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Solution-Focused Approaches in Management

Chapter 21

SF Approaches in Management 

Mark McKergow

An landmark review of the research and writings about applications of SF to management. Published as a chapter in "Solution-Focused Brief Therapy", Cynthia Franklin, Terry Trepper, Eric McCollum & Wallace Gingerich, eds, Oxford University Press, 2011.


One feature of the spread of solution-focused (SF) approaches over the past 15 years has been the many applications found in the area of management and organizational change. In many ways, this is not a surprising development; the pragmatic and effective nature of the approach matches the desire for efficient ways to make progress found in most organizations. From the time of early experiments in the mid-1990s, the SF approach has become increasingly influential.

This book is mainly concerned with research results. While controlled studies are possible in the field of therapy, applications in the organizational sphere are much more often carried out on an ad hoc basis; the main concern is to make progress, and whatever helps to do this is welcomed. There is far less emphasis on recording, writing up, and publishing accounts of the work.

This chapter is not, therefore, an account of a research study. It is a collection of what has been recorded and documented thus far. We can safely assume that the impact of SF approaches on management is even more widespread than anyone currently knows.

What We Have Learned So Far

It seems very likely that some clinicians exposed to SF therapy will have also noticed that the approach can be used in a more general way to make progress under difficult circumstances. They will then presumably have made use of it to help themselves in managerial roles. It is therefore very difficult to say when this approach first appeared in the context of management.

As far as I am aware, the first training course to address SF coaching explicitly was run by British practitioner Harry Norman at Bristol University in 1996. Others around the world were discovering the advantages of the SF model independently. The earliest books appeared in German (Schmitz & Billen, 2000), and Dutch (Cauffman, 2001). The first book to specifically address SF management in English (Jackson & McKergow, 2002) helped to spread the word even further, and the SOLWorld community (http://www.solworld.org) started by these authors and their Bristol Solutions Group colleagues has gone on to become a worldwide network of consultants, managers, coaches, and facilitators developing myriad applications and variations. The SOLWorld community now includes, remarkably, a thriving Japanese network with its own local conferences and events. A new, more formal professional body, the Association for the Quality Development of Solution Focused Consulting and Training (SFCT; http://www.asfct.org), has been founded to support the development of SF practitioners within the consulting, coaching, and training world.

SF Interventions in Management: Varied Contexts

One of the challenges of translating the SF therapy approach into management contexts is that these contexts are much more varied than the usual client-helper situation of therapy and counseling. Situations range from coaching (which may involve an external coach, a manager coaching a worker, or peer coaching) through workplace conversations including reviews and appraisals, team development, quality groups, organizational development, leadership development, outplacement, conflict resolution, career guidance, and many more. As will become apparent, these many different contexts have brought a reappraisal of how SF practice can be defined and described.

While the usual question-based descriptions taken from the therapy world provide a good start, the different relationships found in the workplace give rise to different needs; how (for example) to ask questions from a not-knowing position if one is the manager, has known all those involved for many years, and will need to continue the relationship long after the conversation has finished. Jackson and McKergow (2002) offered six "solutions tools" and six SIMPLE principles to guide managers:

  • Solutions - not problems
  • In between - not individual
  • Make use of what's there - not what isn't
  • Possibilities - from the past, present, and future
  • Language - simply said
  • Every case is different - beware ill-fitting theory


Hjerth (in Klingenstierna, 2001) addressed the same issue in a different way with the PLUS model:


  • Platform - what is the issue
  • Look from the preferred future - what is wanted
  • Utilize successes and resources - use what is already working
  • Stepping the scales - next steps forward


Cauffman and Dierolf (2006) have offered the metaphor of a dance between those involved, with seven steps (socializing, contextualizing, goal setting, uncovering resources, giving compliments, differentiating through scaling, future orientation).

All these efforts highlight the challenge in translating the subtle simplicity of SF practice for an audience that wants something quick and easy with which to work. None of these translations is definitive; indeed, their variety shows how challenging it can be to describe SF practice. The impossibility of developing a complete and definitive model of SF practice has brought challenges in spreading the word in management circles, as compared to approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry (see, for example, Cooperider & Whitney, 2001). However, it has also helped to generate many interesting variations, each of which may work well in particular circumstances. For a comparison between SF, Appreciative Inquiry, and Positive Psychology see McKergow (2005).

Solution-focused work is a very practice-oriented field, which may have resulted in the relative underdevelopment of the academic side (Gale Miller, as quoted in McKergow, 2009b). There are signs that this situation is also starting to change: David Weber is now teaching the SF approach as a consulting and communication methodology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the SFCT journal InterAction publishes peer-reviewed papers.

Research Methods

As I mentioned in the Introduction, there tends to be less focus on standardized testing/research in the organizational field than in therapy. Most organizations are primarily concerned with results in their own context rather than with adding to global knowledge, and even outcome research-trying the same intervention over and over and logging the results-is not a feature of the landscape. This fact may be connected to less rigorous adherence to a diagnostic paradigm; after all, a diagnosis is supposed to provide valuable information for treatment, and the therapeutic conventions about diagnosis may lead researchers down the path of testing interventions against certain diagnoses. In the world of the manager, progress now-in whatever messy and confused situation-is of overriding importance.

In general, the research data that exist are more like case studies of bespoke interventions in specific situations. In some cases there are measured outcomes, in others simply a satisfactory conclusion from the organization's point of view. However, some projects have been written up and published with enough detail for the reader to be able to place confidence in the results, and it is these projects that I summarize here. There are many more interventions with anecdotal evidence of success.

Results of Research


Coaching has been one of the earliest fields to pick up on the possibilities offered by the SF approach. This may well be due to the contextual similarities between therapy and coaching: A helper talks to a client with the overall aim of helping the client make progress in a challenging situation. Anthony Grant of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney was one of those to grasp some of the possibilities early on (Greene & Grant, 2003), although his work features much else besides SF ideas. Peter Szabó of Weiterbildungs Forum in Switzerland has been teaching SF coaching since about 1997, and his book with Insoo Kim Berg (Berg & Szabó, 2005) has been influential in the international coaching community. He has recently presented an even more brief and clear version of these ideas (Szabó & Meier, 2009). This chapter looks at coachin

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