these solution-oriented discussions continue, it can become easier to see quite what valuable contributions are being made by different members of the team. The team manager or team coach can ease tensions and help people feel valued by looking out for things to affirm and saying something like “Joanna, I am impressed with the way you always want to do the best for your clients. Thank you. And Fred, it seems to me that you are a real stickler for accuracy in reporting, that’s very useful.”
Often we find that people get upset or start to withdraw if they are not being valued, or they don’t hear that they are making a contribution. Valuing these contributions, qualities and strengths is a human way to engage people. Two things can extend from this; firstly, the team coach must put on a set of appreciative eyes and ears in order to be looking for things to affirm, which sets up a constructive position from the start. And secondly, if we can establish a norm where the team members affirm each other, that just builds the sense of mutual responsibility and support. (By the way, my experience is that even if the giving of affirms is built into a routine, the impact of these is not devalued!)
- Look for small steps and experiments
SDMI looks to take decisions by consensus, according to Vermeer and Wenting. This is an admirable goal – decisions reached in the face of considerable opposition are unlikely to bring long-term harmony. (Just ask 48% of the UK about that right now!) Consensus means reaching agreements and decisions within the team with support from all, which of course means handling and working with objections and concerns. Vermeer and Wenting’s book is very practical on this topic (and indeed overall) with lots of good how-tos presented and pitfalls discussed within the idea of self-managing teams.
In my experience, two things can make consensus-building easier. One is to look for smaller actions rather than larger ones; the sense is then of gently exploring and finding ways forward rather than taking giant leaps. In difficult circumstances, look for even smaller steps, with reviewing and further discussion once they have been taken. The second and complementary approach is to treat these small steps as experiments – we are trying this out to see what happens, rather than we are going o do this for ever and ever irrespective of the consequences. Both of these make it easier for nervous or unconvinced team members to agree or at least acquiesce to the actions proposed.
Self-management: How it does work is an excellent book. It is based on actual experience of developing a thriving and successful self-managing organisation, it is thoroughly practical with lots of specific how-to practices, and it is blissfully free of high-falutin’ and idealistic talk about the future of work, much more focus on the here-and-now. It makes no claim to be the only way to self-organisation, but powerfully asserts that self-management is not only possible, it’s practical and it’s here.
The high profile given to SDMI within the book is a useful reinforcement of how what’s wanted, rather than what’s wrong, is such a powerful starting point for teams and organisations seeking to move forward together. The traditions and techniques of Solutions Focus offer useful ways to expand and build from this where things are proving difficult or stuck.
de Shazer, S. (1988). Clues: Investigating solutions in brief therapy. New York: WW Norton.
Jackson, P.Z and McKergow. M. (2002/2007). The Solutions Focus. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Vermeer, A. and Wenting, B. (2016). Self-management: How it does work. Amsterdam: Reed Business Information
We are very happy to share this excellent presentation of a webinar given by Mark McKergow for SFIO, along with a download of his paper on the topic. It’s a great package which will be of interest to anyone working with Solutions Focus ideas in any field. Take a look now!
“We are delighted to share with you this video of the SFiO Online Global Chapter meeting featuring Dr. Mark McKergow talking about his concept, “SFBT2.0”. We have edited the video to feature Mark’s presentation only.
We are indebted to Annette Gray for running this Chapter meeting; while it was broadcast for the Asia Pacific region, it captured a global audience.
One of our best hopes in SFiO is to maintain a library of Solution Focused material for practitioners working with or in organisations. While Mark’s talk is on SFBT, there are a lot of valuable lessons for organisational practitioners, hence its inclusion in InterAction. As Annette mentions, if you want a summary of SF history in one place, this video is that place.
You can also download Mark’s article, “SFBT2.0 – The next generation of Solution Focused Brief Therapy has already arrived”, (see PDF below), which seeks to consolidate developments in SFBT over the past decade. Mark concludes that we have already seen the arrival of a new form of SFBT, focused firmly on descriptions and even simpler in form that the original SFBT developed by Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and colleagues and that this Version 2.0 as he calls it, is not a new therapy but an important evolution of existing practice.”
The UK Association for Solution Focused Practice (UKASFP) has launched a new and very worthwhile podcast series. The host, Alun Parry, really does his homework and the five issues out so far all over in-depth insights into different aspects of SF practice. You can also subscribe from your usual podcast provider.
SFWork’s Dr Mark McKergow was very honoured to be offered a chance to be interviewed about ‘SFBT 2.0’ – the latest development in SF work which seem to be evolving into a subtly new form of practice. It’s free to download and a great listen!
I was recently contacted by Andy Shone of Southpac, who provide training to the airline and other safety-critical industries from their base on Australia’s Gold Coast. Andy was initially interested to discuss our work on host leadership, but in a context I hadn’t previously known – ‘Safety II’. Some of you will know that my pre-consulting background was in the nuclear power business here in the UK, and even after moving on from there I devised and ran safety leadership courses for senior managers in the industry in the 1990s and early 2000s. What’s more, there seem to me to be some very interesting connections between Safety II and the work we’ve been doing in Solutions Focus over the past 25 years. What an exciting connection!
One way to start to explore Safety II is to read the White Paper published in 2015 by Erik Hollnagel, Robert Weirs and Jeffrey Braithwaite. Safety II is described as ‘ensuring that as many things as possible go right’, as opposed to the conventional Safety I view that safety is about ensuring that as few things as possible go wrong. Whereas Safety I is about preventing accidents, promoting Safety II means knowing more about what makes and keeps things safe, running smoothly and without incident. This latter is, of course, what happens the vast majority of the time but goes under the radar of most safety professionals. Here is a key table introducing the differences between these two views taken from the White Paper:
|Safety I||Safety II|
|Definition of safety
|That as few things as possible go wrong.
|That as many things as possible go right.
|Safety management principle
|Reactive, respond when something happens or is categorised as an unacceptable risk.
|Proactive, continuously trying to anticipate developments and events.
|View of the human factor in safety management||Humans are predominantly seen as a liability or hazard. They are a problem to be fixed.
|Humans are seen as a resource necessary for system flexibility and resilience. They provide flexible solutions to many potential problems.
|Accidents are caused by failures and malfunctions. The purpose of an investigation is to identify the causes.
|Things basically happen in the same way, regardless of the outcome. The purpose of an investigation is to understand how things usually go right as a basis for explaining how things occasionally go wrong.
|Accidents are caused by failures and malfunctions. The purpose of an investigation is to identify causes and contributory factors.||To understand the conditions where performance variability can become difficult or impossible to monitor and control.
This is a really fascinating development – in the same way as our shift from problem to solution focus, or the shift in software development from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ methodologies. For starters, here are just three of the things that strike me about this shift in viewpoint.
- There is a very strong analogy between the shift to Safety II and Solution Focus. In SF we don’t think that’s what’s wanted is simply the opposite of what’s wrong. Building solutions is about finding what’s wanted (not what’s not wanted) and then finding ways to notice and build on what’s already working that connects with it (usually by taking small steps). The various practical tools and approaches developed by SF practitioners over the past 25 years could therefore be useful in building the practice of Safety II (Future Perfect, scaling, appreciation, small steps, noticing vs doing, etc).
- In Safety II the difference between safe operation and an accident is seen as small. Most things work most of the time, and even in serious accidents many things happen correctly. There is an important philosophical point about causality wound up with this – Safety I is based on a causal links view whereas Safety II looks from an emergence perspective where the idea of one thing simply and inevitably causing another is seen as misleading and naïve. Trying to isolate and prevent ‘errors’ and ‘unsafe acts’ is therefore a somewhat fruitless endeavour, since often these are safe acts which are occurring in unusual circumstances and contexts.
- In the table above, I am struck by the difference in the perceived role of people. In conventional safety, much can be attributed to ‘human error’ and therefore the goal can be to remove people (and the variability they inevitably bring) from the process as far as possible. Automatic safety systems are therefore seen as the answer. ‘Making the people follow the procedure’ is the aim. Within Safety II, people are an important source of resilience – they can respond to unforeseen events and bring flexibility and creativity to dangerous situations. The computerised swimming pool lifeguard is not on the agenda!
No-one is suggesting abandoning Safety I. However, the advocates of Safety II think that the next level of improvement will come not from more rigorous applications of those ideas, but rather with the arrival and integration of Safety II ideas. There have been several books on this published over the past five years, and interest is starting to grow around the world. I wonder how Solutions Focus practitioners might be able to add and strengthen this movement?
The conversation with Andy Shone is progressing and he’s invited me to go to Gold Coast to lead a three-day deep dive into Safety II, host leadership and SF. Join us on 14-16 November 2018!
Dr Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work (sfwork), based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the co-author of four books on SF in organisational change including the best-selling The Solutions Focus (now in 11 languages). His latest book is Host: Six New Roles of Engagement (Solutions Books, 2014) about leading as a host, not a hero or servant.
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.
I was very excited to be invited to Bulgaria as the keynote speaker for Reinventing Organizations 2017. This fascinating and participative one-day event was hosted in Sofia and featured many great speakers from within Bulgaria and further afield. I set the stage by giving a 20 minute talk on ‘Working WITH change’ – ways to move away from linear approaches which assume that organisations are like machines and can be re-engineered, towards methods like Solutions Focus which assume that change is happening all the time and embrace it. I talk about ‘five myths of change’ and debunk them to leave instead five ways to work WITH change.
The video is now online – you can watch below. My talk starts at 12.00 minutes in, and is in English. Enjoy and let me know what you think.
I was lucky enough to be invited last week to a meeting of the Scottish Institute for Business Leaders (SIBL). Over the past 15 years, Drew Pryde has built this organisation into an extremely valuable mix of leadership development, combining learning from others (using outside speakers) with a flow of action learning and peer group reflection. (Anyone who joined one of our EDGe groups or SFCT chapter meetings will be familiar with the general idea!)
The speaker on this occasion was Lance Ramsay (pictured with me above), until very recently General Manager of the Bakerloo line on London Underground, who spoke about “Key Insights in Transformation and Leadership”. Lance has been at the sharp end of a number of transformation programmes with London Transport and TfL, and he was keen to explore the distinctions between ‘change’ and ‘transformation’.
There were various views in the room about this (of course). Lance came up with a very interesting possibility – that change is motivated by the past, whereas transformation happens from the future, using the energy of a new possibility to create something not just ‘better’ but in some way fresh. Lance put up this statement:
“Transformation – the business of reinventing an organisation from the perspective of a future point with an aim to change culture, values, beliefs and behaviours, and discover (rather than create) a new way of working.”
My eye was very much caught by the last piece of this definition – ‘discover rather than create’ a new way of working. I think this is worth a closer look.
In some philosophies of change the future can be ‘created’. This phrase crops up all over the place – I think I might have first seen it in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline in the early 1990s. It seems to me to come from a re-engineering perspective, where the future is ours to create in whatever image we wish. It’s a bold idea, of course, and at least invites us to a position where we have some role in building a future for ourselves rather than it just happening to us. (This was a dominant view in previous ages – we’re just watching series two of The Crown on Netflix, which is all about ‘doing your duty and making the best of it’ in the 1950s.)
What’s wrong with the idea of ‘creating the future’ – at least from an emergent systems perspective – is that there are so many unknowables and uncertainties along the way. We can set off with hope in our hearts (very important) and then so many things can happen, out of our control or influence, that set us off track. Or perhaps they set us onto a different track? Henry Mintzberg wrote about the difference between ‘designed’ and emergent’ strategy decades ago, and it seems that this distinction is still an important learning point for the new leaders emerging today.
What’s even more interesting here is the use of the alternative verb ‘discover’ the future way of working. Discovery implies that we don’t know about it beforehand… that there will surprises and unexpectedness, that there may be novel delights and newly significant differences. This seems to me to be much more in the spirit of emergent change processes in general, and of solution-focused (SF) processes in particular. In fact, many of our SF conversations are about how might you notice that things are transformed, rather than what will you DO to transform them. The whole process is one of discovery and iteration – Lance Ramsay was very keen to stress the importance of iterating and keeping going.
Some uses of the word ‘discover’ imply that something was there all the time – we say that Alexander Fleming ‘discovered’ penicillin, which is to say that he was able to find it, notice its properties and make use of them. Presumably the penicillin mouldy fungus was already around – but not known, seen or identified for what it was. In the case of organisational transformation, I don’t think it works like this. The new ways of working we discover were always possibilities – albeit outside our mainstream awareness. In this case, the possibilities emerge into some kind of actuality over time and with iteration, rather like a sculpture emerges from a block of granite or a painting onto a canvas.
The kind of noticing in which I like to engage my clients is a very creative noticing. It’s hard to notice something before we are aware of the possibility of a distinction, and so having language around possible distinctions is a key part of helping this process along. French scientist Louis Pasteur said ‘In the field of observation, change favours only the prepared mind’, and the twin elements of preparation and observation seem to go hand in hand. So when we set out to discover the future, knowing which clues to look for is an important component.
It’s well worth thinking more about the possibilities inherent in the ‘discover the future’ paradigm. What might you discover at work tomorrow? And who might you invite to help you?
Mark McKergow PhD MBA is an international speaker, author, and consultant. He is director of SFWork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His latest book is Host: Six new rules roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books, 2014).
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.