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Constructing the Future

Different dialogues about solution-focused work

a discussion document by Mark McKergow, Gale Miller
and the Karlstad Group - June 2007


We believe that the solution-focused world is at a potential tipping point. The issue at hand involves the next steps that participants in the solution-focused world might take to construct the future. One possibility is to continue existing patterns of innovation and application, which have been highly successful in introducing solution-focused practices and principles into diverse institutional settings around the world. The term "solution-focused" is well known in many different fields today. Unfortunately, many people who have heard the term know little about the principles that define and guide the work of solution-focused practitioners. The success of the solution-focused movement, then, may be limited by its restricted horizons.

We believe that an important next step for the solution-focused movement involves widening the horizons of the movement to connect it with other-complementary-orientations to social thought and practice. This move promises to increase popular awareness and influence of solution-focused principles and practices. It also opens new possibilities for further developing solution-focused practices and thought into the future. The latter changes include constructing new understandings about what solution-focused practitioners already do and new standpoints for examining the past assumptions and conventional wisdom of the solution-focused approach.

This proposal outlines one future direction for solution-focused thought and practice. It discusses the usefulness of complexity theory for understanding how change happens within social interaction and how solution-focused practices facilitate change. We encourage others to respond to the proposal and to offer their own proposals for advancing the solution-focused movement. The proposals could form one basis for conversations about the future. A related issue involves identifying useful venues for such conversations, such as conference and internet sites where interested people could converse as well as publication outlets where ideas might be more formally developed. The latter outlets are particularly important in reaching potential audiences outside of the solution-focused community.

The general outline of the proposal was collaboratively developed in a seminar on "Complex Simplicity and Simple Complexity" held in Karlstad in May of this year. We thank the seminar participants for their important contributions to the proposal.

Complexity Theory

Complexity theory emerged in the natural sciences and has been applied to social relationships and organizations. Complexity studies focus on how the elements in a system are connected within nonlinear relationships that produce new social structures in the process of coping with their environments. Complex systems differ from other systems in their ability to transform largely unstructured beginnings into new and more complex patterns of relationship. Complex systems are said to be self-organizing because they have the capacity to adapt to uncertain environments by transforming themselves.

Complex systems should not be confused with complicated systems (such as computers or airplanes), which consist of many elements that are linked together in nonlinear relationships and, hence, lack the capacity of self-organization. Complex systems resist conventional modes of analysis concerned with identifying the form and function of system parts because complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. The systems consist of describable patterns of seemingly simple and small actions that may become large transformations as they are reshaped within the nonlinear interactions of system elements. An example is how new meanings are constructed within otherwise ordinary conversations. The conversations are simultaneously simple ('nothing is hidden' in the words of Wittgenstein) and complex (unknowable in advance, generative and responsive), but not complicated.

When it is applied to human relationships, complexity theory calls attention to the self-organizing capacity of social interaction. Social interactions involve nonlinear processes of give-and-take (turn-making and turn-taking) that make emergence possible. The process of social interaction produces synergistic possibilities that cannot be fully predicted or controlled. While the future is always under construction in the present, no one (including planners, managers, leaders, experts and outside observers) can know with certainty what will eventually emerge as the future. Thus, complexity theory offers a distinctive standpoint for observing social interaction, one that orients to transformative possibilities in social relationships and interactions.

These possibilities emerge as persons in interaction engage the many paradoxes of life. The paradoxes include how continuity and change emerge together, how freedom and constraint are inextricably linked, how self and society are interrelated, and how orderliness is also disorderly and vice versa. Where others seek to reconcile the seemingly incompatible elements of the paradoxes of life, complexity theorists treat them as irreconcilable. The paradoxes are conditions that we must continuously deal with in getting on with our lives. Transformation occurs as we go about the practical work of getting on with our lives by living in paradox.

Implications and next steps

We believe that complexity theory has important implications for understanding solution-focused practices and thought. The complexity theory view of language and conversation forms a counterpart to the solution-focused perspective within Bateson's metaphor of binocular vision. They are different-but not too different-ways of seeing the world. For example, proponents of both perspectives treat language and social interaction as self-organizing, synergistic processes. They also emphasize staying at the surface and the practical usefulness of description and of imagining futures that are unknowable in the present. Proponents of both perspectives recognize the importance of small steps (modest proposals) and indirect approaches in fostering large changes. Finally, we believe that experienced solution-focused practitioners develop a sense of the complexity involved in their simple work practices, even if they do not always have a language for talking about it.

Complexity theory and the solution-focused perspective are also sufficiently different that they represent distinctive locations for observing each other. We see complexity theory as a source for insights into how and why solution-focused practices work as they do. Complexity theory also casts solution-focused interactions occurring in counseling, consulting, teaching and related settings within wider frameworks of social interaction, relationship and change. For example, complexity theory is an interesting point of departure for exploring how "between session changes" emerge within clients' life worlds and how solution-focused practices facilitate (and perhaps retard) the changes. Complexity theory also calls attention to the paradoxical aspects of clients' lives and of solution-focused practices. The paradoxes include the simultaneous construction of continuity and change in solution-focused interactions, the presence of exceptions in people's problem-dominated lives, and the usefulness of asserting personal agency in a world that is beyond our personal control.

These and related issues form starting points for constructing a future solution-focused world that we cannot know in advance. We can, however, decide what our next small steps will be. Thus, we wish to convene a discussion at the annual meeting of the EBTA 2007 in Bruges on the following and related issues.

  1. What are the benefits of placing solution-focused though and practice in a wider context?
  2. How might solution-focused thought and practice be linked with complexity theory?
  3. What other fields may offer interesting descriptions and perspectives relating to solution-focused thought and practice?
  4. What opportunities currently exist for engaging these issues and how might we construct other opportunities for conversation?

We invite others interested in constructing a future along these lines to join us in Bruges, and to make people (including us) aware of connections you have seen which may offer new ways to look at solution-focused thought and practice. Our goal is to initiate a process, not determine its outcomes. We look forward to some lively discussion and debate.