Keywords: Affirmation, counters, customer, future perfect, platform, project implementation, problem axis, solution axis
Published in Solution Focused Management, Lueger G and Korn H-P (eds), Rainer Hampp Verlag, 2006, pp 357 - 362
This article explores the art of platform building - an essential, if unglamorous, part of the SF toolkit. I first describe the platform tool and then illustrate its use in a particular job in a factory producing semiconductors. The brief involved a Project Implementation assignment: Head Office had decreed what was to happen and the factory managers wanted to implement this smoothly and effectively. On the face of it, this was a well-defined project. However, as I hope to show, the chances of its success were greatly increased by some careful platform building from the outset.
The "Platform" is one of the Solutions tools introduced in the book The Solutions Focus (Jackson and McKergow 2002: 28). The Platform is almost always the starting point for the work of a Solutions Focus (SF) consultant, manager or coach (SF practitioner for short) - the point when the outside consultant meets the client, or where the coach or manager first hears about a problematic situation.
Classically - in the problem-focused world - the present problematic situation lies on a line connecting the origins of the problem through the present to an undesirable future. We call this the Problem axis (Figure 1). The theory is that the problem has intriguing roots in the past and, if things continue unchecked, it will lead to dire consequences in the future. Much time and intellectual energy is devoted to analysing both the roots of problems and just how bad things might become. Diagnosing the problem and investigating the causes of the problem are seen as an essential part of addressing the problem.
SF workers operate on a very different axis - the Solution axis. We are interested in what the client wants (not what they don't want) and what is already happening which is pushing them in the desired direction. We use our analytic skills to explore the desired future using the Future Perfect tool based on the miracle question (Jackson and McKergow 2002: 32); the Counters tool helps us to pile up and investigate examples of the Future Perfect happening already as well as the client's relevant strengths, qualities, skills and resources (Jackson and McKergow 2002: 59).
The role of the SF practitioner is to move the conversation as quickly and elegantly as possible so that it pivots from the problem axis to the solution axis. This is where the Platform tool comes in.
I used to think that this was so obvious as to be almost trivial. However, experience has shown that time spent in this phase of an SF conversation can be time well spent and I now think that building a secure and sturdy platform is a key part of a successful outcome reached in a smooth and harmonious way.
The Platform is the starting point of a conversational journey into unexplored territory. So it is important to make the platform a secure setting-off point, giving the client confidence in embarking on the journey. To feel confident, the client must sense that he has been listened to, that his situation is understood and acknowledged, that the general direction is known and that the journey is worthwhile. The SF practitioner must also feel confident before inviting the client to step off the platform - confident that the client is a "customer for change". A "customer" in this specialised sense is someone who wants something to be different AND is prepared to do something about it (if they only knew what). There may be a general feeling of dissatisfaction about a situation, but unless there is someone who wants things to change AND is willing to do something themselves, there is no project. If no-one is bothered by the situation, or if everyone thinks that it's not their job, or not in their sphere of influence, to do something about it, then you haven't yet got a secure platform.
You know you have a customer when you have a sense of permission to go on - the client has told you the situation and is confident that you have heard that story; he has an idea of the direction he wants to go (perhaps captured by a name for the project) and has shown some enthusiasm for setting off in that direction.
Having established a sense of direction, it is worth spending some time exploring the benefits of moving forwards, to make the platform even more secure. The client himself must see some benefit, but there is also a whole range of stakeholders - his colleagues, his department, the company, its customers, his family ... - whose perspective will be interesting to explore. All this adds to the client's motivation and keenness to continue.
And, finally, before stepping off the platform and picking up some of the more sexy tools from the SF toolbox, look at grounds for hope and confidence in making progress. The client will have revealed numerous strengths and resources in the course of the conversation. The good SF practitioner will pause at this stage, reflect on the strengths and resources the client has revealed (the Affirm tool, Jackson and McKergow 2002: 81) and sum up what he wants and the benefits of proceeding.
A case study may be useful in illustrating the art of platform building. The client was a manufacturer of semiconductors, with production lines working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their factory was one of half a dozen US-owned plants all over the world. Head Office had invited McKinsey's to do a best practice study of production methods throughout the company and similar organisations and come up with new working methods to be adopted on a company-wide basis. By following the recommended working methods, the company hoped to save US$150m a year.
The McKinsey report had significant implications for the factory - there would be lay-offs, reporting lines and job titles would change and there was some concern that the need for absence cover had not been properly factored in to the calculations. However, implementation was not part of McKinsey's brief and so they were no longer available to help the factory management. The factory Managing Director (MD) was relatively new in post. He was aware that implementation was a non-trivial part of the undertaking and wanted to give it its best chance. He had heard about the Solutions Focus approach from his therapist wife, and wondered if it might help. The "sales" meeting itself was an important part of building the platform: rather than spend the time talking about our approach and how great it is, most of the time was taken up by asking about the project and visiting the production line. We were called in about half way through a 39 week project.
The MD proposed a one day work shop with the Project Implementation Team (PIT), a group of 9 people mixed in terms of function, hierarchy and geography within the factory. On the face of it, this was a well-defined project for us, with a well-defined process (one-day workshop) and a clear outcome - meeting the McKinsey recommendations. Associated gains were that this would be seen as a new start for the factory, helping it to move towards a long term responsive future.
We asked for two more important platform building meetings before the workshop itself: a meeting with the PIT and a meeting with the MD and other members of the Senior Management Team on site. We described the meeting with the PIT as a fact-finding meeting to bring us up to speed on the project and the associated issues. After hearing about the project, we asked "What's going well so far?" This led to a long list of achievements to date, punctuated frequently with "buts". We called the "buts" "potential challenges" and listed them on flip charts and captured them on Power Point before the workshop itself the following day. We closed the pre-meeting by feeding back the list of achievements to date, and the list of potential issues (where necessary translated so that they were expressed in terms of what they wanted, not what they didn't want) and then told the group what had impressed us thus far in what we had heard.
We then met the Senior Management Team, and elicited from them their best hopes for the project as far as their site was concerned. We also asked them all to reflect on a time in their own experience in which they had felt part of a well-motivated team, taking pride and pleasure in their work. The list led to a useful list of "Things we must remember to get right" and helped engage the Senior Managers in the project.
As usual in workshops run by The Solutions Focus, the room was decorated with posters with appropriate quotations and colourful toys were put onto the tables, so that people who think best while fiddling with something had something (quiet) to fiddle with. Having met everyone the previous day, we could start the workshop in a relaxed yet purposeful way. We repeated the list of achievements already gathered and the list of 18 challenges. These included things like
The list was very similar to the Senior Managers' "things we must remember to get right"; we reported the Senior Managers' views to the PIT.
Next, we asked the participants to list the key groups of people affected by the changes. The list included operators, foremen, managers, day staff including engineering specialists, the different shifts and "our masters in the USA". Working alone, each participant drew up a list of benefits for one of the groups; then in groups of 3, the benefits lists were shared and augmented. Sharing these lists in the full group was a very energizing experience (we captured the lists on flip charts and later on PowerPoint) and set the right mood for stepping off the platform to the next stage of the workshop.
After leaving the Platform (after coffee break in the morning), the rest of the workshop ran on fairly classic SF lines. There was a Future Perfect exercise in which participants were asked
"Suppose ... that a magic wand is waved and suddenly everything we've talked about is in place and all the challenges have been resolved ... " Two groups were asked to make a story board showing a day in the life of the site from the point of view of all the different constituencies identified earlier. What will be happening? Who is doing what? Who is talking to whom? What information is being exchanged? etc
The story boards were compared and common threads drawn out, especially the important interfaces in the life of the factory. Then, working individually, everyone was asked to scale the present situation half way through the project (where 10 was the story they had just put together and 0 meant none of that was happening) and to list everything that was happening to get that high up the scale. Going round the room, people gave one of the achievements from their list at a time until 5 pages of flip chart paper had been filled with Counters (Jackson and McKergow 2002: 59).
Then everyone picked the achievement which impressed them the most and made some observations about what had helped it to happen.
Finally, everyone chose a small action for themselves - something that they could do during the next week, chosen to raise their own perception of the current position on the scale by just one point - or even a fraction of a point. People left the room feeling energetic and purposeful.
Over half of the time spent on this project was taken up in Platform Building. This included visiting the production line - an important symbol of interest, willingness to learn and desire to become familiar with the project. The client felt heard and understood and all the "problems", "challenges" or "issues" (choose your euphemism!) were aired and acknowledged. But they were acknowledged "with a twist" as Bill O'Hanlon (1999) would put it. The twist is from what's wrong to what would be better - to pivot from the problem axis to the solutions axis.
Since that work was completed in the summer of 2005, we have been involved in three more projects with the same client - designing and implementing new reporting structures, cost reduction and detailed job definition in the light of the new organisational structure. When we asked one group what they were particularly proud of at work in the previous couple of months, they mentioned the way the recent lay-offs had been handled - a major concern of the post McKinsey PIT. We expect to enjoy a continuing relationship with the client for the foreseeable future.
I will describe this project during my workshop at SOL. The input session will be followed by a couple of exercises to practise platform building skills. Finally, there will be a full group discussion of Platform building with groups.
I hope that this will be an interesting and engaging session, prompting participants to think hard about the value of establishing a secure platform even in situations where, on the face of it, the client is clear about what is wanted.
Time spent building a platform is time well spent: it lets the client feel heard; it gives the consultant valuable information about the client's strengths and resources; it gives the consultant time to learn about the issues affecting the client - and to learn some three letter acronyms and other important bits of vocabulary and jargon, thus raising the consultant's credibility.
Jackson P./McKergow M. (2002): The Solutions Focus, London: Nicholas Brealey O'Hanlon W.H (1999): A Guide to Possibility Land: W. W. Norton & Company
Jenny Clarke spent over 20 years in the energy industry, gaining wide functional experience including operational research, strategic and business planning, dealing with Government and regulatory issues, public inquiry management and administration. Since 1992, she has been an independent solutions focused consultant, facilitator and trainer.
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