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NEW online Host Leadership course with Mark McKergow

We’re very excited to announce the launch of this new online learning opportunity with Mark!

You can learn about Host Leadership and how to use it with your own team, organisation or community right now with Ideas For Leaders new online Host Leadership course.

In this accessible and engaging video-based course, Host co-author Dr Mark McKergow takes us through the background to the metaphor and model of Host Leadership, and a deeper dive into the useful and innovative Six Roles and Four Positions of a host leader.

There are eight modules, each consisting of three 5-7 minute video sections. The videos contain specially created animations and graphics to help you learn, remember and apply the ideas of Host Leadership. Mark also presents some short activities for you to do to relate the ideas to your own situation. There are also further reading suggestions, links and ways to continue your development after the course.

Use code HL-LAUNCHMONTH20 to get 20% off the course until the end of November 2022.

See more information, watch Mark talk about the course, see an excerpt from one of the modules and register at:

“In Mark’s new course, he becomes the guide by your side while you’re exploring Host Leadership. I thoroughly enjoyed how he combined a sociable, motivating tone with precise wording, and luckily, his reflective questions exercises about my own practice stopped any possibility of thinking ‘I’ve-already-been-there-done-that’ dead in its tracks.”

Rolf F Katzenberger, facilitator and team coach, Pragmatic Teams

“Mark McKergow pioneered the concept of “Host Leadership”. This course is a welcome and needed enhancement to the subject. Whether you have read his book and want to embed the ideas in yourself and your organisation, or you want to dive straight into this intuitive yet (for some) elusive concept, this course is an excellent option to choose. Not only does Mark bring expertise in the subject area, he is also a skilled, good humoured and experienced communicator and trainer. I strongly recommend the course – understanding how to be a host leader will give you added impact in both personal and professional settings.”

Richard Lucas, Founder TEDx Kazimierz 

Host Leadership course logo

Work with Mark McKergow during Autumn/Fall 2022

SFWork’s Autumn 2022 programme featured events to help you work with Solutions Focus and Host Leadership, including a new online self-paced course launching on Monday 26 September. 

My brand new online course in Host Leadership, created with Ideas For Leaders as part of their Mast Mentor programme, launches on Monday 26 September. Join me and I4L’s Roddy Millar at the online launch event – 5pm UK time. Register now for a 25% launch discount on the course. The course is self-paced, you do it in your own time and relate the ideas to your own organisation. Join us to celebrate!

Starting 23 October: SF Business Professional online certificate course with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  This sixteen-week course is the premier way to learn the in and outs of using Solution Focused methods in organisational settings – for coaches, facilitators, leaders, change agents and managers. More details on the SFWork website. Last chance for at least a year!

Starting Tuesday 1 November: Hosting Generative Change. By popular demand, my online course for OD professionals, facilitators, consultants, and indeed anyone wanting to bring people together to build innovative and generative change. This is part of a series of programmes on Dialogic OD co-produced by the Bushe-Marshak Institute and the Cape Cod Institute. My programme is Hosting Generative Change and runs in four sessions in November 2022, (1, 3, 8 and 15Nov) at 4pm-8pm UK time.

The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice – next steps?

My new book The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice: Stretching the world for new opportunities and progress was published by Routledge on 13 April 2021. There was a launch event on the day, and I also hosted an event on SF World Day (3 May).  I hope you have a copy by now! If not, please relax. You can buy it from the publisher (link above) and it’s also available through all the usual channels. 

This blog is to introduce the book and talk a little about what I am hoping to achieve by writing it. Nicholas Brealey, my first publisher, was fond of pointing out that the book had to speak for itself as I wouldn’t be there to tell people about it!  Of course this is true – and with blogging and social media there are now many more opportunities to continue the discussions.

I decided to write this book at the Solution Focused Safari conference organised by Dr Jacqui Cziffra Bergs in Johannesburg, South Africa in March 2017. Jenny and I had just moved to Scotland and I was thinking that I might be stepping back from the SF world a bit. No chance.  At the conference I noticed that some people were talking about SF as it was practiced in the 1990s while others were talking about what appeared to be a different and more recent iteration stemming from developments in the 21st century.  Being appreciative and patient (as SF folk aspire to be), nobody was mentioning this glaring difference! So I returned to the UK determined to write about the distinctions. 

This book is the result. It is in five sections:

  • Why I think SF is important and continues to be important (because of the 5 E’s – it’s Effective, Efficient, Ethical, Energising and Elegant)
  • The development of SFBT – from the 1920s through the connections with Bateson, Erickson, the Mental Research Institute Palo Alto and its Brief Therapy Center, the developments in Milwaukee led by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues, and how it continues to develop (and how the co-founders were keen on development rather than orthodoxy)
  • The more recent developments led by BRIEF in London and others, including myself, which show a newly coherent picture of SF, and how this fits well with the latest development in enactive cognition and enactive psychiatry, leading to the friendly explanation that SF work ‘stretches the world’ of the client
  • How (in detail) to do it (including session transcripts with commentary)  
  • A final overview of SF work as an ‘aesthetic’, which values very different features from most therapy traditions (including brevity).

The pivot between these two iterations comes with this question:

What are we trying to do when we sit down with a client?

There are two possible answers to this:

First generation SF workNext generation SF work
Ask the questions so we can hear the answersAsk the question so the client can hear their own answers
(In order to construct an intervention or task)(So the client changes themselves and there is no need for a task)

In the very early days, there is no doubt that Steve, Insoo and the others were working from the first position.  I document this in the book.  They then started to move along the line – Peter de Jong told me he thought Insoo got about 60% of the way towards the right hand column.  The question, then, is what does a form of practice look like which really commits to the right hand column 100%? That’s what this book is about.

What it looks like, briefly, is a practice based on description-building, with the practitioner helping the client to create a series of descriptions rather like images on the walls of an art gallery.  This is not a new idea, but those who devised it have been somewhat reluctant to show the differences that this view can make.  These include:

  • An even simpler view of how to do SF practice
  • A crisp practice which involve the practitioner at three levels: big questions (like best hopes, miracle, scale etc), small description-building questions (what difference would that make and half a dozen others), and tiny micro-encouragements like smiling, nodding, “mm-hm” noises etc)
  • A clear and friendly explanation of ‘how it works’ in terms of stretching the world of the client, based on the latest development in enactive cognition

All of these offer great opportunities to extend the research base and academic connections. (Some people might not value that. I think that if we are serious about getting our work taken seriously we should embrace the chance to be clear about how we work.)

Alasdair Macdonald asked me a week or so ago what I was hoping for from the publication of the book.  It’s an excellent question. Here are three things I’d love to see.

  • More research into this way of doing (and looking at) SF practice
  • More research and exploration of ‘stretching the world’ of the client
  • A wider appreciation for the ethics and aesthetics of brief practice (which are still very under-appreciated in the wider world).

In the meantime, please buy the book, read it, and at least play around with the ideas in your own practice.  My experience with this has been very positive.  Tell others about it – you’ll all be glad you tried this out.  And if you have the chance to research this, even at the level of small-scale in-situ experiments. And please let me know what you think via

McKergow, M. (2021). The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice, Oxford: Routledge

Does SF treat mental illness as complicated or complex?

The pandemic has brought the topic of mental illness – and its close but not opposite cousin mental health – up the agenda.  There is no doubt that living in lockdown can be very tough. But how might we think about making things better?

Some of my longer-standing readers may recall that I have always been interested in the science of complexity – the way that things emerge unpredictably where looping connections, recursive relations come into play. I did my PhD in the early 1980s into the ways that hydrogen atoms can self-organise, in a complex way, within metal lattices.  So when complexity started to appear in the fields of economics, innovation and organisations in the early 1990s, I was immediately interested. Here was not only an explanation for the lack of success of more ‘mechanical’ ways to understand people, it was also a new way to think about how to tackle confusing and tough situations. 

I started writing about complexity in management for the Strategic Planning Society journal Long Range Planning (the title gives away how little they cared for the topic of in-built uncertainty!) in 1996.  In 1998 I was invited by Dan Ciuriak (on behalf of committee chair Janet Yellen – look what happened to her!) to submit a paper to an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference on lessons from complexity when examining the Asian Financial crisis of 1997. And all the while I was learning about solution-focused (SF) practice and being struck by how well it fitted with a complexity lens.

When The Solutions Focus book was published in 2002, Paul Z Jackson and I attempted to bring emergence into the picture, initially as a riposte to the influence of Peter Senge and system dynamics (popularised in his book The Fifth Discipline).  I then spent a decade or so attempting to interest SF people in complexity (with some modest success) and to interest complexity people in SF (with nearly no success at all). All this was in the broad context of tackling things as simple/complicated/complex/chaotic.

In around 1999 Dave Snowden coined the term ‘Cynefin’ (the Welsh word for habitat) for the simple/complicated/complex/chaotic framework. He has since been developing it, speaking about it, teaching it and using it, and has gained quite a following.  My good friend Chris Corrigan wrote a very nice blog about the 2020 iteration of Cynefin which is well worth reading.  The framework (see the picture alongside) has expanded to five, possibly seven domains, with considerable attention now given to the boundaries and edges between the original domains. The framework is offered as a way to think about an actual situation and to consider which (if any) of the domains it might be located within.  The fifth domain is the central one, entitled ‘confusion’ (where you’re not sure).  It inspired me to revisit the question of SF, complicated and complexity.

The ‘complicated’ domain is one of the two ordered domains.  This means that in general things there are knowable, understandably by analysis and experience, and best worked with by finding people who know what they are doing in this arena.  So, if you want to engineer an airliner or work a Zoom meeting, find people who know about it and follow their advice. Within this domain lies the diagnostic approach; work out what kind of problem this is and then do what people do to solve the problem.  This is all very well when working a Zoom meeting, and also works broadly well in the medical field.  However in the field of mental illness it is (to my mind) more problematic. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual has grown bigger and bigger over its five major revisions since 1952, with ever-growing extent (130 pages growing to 991) and numbers of disorders (up from 108 to 354). This growth in disorders is not, sadly, reflected in increased efficiency in dealing with them.   

The ‘complex’ domain, on the other hand, is one of the unordered domains.  This means a radically different approach is required; looking at the particular situation rather than trying to generalise it (as one would in the complicated domain), inviting people to be creative while living in the broad constraints of their form of life (so they can be happier, but not eighteen feet tall), and trying small things (‘probe’, in the Cynefin words) to see what happens and learn about this situation, and then proceed with greater know-how. It is even recommended that while working in this area “Don’t worry about collecting tons of information before acting: it won’t help you past a certain point.” (quoting from Chris Corrigan’s summary).

So: is mental illness to be treated as complicated or complex? These are two different ways to look.  Those who choose the complicated route are, in my experience, often those with a lot of training and experience of working like that. Some may be doctors who are comfortable with prescribing drugs, others may be practitioners who enjoy the comfort of feeling that they know more about their clients’ experience than the clients themselves.  In choosing an SF perspective we have already chosen the complex route.  That this is more effective and efficient as well as ethical and respectful, energising and elegant is a bonus. 

My new book The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice (Routledge, 2021) unpacks this in more detail. I look not only at how SF work achieves these ‘5 E’s’, but also how we can have a robust theory about what we do which shows why we need to focus on the clients and their language, not distracts us from them. And I explore how, in the end, choosing an SF stance may be an aesthetic choice as much as a practical or scientific one.  The book has been nearly thirty years in the writing – I am delighted it won’t take as long as that to read!

The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice by Mark McKergow is published by Routledge on Tuesday 13th April 2021.  Available through all the usual channel and also in Kindle format. You can probably pre-order it at a reduced price on Amazon UK.

Exciting news – revamped SF Business Professional certificate starts 21 March 2021

  • Do you want to help create positive change in your team, department or organization? 
  • Do you want to energize your people as you tackle challenges together? 
  • Do you want to get things moving quickly, even in complex and touch situations? 

Then the Solution-Focused approach is for you!

The Solution-Focused Business Professional (SFBP) Certificate focuses on learning and applying the tools and techniques of the Solution-Focused (SF) approach. This approach to change first appeared as a form of brief therapy, and was pioneered in organisations by course instructor Dr Mark McKergow of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work.  Mark is the author of the best-selling The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE as well as being a coach and consultant himself for 30 years.  His latest book The Next Generation of Solution-Focused Practice (2021) further refines the approach, offering new twists and refinements for even greater effectiveness.

The SF approach allows managers, coaches, consultants and facilitators to enhance their skill sets to:

  • Build on what is working rather than fixing what isn’t
  • Inviting people into a better future rather than seeking blame in the past
  • Looking for small, even tiny, steps as opposed to grand action plans.

Using this powerful and pragmatic approach, you work directly with Mark McKergow himself to address real-world problems specific to your organization’s needs. Following this 16-week online program, you achieve a full understanding of the SF method and use it to address situations that all business professionals face.

“My confidence in using SF in organization setting has moved up significantly. I feel that I have all the skills and tools to handle assignments in demanding situations such as team coaching and organizational consulting.”

“I thought that I was quite good at coaching but now I feel more confident about how I can ask questions in the specific moment, jump between all the tools, and have also a deeper understanding about SF in general and compare to other ways of working with coaching. “

Learning Outcomes

•             Understand how to work effectively with tough, complex, changing issues in your workplace

•             Learn a robust methodology to address problems in an individual, team and organizational context

•             Apply the six Solution Focused principles to your coaching and managerial practices

•             Evaluate your current workplace projects using the SF approach

•             Create a strategy to implement real, positive change in a wide range of work settings

“You have many opportunities to apply the learning with fellow participants and in so doing develop closer friendships across an international community. Regular meetings with a world leader in SF and the course facilitator, Mark McKergow, is the icing on the cake.”

Contact Mark at with any questions and to get a $100 discount when you sign up. This course WILL change your work (and your life) in all kinds of ways. Join us now. For more details go to sfwork – Online SF Professional certificate.

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.


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

Ways to try something new: ‘McKergow’s Matrix’

As some of you will know, I am Chair of Sunday Assembly Edinburgh, the city’s ‘secular congregation’ which meets twice a month (at the moment) to do church-like things without religion.  We sing, hear poems and inspiring talks, reflect on how we live life and how we can live it as fully as possible – our motto is Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.

Our assembly on 1st November was on the theme of Happier Living, with speaker Simon Wallis talking about the 10 Keys To Happier Living framework produced by Action For Happiness.  We agreed that rather than try to talk about all 10 keys, Simon would briefly introduce them and then focus on one in particular – trying new things.  This was Action  For Happiness’ theme for the month, and they published an excellent monthly calendar with ideas for every day.  (They do this every month, with different themes – excellent and well worth looking at.)

The assembly was excellent, and we continued to discuss how we might try new things.  It struck me that the boundary between ‘new’ and ‘old’ is actually rather fuzzy.  I did an MBA degree many years ago and learned about the Ansoff matrix for product and market development.  Inspired by this, I improvised a framework for different ways to try something new:

One of the key aspects of working in a Solution-Focused way (an approach I’ve been using and developing for nearly 30 years) is to ‘do more of what works’.  So, the first option for trying something ‘new’ is, in fact, to think about things you’ve enjoyed and found beneficial but have somehow stopped doing – trying an old thing in an old way (again).  Maybe you used to take 10 minutes of mindfulness before breakfast but since you changed job it hasn’t been convenient to do it?  Maybe you enjoyed getting your watercolours out and taking an afternoon painting in the countryside?  I think searching back for things that have helped you before and revisiting them is a great way to do something new – indeed, the fact that it’s helped you in the past is a good reason to think it might be useful again. 

Stretching out a little, something that helped you in the past can be up-cycled by trying an old thing in a new way.  Perhaps that mindful moment might make more sense at the end of the day, rather than before breakfast?  Maybe watercolouring from photos in the warmth of your own home might be more appealing?  Or perhaps it’s time to have a go with oil paints?  The list of variations is very long indeed, all building on something that worked for you at some point and could be worth revisiting. 

The third box is about trying a new thing in an old way.  So rather than being mindful before breakfast, you could maybe take a walk around the block instead?  Or go outside for the afternoon and birdwatch rather than paint?  Fit something new into an existing ‘point’ in your day or week, which already works for you.  So if you enjoyed doing evening classes about film appreciation, try an evening class about medieval architecture or writing poetry. 

The fourth and final box is about trying a new thing in a new way. This is the biggest stretch of all, and is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we are asked to think about ‘new’.  So, this might be about trying hill-walking or even Munro-bagging rather than morning mindfulness, or video performance activism in the street rather than country watercolours.  Whatever is grabbing your attention at the moment is well worth investigating. 

However, as we have seen above, there are lots of ways in which new things can come in somewhat more familiar guises.  And even if it’s something really new for you, think about what you can gather about the way you might approach it. Maybe you learn well with others, perhaps with someone who does this kind of thing already?  (It you are taking up parascending, I recommend this heartily!) Or perhaps you like to team up with a fellow novice (perhaps a friend) and explore together? Or maybe  you love to read up on something before trying it.  Or even write directly to the world champion and ask for advice? (I was out with Jenny at Cramond near Edinburgh yesterday, and we saw some amazing balanced stone sculptures which had been made earlier in the day by the European Stone Stacking Champion… who knew that was a thing, let alone that we have an expert right here in Edinburgh?)  

So, ‘try something new’ is an excellent idea to expand your life. And it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from revisiting the old to a totally new concept.  Perhaps you can have take the simple matrix above, which some of my Sunday Assembly colleagues have started to call McKergow’s Matrix, fill in each box with something relevant to you and then see which is the most appealing?

Dr Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work (sfwork) based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He brings new ideas into the organisational and leadership field which are effective, efficient, counterintuitive and humane, and is currently developing work on post-heroic leadership ( and micro-local community building ( His book The Next Generation of Solution Focused Practice will be published by Routledge in April 2021.

The sting in the Rose Garden – how Dominic Cummings used a double bind to suspend reason

The sting in the Rose Garden

How Dominic Cummings changed the rules of debate while his oblivious audience nodded along

Mark McKergow

In all the analysis and discussion of Dominic Cummings’ Rose Garden statement, one curious sentence has so far gone unremarked, even in the filleting of the wordsmithing by legal commentator David Allen Green. Towards the end, Cummings says this: “I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this.”

This looks like a generous admission of uncertainty, an acknowledgement of conflicting demands, and an olive branch towards critics. He adds “of course” to make it sound even more like an innocent and everyday acceptance of the difficulties of his position.

It is nothing of the kind.  Cummings has pulled what therapists call a ‘double bind’ on us all.  Once we accept this statement, as has everyone did on the day and in subsequent debate (including Nick Robinson interviewing Health Sectretary Matt Hancock on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:18:31), there is no way out.  Cummings’ position is unchallengeable.

It works like this.  We have agreed that there is room for reasonable disagreement.  Therefore any ‘reasonable’ disagreement cannot be decisive, as there is room for it without changing position. Any ‘unreasonable’ disagreement, however, is as unimpressive as it always was.  The only other options are to agree or to say nothing – both of which accept Cummings’ position.

So no amount of disagreement, reasonable or not, can change the situation as offered by Cummings.  What he has achieved, in relation to his own position, is to dismiss reason (and presumably its trusty sidekick logic) from the field of play.

The double-bind communication paradox was first noticed by anthropologist and systems thinking pioneer Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto California in the 1950s.  It has been employed for decades in strategic and systemic therapies as a way of looking at stuck situations and a means of producing new responses in those suffering mental ill-health.

I had no idea on Sunday afternoon that Dominic Cummings was about to employ it to hoodwink us all into suspending logic and reason from interfering with his family adventures. I hope that by shining a light onto his sleight of hand I can make journalists, interviewers, commentators and citizens more aware of what is being done, and how, in our name.

Mark McKergow is an author, speaker and consultant. He is currently working on a book about the development of Gregory Bateson’s ideas in the therapy world for Routledge.

Thursday 28 May 2020

How James Lovelock inspires me

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.



Excellent podcast with Mark McKergow on ‘SFBT 2.0’

MarkThe 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!

Mark’s podcast on SFBT 2.0.

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