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Harry Enfield, Hamlet and the Solutions Focus

by Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow

Organisations and People 8, No 1 pp 26 - 31 (2001)

The Solutions Focus offers a refreshing method of change. Derived largely from an innovative strand of psychotherapy, it is increasingly applied within organisations. It is deceptively simple, yet by no means easy, as Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow explain.

'The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions.' Antony Jay, Management and Machiavelli

Clever words from Mr Jay, and they make us wonder what kind of mind can spot the right questions. The answer we would like to suggest is 'a solution-focused mind'.

The questions and answers at issue are those which take place during conversations between consultants and their clients.

Perhaps you recall the scene from the Harry Enfield show, in which Harry's 'Only Me' character is watching a performance of Hamlet. 'To be or not to be, that is the question,' says the actor, to which Harry in the front row responds, 'Now, I don't think you wanted to say that. That's not a very good question. What is the capital of Peru? Now that's a good question.'

Well, Harry, it all depends on context. There are good questions for metaphysically-challenged princes, good questions for geography quizzes and good questions for consultants. The Solutions Focus is primarily about the latter - though it may have helped out Hamlet too.

The solution-focused philosophy is an approach to change, centred on keeping things as simple as possible, doing what works and nothing else. We discovered it in the world of therapy, when in the late 1980s Steve de Shazer extended the earlier work of Milton Erickson and the Mental Research Institute to produce a tested yet minimal approach to change (for example de Shazer, 1988, and George, Iveson & Ratner, 1999). These same sources had earlier sparked NLP, to which solution focus might be seen as a younger, leaner second cousin.

Solution focus has since spread in the UK to the fields of education, social work, child protection and is now making inroads to the organisational world.

Problem or solution?

Let us contrast solution-focused consultancy with problem-focused. To what extent do you think that detailed analysis and understanding of a problem is essential to the solution of a problem?

Most traditions of problem-solving invite you to dive straight in to analysis of the problem. The problem-focused approach asks questions along the lines of:

  • What's going wrong?
  • When does it go wrong?
  • What's causing it?
  • What's the root cause?
  • What else is this affecting?

 

We tend to accept these kinds of questions almost without thought. And indeed they have their value. If we are dealing with an engineering or mechanical problem, they can lead you pretty quickly towards a successful fix.

Yet there are some arenas where these questions are far less helpful and obscure the route to solutions. These arenas are those where complexity is afoot. Complex systems are rigorously defined by various characteristics; for our present purpose it is enough to say that the organisations in which AMED practitioners consult are excellent examples of complex systems.

Suppose our task is to help the managers to change the culture within an organisation. We can choose whether to start with a problem-focus - asking the sorts of questions listed above - or with a different set of solution-focused questions. The resulting conversations will be markedly different.

Skip the analysis

But wait. Don't we need the problem-focused questions in order to fully understand and analyse the problem? Yes, if that's what we want to do. But what if there is no connection between the nature of the problem and the steps required for a solution? Then we can skip the analysis stage, along with its attendant drags, like the search for someone to blame for the problem and the defensiveness which that engenders.

Instead we find out how the people in the organisation want things to be. We ask them to describe their preferred future, and help them identify the steps towards it. As this preferred future invariably fails to include the problem, the problem is by definition solved somewhere along the way.

In the culture change example, the new culture may well have a fair bit in common with the old, unwanted culture, but it will not have the problematic aspects which prompted the call for the consultant.

Unfortunately, we can't tell you exactly what the solution is, or even precisely how we got there, because each case is different. The role of the consultant is to identify these differences, which tend to be extremely useful in leveraging the desired changes.

Different each time

By treating each case individually on its merits, our consultants are embarking on a solution-focused approach to change - in people, teams and organisations.

The basic principle of The Solutions Focus is simple:

Find what works and do more of it. Stop doing what doesn't work and do something else.

The great martial artist Bruce Lee, when asked why he won so often responded, "because I use what works". He was merely restating the creed of the pragmatist through the ages, and it is a philosophy as suited to modern organisations as it is to ancient philosophers or enigmatic pugilists.

In our consultancy we like the pragmatic approach of The Solutions Focus because we find it's clear, efficient, empowering and enjoyable for us and our clients. It is also growing increasingly popular as more people come to appreciate its power, subtlety and ability to deliver results.

It basically consists of finding what works for any particular organisation with these people in these circumstances at this time - then having them do it, to take them to the future they've described for themselves.

We might summarise the comparison of problem and solution focus like this:

Problem focus

Solution focus

The past
What's wrong
Blame
Control
The expert knows best
Deficits
Complications
Definitions

The future
What's working
Progress
Influence
Collaboration
Resources
Simplicity
Actions

Shades of safety

A good, real-life example comes from the Italian chemical factory, whose managers wanted people to wear safety glasses. The workers, though, were reluctant. Training - in the form of telling them why they needed glasses and instruction in the correct methods of wearing them was having little impact.

In their solution-focused sessions they asked themselves 'When does what we are looking for here happen already - even partially? When do these people wear glasses anyway?'. This being Italy, they realised that their workers were only too willing to wear cool, fashionable sunglasses.

So they commissioned a set of safety glasses made with mirror shades, which the workers instantly began wearing all the time. From just a small change in the design came this very significant change in behaviour and an improved safety record.

You'll see from the example that an aim - and frequent result - of a solutions approach is to find elegant, economical and often low-energy solutions, that are properly suited to each organisation. And the consultant or manager's role is to co-create these solutions mainly by asking the right questions and using what's already happening to engender more of what's wanted.

As The Solutions Focus name implies, it is about focusing on solutions. That may seem obvious, yet it is one of the trickiest parts to grasp. Most consultancy, management and facilitation traditionally focuses primarily on problems. Traditional practitioners do so because they believe the solution is best found by studying the problem.

The modern Western scientific mind cries out for explanations - and is tempted to consider results invalid unless we can explain the How, the mechanism.

Solution-focused practitioners believe that studying the problem may not be the best way of finding a solution. Put another way, the elements of the solution may have no logical connection to the elements of the problem. Often the 'cause' of a problem is elusive, bound up in a web of interactions that cannot sensibly be unravelled. So focusing on a problem as a precursor to the solution may be a step that wastes a lot of time and effort. It can even be unhelpful or downright damaging. Instead, we side-step into a more immediate process of solution building.

It's happening already - finding Counters

For example, we ran some team-building sessions for a blue-chip electronics design firm. One team began telling us of the difficulties they were experiencing from their boss, and of the conflicts within the team. We showed just enough interests in their problems to remain on the right side of politeness. Then we switched to asking them how they wanted things to be - by having them describe a future in which those problems had vanished. Being good engineers, they were able to specify in great detail how they envisaged working together. From this we could agree first steps towards just such a future - without going deeper into the original problems.

It is almost always the case that some of the desired outcomes are already happening, exist in embryonic form or have happened in the past. We call these Counters, and it is the consultant's job to find as many as possible.

An organisation works by people interacting - coming to work, doing things and talking to each other. Similarly, interactions between consultant and client, or the exchanges within a training event, are linguistic and behavioural. On the linguistic front, people talk to each other, give orders, discuss what to do, how to do it, debate strategy, come up with marketing plans and so on.

The way they talk is part of what shapes the way things then happen. And of course they talk in response to one another, which creates the systems-like feel: each response amplifies or damps down the information conveyed by the previous speaker, to create looping, circular processes.

Everything in an organisation is interdependent with everything else. That's the assumption of a systems approach. And this means that as facilitators and trainers we are wary about attributing causality to any one particular thing. A client may say, 'Oh, the managing director is causing the workforce to have low morale.' Well, perhaps he is. But the morale - whatever that may be - is also contributed to by the workforce. And the morale affects the MD too. We need to remain aware of the reverse links as well.

We've worked with one managing director from a major utility who tells us he's never been in an organisation with high morale. Could it be he's telling us as much about himself as the organisations which have employed him?

Is this Appreciative Inquiry?

We sometimes get asked about whether solution focus is the same as Appreciative Inquiry, the OD methodology deriving from the work of David Cooperrider (see for example Hammond and Royal, 1998). SF and AI are similar in several ways - both are interested in finding what works, and both are in use in a variety of fields. Both stem from social constructionist philosophies.

SF and AI come from different backgrounds - SF from a therapy/families/social work background, and AI from an organisational development background. AI is most often associated with large scale organisational projects, (but this is changing), and SF is till now most often associated with working with individuals and small groups (though this is also changing).

AI is based on the premise that people move in the direction of the questions they are asked. AI people therefore spend time developing useful questions for the context in which they find themselves. SF has more than a touch of pragmatism and minimalism about it, and so SF people like to find out ways forward (maybe by using variations on a theme of existing questions), and to discover more about the context they find themselves in from the answers and what happens next.

AI is also based on a premise that people work well when they're affirmed at work, and so the affirmation is visibly a central part of the process. SF people definitely do things that might be called affirming, such as taking what people say very seriously and giving them compliments, but this is not usually spoken of as affirming, more as doing something that often seems to work in helping people move forward. SF folk have been known to do other things, like teasing, disbelieving or even (in extremis) 'insulting' their clients when that turns out (after the other things have been tried) to be what works in this case.

Key ideas

We have found benefits for our clients and ourselves in using these ideas:

  • By using the things that are already happening as the seeds of change, the changes made are usually small initiating events, which then ripple out. We like to change as little as possible - which has benefits in time and cost. This form of change could be seen as 'using the path of least resistance'.
  • Finding what works and doing more of it is generally a very positive activity for all concerned. People enjoy it, take empowerment from it.
  • People like to find out about the helpful things they already do. We find lots of useful energy and motivation is created during solution-focused work.
  • Actions start to be carried out and tested very quickly. Attention is drawn to progress early in the process.
  • The client is the driver - and takes their share of the responsibility. They get what they say they want, which can have useful benefits in terms of building corporate ethics.

 

By taking a positive approach, we pre-suppose a fruitful outcome. We draw attention to capabilities and aspects of an organisation which are working well - and this harnesses the very resources necessary for overcoming problems. And by avoiding long, investigative histories into 'causes' of problems, we keep a present and future orientation, which tends to faster results.

This was the fundamental insight which prompted the development of Solution Focused Brief Therapy, which is making a great impact in psychotherapy. It's brief because you don't need to root around in the past in order to make useful changes in the present and for the future.

Best use of resources?

Are companies really tapping into the resources of their people, we wonder? We find, for example, that when teams within an organisation are allowed to get together to discover their collective resources, they begin to appreciate just how much they can achieve together. A teambuilding event with this focus has a different flavour from the deficit-based approach, which typically asks about gaps and team behaviours that are missing.

If we believe that change is all around, then we're much more likely to spot it. And change is all around - as Heraclitus said, 'You can't step into the same river twice'. Our body cells are continuously regenerating, the Earth moves through space, small random differences are happening in all of our lives every second of the day. It is not always right to claim that change is difficult.

Change is happening all the time - it's spotting the useful changes and capitalising on them that's the art. And thinking of art, how would it have been had Hamlet focused on what he wanted, rather than his many causes for complaint? Perhaps he'd have seen off his enemies with considerably less bloodshed, time and poetry. But then the play's the thing, and Lima is the capital of Peru.

References

Evan George, Chris Iveson and Harvey Ratner. 'From Problem to Solution'. BT Press, (revised edition 1999).

Sue Annis Hammond & Cathy Royal (eds). 'Lessons from the Field - Applying Appreciative Inquiry', Practical Press (1998)

Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow. 'The Solutions Focus', Nicholas Brealey Books, to be published 2001.

Steve de Shazer. 'Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy', WW Norton (1988)

Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow are The Solutions Focus. They devise and run training and development courses for a wide range of corporate clients and public organisations. As a journalist, senior producer with BBC Radio Light Entertainment, author of the trainer's guide Impro Learning - How to make your training creative, flexible and spontaneous (Gower) and as founder of various comedy teams - including the More Fool Us squad - Paul has prompted a lot of laughter, on-stage and off, mostly intentionally. Mark is a professional training consultant and specialist in learning techniques with a detailed understanding of Accelerated Learning and twenty years experience of finding solutions in organisations. They are both members of the Bristol Solutions Group, the first cross-disciplinary solution focused support group in the UK. They run a website: www.thesolutionsfocus.com

Acknowledgements: Bristol Solutions Group colleague Harry Norman for information on Appreciative Inquiry.
 

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