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.
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.
I have just finished running the fourth online Solution Focused Business Professional course with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. The course attracts a group of 10-20 people each time, and as part of the agenda of readings, online discussions, activities, coaching practice and project work we also have fortnightly telecalls to discuss the learning and share questions.
During a recent telecall David Downing from Long Beach CA was relating a story about acting solution-focused in a negative meeting. He said, “Be the ripple in the room!”. What a marvellous phrase. For me, it connected back to discussions I had some years ago with people from the SOLWorld community (www.solworld.org) about ‘guerrilla SF’ – how to act solution focused when you weren’t in the position of a facilitator, manager or meeting chair who could set the agenda, but nonetheless wanted to steer the conversation in a productive, positive and resourceful direction.
I remembered some work done by Mike Goran and Karen Wishart from Toronto, as part of a session at one of the SOLWorld Summer Universities. Mike and Karen did some excellent thinking about what exactly one might do in this situation. I discovered that I still had their handout, and noticed that it hadn’t seen the light of day for some time. It’s very good and well worth a read – which you can now do here at Guerilla SF. By the way, the next SF Business Professional course starts 13 April 2014.
There are times when we are burning to offer advice to a coachee but reluctant to do so because of the notion that giving advice is just not done. And yet ….. how crazy is it to have a good idea and NOT pass it on? The question is how to maximise the chances of fair consideration and minimise the chances of rejection – when and how to offer advice? This is a particularly important question for managers adopting a coaching style: the manager does have an agenda and does sometimes have cause to make his or her views known.
Let’s think first about timing: when is it a good time to offer advice? The obvious answer is “when it’s asked for” but actually it’s not quite as simple as this! Even in this case, it’s better to explore the coachee’s own thoughts, experience and know-how first. If you don’t do this, in the context of what he or she wants, your ideas may well be greeted with a response like “I’ve tried that. It didn’t work” or “That wouldn’t work” or “I haven’t got time for that” …. However, if your exploration hasn’t yielded useful any ideas, this is probably the right time to provide some ideas of your own.
So now, the question is how to go about offering advice and here it’s worth first asking permission to do so: “would you like a suggestion?” Having received a definite yes, think about how to package your ideas. Here are a few possibilities:
- Be direct: this has the advantage of being quick and unambiguous
- Tell a story from your own experience. Putting the advice in story form makes it personal and vivid and so more compelling
- Offer the ideas as if from a third party – “I knew someone who always tackled this kind of thing like this ….” This has the advantage that the ideas can be rejected more easily if the third party isn’t in the room
- Offer the ideas as from an even more remote source – “x has written many articles on this kind of thing and his suggestion would probably be …” This gives the idea expert credibility and yet can still be easily rejected if it doesn’t fit.
The SF trainer, supervisor and consultant John Wheeler makes a useful distinction between the different tasks a manager may have, calling the roles gatekeeper, guru and guide. When the manager is being a gatekeeper – ie has standards or duties which have to be fulfilled in a particular way – than it is legitimate to be direct and specific in telling someone what to do. This isn’t giving advice, it’s giving instructions! But even in the role of guru – ie when the manager is an acknowledged expert in the topic – it may be less useful to be as direct as this in giving advice, and some of the other suggestions above may offer more acceptable ways of being helpful. Of course the role of guide – or coach – is one where one is indeed cautious about offering advice in any form.
by Jenny Clarke
Do you come across “yes-butters” – people who greet a happy remark like “What a lovely day!” with the response “Yes – but the forecast is bad”, or who reply “yes – but it didn’t make any difference” when reminded about their contribution to a successful project. We all meet people like this from time to time. Sometimes, it’s hard to persevere when it seems that every constructive comment you make is batted straight back like this.
In a coaching situation, the most likely reason for this kind of response is that the “project” you’re working on hasn’t yet got a sound platform and it may be worth revisiting this. Is your coachee a customer for change – ie does he/she want something different and is he/she willing to do something about it? Are you sufficiently clear about what is wanted – and what the benefits of getting it might be – to the coachee and other people involved? Is there enough enthusiasm for the “project” to overcome the “yes-but” doubts?
Of course, some “yes-butters” seem to be contrarians for the fun of it. One of our veteran SF colleagues, Brian Cade, has a great way of dealing with people like this which he calls “colonising the negative”. So you start with “The forecast is bad” which means that they have to say “Yes -but it’s lovely now!” Or your comment “I’m not sure that that had much of an effect” provokes the response “Oh I think xx took notice and will pick up some of the ideas.”
Others respond badly to compliments and just haven’t learned how to accept them graciously (a typically British characteristic perhaps). Here, we have to curb our own enthusiasm and be sparing, specific and detailed in giving praise – but don’t give up altogether! People can get used to receiving well-targeted praise.
Jenny Clarke is a coach, facilitator, consultant and a co-director of SFWork She has wide functional experience in industry, including operational research, strategic and business planning, dealing with Government and regulatory issues, public inquiry management and administration. For more on Jenny and how SFWork can help you build progress rapidly in tough situations, visit our website.
We’re starting to publish monthly tips about using SF ideas at work. You can subscribe to get these by email using the sign-up box on the right. The first top is abvout using SF ideas in everyday conversation – without being annoying!
People who are learning SF are fascinated by the way in which the Solutions Focus tools help to shift the focus on a conversation quickly onto ‘what do we want’ and ‘what’s working’. As you’re starting to discover, this can quickly lead to more productive conversations, more engaged people and small steps to make progress right away.
Once upon a time (nearly 20 years ago now) I was learning SF for the first time and started to try to inject it into my beginner coaching work with managers. Time and again I would ask a ‘positive’ question like “When does the problem not happen?” or “When are things better than usual?” People would look at me like I was crazy, before continuing to tell me quite how severe the situation was! So, not the impact I was hoping for. I then figured out HOW to use these questions in ways which really made an impact.
Some of you may also be thinking “But won’t I just sound like a ludicrously positive person? Might I sound deluded? Or even start behaving like (dramatic pause) an… American?” The good news is that if you’re thinking like that, your are already showing good signs of the sensitivity needed to do SF really well. We want you to come across as skilful, caring and perceptive when you use OSKAR in action.
- 1. DON’T do it all the time. Wait for a challenging situation to come along – one that’s really worth your attention and effort.
- 2. Signal that you’re shifting into a coaching type conversation – say something like “So, it sounds like this is a tough situation… Would you like to take a few moments to think about it in a focused way to see if we can figure out what might help here?”
- 3. Start by asking the other person to summarise what they want – in a sentence – and then go from there, using whatever SF tools you like – a scale perhaps, a Future Perfect, or even what’s helping already.
This way you will be having a focused conversation, and will also have suggested to the other person / people that this is a special conversation which is worth giving attention and effort. The exception to this is Affirm – try slipping this in wherever you feel you can, and see what happens.
Please send in ideas for future tips – we’re very much up for suggestions and conversation. Email Mark McKergow himself at email@example.com.