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SF in a small business

Published in Brief and Simple: Solution Focus in Organizations, eds N Polgár & K Hankovszky p. 295

This is the story of how the SF approach was introduced to a small business – a company making and selling glass giftware. Starting with just 2 people, the company had grown steadily and at the time of sfwork’s work together it employed about 30 people.  They were engaged in the whole range of activities: making the giftware in a factory and selling it through its own retail outlets (3 shops) as well as through major department stores throughout the country.  

The managing director - Bob - was a fan of SF.  He saw its potential for bringing some order into the often messy environment which had outgrown the systems which had served the company well when it started.  He invited sfwork to “do some SF training”, setting two days aside for nearly everyone to come together for the purpose.   Our first task was to make the brief a bit more concrete and we agreed with Bob that we would base the event around our OSKAR coaching model (Jackson & McKergow, 2007, pp 137 - 145).

The prospect of two days in a training room is not very enticing, even when the invitation comes from the top!  The event was to end with the company’s Christmas party, but to many, this seemed a minor consolation.  Most of the people working in the company had left school as soon as they could; the prospect of coming into a training room filled some of them with dread and others with resentment that their busy lives were being interrupted.   This had to be handled carefully!  The project of engaging the participants started long before they came into the meeting room.  Everyone received a personal invitation from us, telling them what to expect and whom to contact if they wanted to talk about the event beforehand.  We also asked them to think about achievements that they were particularly proud of, times when they had felt really good at work (“sparkling moments”) and challenges that they were facing at work.   

Twenty-eight people crowded into the company’s meeting room and we knew it was very important to get them actively involved right from the start – this was not a group used to sitting quietly and listening to long expositions of theory.  After a few introductory remarks from Bob and us, we got everybody’s voice into the room by asking them to introduce themselves by name, role in the company and by briefly describing a sparkling moment at work.   As a fun way of keeping everyone alert through the programme, we set up an OSKAR ceremony.  Everyone wrote their name on a piece of paper and the names were all put into a bowl and shuffled so that everyone could pick a name at random.  The instructions were to watch the person whose name they had picked very carefully over the next couple of days because at the end of the event there would be an OSKAR ceremony.  Everyone would win a prize: the question was for what?  Would it be for being constructive? For building on ideas? For knowing when to defuse tension with a laugh? …..

Then they all produced a poster showing 2 achievements or skills and 2 challenges that they were facing at work.  Displaying all these colourful posters on the walls was a great way of displaying the wealth of talent in the room, as well as letting everyone – not least Bob – become aware of the range of challenges that people could see. 

Not surprisingly, many of the issues were identified by several people and so the group decided to tackle the most common issues first.  These included

  • stock control, which had been identified as an issue from many perspectives: the production line workers who didn’t always have the raw materials they needed, the retail shops who didn’t always have the finished goods they wanted and the dispatch department dealing with department store orders who saw themselves as last on every list when it came to getting the finished goods they needed
  • “housekeeping” – keeping premises tidy
  • making time for developing new products
  • getting new people up to speed

Rather than dividing people up in to groups ourselves, we asked everyone to work with the issue they felt most strongly about and then to form themselves into groups of about 4 or 5 to work together.  We then spent the rest of the first day using most of the OSKAR stages to tackle these topics:

  • Each group created a series of posters showing a day in the life of the company when everything associated with their chosen issue was working perfectly (Outcome)
  • They scaled the current situation where 10 was the ideal and 0 meant that absolutely nothing was going well (Scale)
  • They listed all the things that were helping them get so high (Know-how)
  • After each of these phases, the whole group looked at the output of each of the smaller groups, made appreciative comments and added to the lists where they could (Affirm)

On the morning of the second day, we brought much of what had happened the previous day to consciousness by reviewing and practising the separate stages of OSKAR.  The afternoon was spent in the Review phase, with participants working together in their workplace groups (raw material handling, production, retail, administration) to pool their learning and decide on one or two small steps for each individual to take in the general direction of the ideal.

The event ended with an OSKAR ceremony, in which each participant gave a token award to an individual they had been watching carefully over the 2 days they had spent together.  Everyone was a winner - and this was a great mood  setter for the Christmas party, which we enjoyed as much as everyone else!

This is what Bob had to say a couple of weeks after the event:

Thank you again for a terrific two days.  I write to you from a transformed factory - both physically and mentally.  At the staff party on the Friday ALL staff that said how useful they had found the training - indeed the number of people that were keen to get to work on Monday was almost disturbing!   The energy, focus and motivation are extraordinarily good (and this two weeks after the workshop).  The company is now imbued with a "how can we" attitude.

He went on to list specific improvements which had arisen from the issue groups – and announce the re-naming of the factory’s meeting room as “The Solutions Room”.   

And Laura, one of the retail managers, commented:

"It was lots of fun- can we do that kind of thing more often :) ? It was also good because it seemed to kick start things happening quicker, like organising delivery and getting this newsletter and event started. It was nice to see things from a production point of view, and for others to get an idea of what goes on in the gallery".

Six months later, Bob was able to report that the premises were tidy and well-organised, that the retail outlets were consistently well-stocked, that conversation throughout the company had become about ideas and new opportunities and that staff morale remained high.

When we visited the factory a year later for a review session, this was still the case – and we were invited to another great Christmas party.

 

Reference:

Jackson, P. Z., & McKergow, M. (2007). The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE (2nd ed.). London: Nicholas Brealey International

Jenny Clarke  is a consultant, trainer and coach based in the UK.    She is a partner in sfwork (www.sfwork.com ), working with clients in a variety of industries, including health, finance, manufacturing, IT, energy and the voluntary sector.  She can be contacted at jenny@sfwork.com 

 or +44 (0) 8453 707145

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