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Conveying Simplicity

Learning how to act simply in complex situations

Keywords: simplicity, training, elegance, functionalist, ikebana, Steve de Shazer


Simplicity is a key aspect of both the work of Steve de Shazer and the SF approach. However, conveying this simplicity to managers is not easy. In this workshop, Mark McKergow and Michael Hjerth will introduce activities and lead discussions to explore the role of simplicity in SF work, to help participants to think more simply about their own practice and to help convey these ideas to managers learning SF.


Simplicity is a key aspect of both the work of Steve de Shazer and of the SF approach. Steve was described by Insoo Kim Berg as 'the man with Occam's Razor' (Berg 2004), and the ideas of acting minimally, making minimal assumptions and using language very carefully are central to this methodology. Steve himself was well-known for acting 'simple', even describing his therapeutic persona as 'de Shazer the stupid' (de Shazer 1994: 34).

Demonstrating the simple approach with a client is one thing, but talking about it can get very complicated (references to social construction and Wittgenstein being brought into play). De Shazer himself could appear reluctant to talk about it. He was known for his firmness in trainings, frequently responding 'I don't know' to questions which did not make sense within his understanding of language usage and SF practice. This approach was rigorous and certainly 'walked the talk'. However, we both observed many workshop participants being puzzled by this and finding it unhelpful.


If we look in the dictionary for a definition of simplicity, we find many uses of the word - for mathematics (simple equation, not involving terms higher than first order), for medicine (a simple fracture), and for finance (simple interest, not compounded). In amongst these we can find an entry relating to simple ideas - not complicated or elaborate or adorned or involved.

In a more philosophical contect, the concept of simplicity is associated with Occam's Razor. This principle, first defined by the English monk and scholar William of Occam in the 14th century, is usually rendered as

'it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer'.

This remark can be seen in the context of the philosphophy of the time. The dominant school of the thought, the Scholastics, were concerned to find more and more complicated explanations of the world and how it worked. The more complicated the idea, clearly the cleverer it was, and the most likely to be true. William railed against this, and articulated his idea that, on the contrary, the simplest idea - that with the fewest assumptions - which fitted the facts was preferable. This principle is part of philosophy, and also science, to this day. Excess assumptions are shaved off, as if with a razor, to reveal the truth.

Occam's Razor is often misunderstood. In a well-known example, creationists sometimes contend that their idea - God created everything - is very simple, and therefore is scientifically correct. Scientists contend that this is not at all simple - to postulate the existence of an omnipotent creator is a large move indeed, particularly when the world around us can be described in terms which do not require such a figure.

How is simplicity useful - to managers?

In the philosophical and scientific sense, Occam's Razor is used to pare away unnecessary assumptions to help determine the usefulness of different hypotheses or concepts - maximum explanation in minimum terms. In everyday management terms, this is not usually at the forefront of the busy manager's mind - most managers are more concerned with efficiency and effectiveness. One might say they want maximum results for minimum cost. However, these two considerations need not be at odds with each other.

In SF work, simplicity is taken as meaning maximum change for minimal talk and minimal use of time and resources. We find that this is welcomed by managers. Perhaps the fact that to do this they are also applying Occam's Razor in scientific and philosophical terms is a bonus?

Simplicity and Solutions Focus

In the context of SF practice, we can see the idea of simplicity reflected in all the things which SF practice does not (usually) do to get results, and which seem therefore to be unnecessary. These include:

Diagnosis of the problem
Examination of the cause of the problem
Interpreting the client's words according to a schema
Knowing better than the client about the client's life
Relating information from one case directly into another similar (but different) case
Referring to clients by their diagnosis ('does it work for alcoholics? Or for sales people?')
Speaking of mental processes as properties of individuals, or inside people
Talking in generalities and abstract terms about clients and with clients
Attempting to make detailed plans a long time in advance in an emergent world

Once we take Occam's Razor and shave these away, what is left? The simple, apparently naïve use of language that is SF practice. Only it isn't as straightforward as that.

The guiding principle of SF practice is to 'find what works and do more of it', and do do this with respect to each individual case. We cannot exclude the possibility that, in a given case, one of the 'unnecessary' elements in the list above may turn out to be useful. So, the finding of what works should be done with the most open of minds, perhaps the 'beginner' mind written about by Zen author Shunryu Suzuki.

Simplicity in action

As an observer, how would we identify simplicity in action? Acting simply does not mean doing as little as possible, it means doing as little as possible to achieve a particular result. So, we can't judge simplicity without the context of trying to achieve some end - to do nothing would always be very simple, but would not be connected to the context. Equally, it might also be thought simple to do the same thing again and again, even if it's not working, and expecting different results. Neither of these relate to the simplicity of SF practice.

Our simplicity is related to functionalism - the taking away of all ornaments or adornments which are not part of the functioning or purpose of the endeavour. There is an interesting parallel with ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. The method used is to remove stem after stem until what is left is in aesthetic harmony. The most elegant designs have few blooms, but in very carefully placed positions. More flowers do not automatically equal a 'better' arrangement. In the same way we might say that more ideas, assumptions, hypotheses do not make for a 'better' approach to change. There seems to us to be an element of elegance and aesthetics in SF practice, relating to this idea.

In his fascinating book The Luck Factor (Wiseman, 2004), British psychology professor Richard Wiseman gathered two groups of subjects, who rated themselves as particularly lucky or unlucky. He then set about examining how they managed to do this - what seems to lead to 'luck'.

He found that, amongst other things, 'luck' was connected to the way people responded to the random possibilities presented to them in everyday life. The 'lucky' group were much better at noticing and utilizing these opportunities, whereas the 'unlucky' group would shy away. This kind of response to useful yet random events is also seen in swarm intelligence - those who attended SOL 2004 may remember the demonstration of computer ants finding and taking food. One ant finds the food by chance, and then releases a trail of pheromones for the other ants to find, which they do again by chance. Once these 'tracks that work' have been discovered and marked, however, the whole ant community swings into action and before long all the food is safely gathered.

This example shows a version of elegant simplicity. The simple rules of the ants are combined with random movement which provide a reliable and robust method to achieve a certain result.

How to be simple

What kind of information do we need to make things work? What is the simplest way to get it? The most fundamental way to us seems to be the distinction between information relating to 'when does it work' versus 'when does it not work'. Information about the problem contains much less useful information than information about what is wanted, the 'solution' in SF. This is the direct route - along which there may be many excursions and pitfalls.

However, when a client shows up with a problem, usually the things that go wrong are better known to them than things that go right. So, you have to ask questions to throw more light on what works. We observe than in other traditions people start by asking about why things became wrong in the first place - whose fault was it, what should we have done... These are not the simplest questions. Why not do directly to what's wanted and start to throw light on that. For example, if a meeting at work has gone badly, we can start to discuss how we would like the next meeting to be rather than focus on the last meeting (a detour), perhaps by asking what should we keep doing and looking for small steps.

This way of thinking also applies to organizations. If you have a plan with a lot of unnecessary elements, then that is not only inelegant, but it wastes your energy. The simplicity of SF offers us a way to remove some of the things and focus on others - for example look at the distant or ideal future and the first steps, and avoid wasting time on the details of the unknowable 'ant country' (Stewart and Cohen, 1997) of complex interactions in between.

One key distinction between problem-focused and solution-focused approaches lies in the 'information content' of statements relating to the problem (what is wrong) and to the solution (what is wanted). This is analogous to being hungry and going to the supermarket with a list of everything you don't need to make pancakes. This list would take a lot of time to compile and would be very long indeed - a real waste of energy. Compare this with the much shorter list of ingredients for pancakes. Not only is this list much more useful (assuming that you want pancakes), it also takes much less energy to compile. This is not only efficient in the managerial sense; it also frees you up to also consider another list, which is about possibilities - in this case things which might work well in pancakes. Staying simple provides more opportunity and energy for noticing possibilities and happenstance - one of the key behaviours of 'lucky people' in Wiseman's research.

There is a false assumption that we need to maximize knowledge, to know before we act. The simplest way is to know what we need to know (and how little we need to know) to act, and act knowing no more than that. People seem to want to collect as much data as possible, instead of asking what they need. One way to go on here is to scale the knowledge needed on a 0 - 10 scale, and work from that - in practice, people seem to have no sorting mechanism for the knowledge, and SF can provide one.

Sometimes people say to us 'But surely, sometimes you HAVE to look into the past?' For example, in the case of a major rail accident, there is usually an inquiry. This does not look simple, but we can shed some light on the matter by following the example of Wittgenstein and looking at how the inquiry is used. Usually, although people think of the inquiry as about 'never letting it happen again', it has many functions included providing a focal point, gathering information about what actually happened, assigning responsibility for legal purposes, acting a forum for affected people etc etc. These are not so much to do with finding out what to do next time as giving a focus to what's happening NOW - giving people something to do in response to a distressing event.

Conveying simplicity

To learn to act in this manner of elegant simplicity is one thing. But how to convey it to others, particularly busy managers, is quite another. To those accustomed to the usual ways of talking about problems and their resolution, it may appear naïve, ignorant and even completely stupid. So, how are we to convey these ideas?

Steve de Shazer made things somewhat easier for himself by always working in a defined context, therapy. When he was asked questions which presupposed some kind of different and less simple use of language, his reply of 'I don't know' was some kind of version of 'That doesn't make sense, that's not a useful question'. We might say that he was handing the control back to the questioner, so they could have another try. In his therapeutic work, this was the 'different kind of cleverness' of Steve. In a training context, this approach is certainly rigorous and 'walks the talk'. However, we observed many trainees found it unhelpful and frustrating, as what seemed to them to be sensible questions were apparently ignored.

Is there a better way to convey these ideas? We will address two possibilities here, a functionalist perspective and (briefly) a linguistic perspective.

A functionalist perspective

In the functionalist perspective, we start by thinking about what we are trying to do, and wondering how to do this simply, by using the minimum information. In conveying this, we might ask managers to consider what might be the most useful things to know, and work from there.

The use of scales is a case in point. Using a scale to focus on relevant information is a tool which is very condensed. For example, we may be interested in the difference between where things are now (maybe a five) and slightly better (a six). This difference between five and six contains a lot of potential information, of which we may not need all.

To take an example from everyday life at work: A common complaint in many organisations is the abundance of meetings. We frequently ask workshop participants if they ever find themselves in a meeting the purpose of which they are unsure. The response to this is usually a sea of nodding heads. We would suggest this is partly a result of confusing the reasons for a meeting with the purpose of the meeting.

The reasons for the meeting can be said to describe what has led up to the meeting. The purpose, on the other hand, describes what we hope the meeting will lead to. If the desired outcomes, purposes, of the meeting is not clearly understood among the participants in the planning of the meeting, we will not be able to use Occams' razor to set a useful agenda: to discuss only matters which contribute to the outcomes in a useful way. The agenda should be formulated from the purpose and not from the reasons.

One of the most useful things to do before or at the start of a meeting is to talk and think about the following 4 groups of questions

  1. Platform - what is the purpose of this meeting? What kind of event is it? What benefits are you seeking?
  2. Looking Forward - what do you hope to be able to do afterwards, what is the least that needs to happen, what effects are you hoping for, etc Getting an image of the preferred future, using time distortion
  3. Utilising - when have you done similar things before, how do you do them?
  4. Stepping the Scales - so what do you need to do NOW?
This kind of pre-work might seem like extra work, but what it is enable us to do is stay simple, and thus stay efficient. These four steps all contain useful information - allowing the manager to focus very quickly on useful things.

Staying focused on what's wanted

The Dalai Lama says that the recipe for happiness is simple - find what makes you happy and do more of it, find out what makes you unhappy and stop doing that. We think this has the same kind of simplicity. Not only that, it can be very practical.

Michael was taking to his son Daniel about his work with people who say they drink too much. He asked Daniel, "What should I do with these people?" Daniel said, "If they drink too much they should stop".

Yes...but that's the problem, they don't know how to do that."

"If they do something that's better than drinking, then they're not drinking. You should ask them 'what's better than drinking?'. Then they will have something else to do."

"And if they drink all the time..."

"Ask what they used to do that was better than drinking, and tell the do it again."

"And if they can't remember anything (as they are so drunk)?"

"Ask them what COULD be better than drinking, and try it!, and if it is indeed better, they could do that"

Note that none of this is about why they drink now. It focuses right onto the important issue, which is about what they want to do that is not drinking. It doesn't fall into the traps of looking for explanations, seeking diagnoses, $5000 words and so on. This is the same 'different kind of cleverness', we suggest.

A linguistic perspective

Another way into this different kind of cleverness is through ideas like the interactional view (devised by the Mental Research Institute in the 1960s) and social construction. Mark in particular has made various attempts to convey these by talking about them, with apparently little success. These are complex ideas, and talking about them soon becomes very complicated. Some trainees have even complained that they thought that SF was supposed to be about simplicity, and this is not simple at all!

So, we are coming to the conclusion that a functionalist perspective offers a useful way to talk about simplicity. Once some kind of simple practice has been learned, it may be possible to enter into discussions about other concepts of simplicity, like social construction. The functionalist metaphor is easy to get across, particularly to business people who are interested in making progress rapidly. It may be that added credibility can be gained by dropping in references to things like swarm intelligence, luck research and so on.

Our workshop

In the conference workshop Mark McKergow and Michael Hjerth will review both the aspects of simplicity within the SF approach, and more specifically the way in which this is communicated. Should we follow de Shazer's uncompromising line? How can we offer other kinds of response.which may be seen as more helpful when talking about the approach rather than just doing it?

The workshop will build participants' understanding of 'simplicity' in both conceptual and practical terms. Practically, we will explore the rigour with which Steve approached his work, and ways in which that rigour can help hard-pressed managers and consultants as they attempt to 'stay simple'. We will examine everyday SF tools to see how they are used to build simplicity, in response to the inevitable complexities of life.

After attending your contribution the participants will be able to:

  1. Define the role of simplicity as it applies (we think) to SF practice.
  2. Refine their own SF practice, to critically assess the simplicity of their work
  3. Build new rigour into their practice, to do even more with even less
  4. Be eager to get to work and try out some of their new simplicity in action at work


Berg IK (2004): In conversation with MMcK in a workshop, Toronto, Canada, October 2004
Jackson P Z/ McKergow M (2002): The Solutions Focus, Nicholas Brealey Publishing
de Shazer S (1994): Words Were Originally Magic, WW Norton
Stewart I/Cohen J: Figments of Reality, Cambridge University Press
Wiseman R (2004): The Luck Factor; The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind, Arrow


Mark McKergow is a consultant, trainer, author and speaker. He is the co-author of 'The Solutions Focus', founded SolutionsBooks to publish new work on using SF ideas in organisations, and has spoken about Solutions Focus on every continent except Antarctica. Find out more about Mark at www.thesolutionsfocus.com and www.mckergow.com, and contact him at mark@mckergow.com.

Michael Hjerth is a consultant, trainer and coach with FKC Stockholm, Sweden. He has trained hundreds of people and many European countries. Michael has developed the PLUS-model for SF-work, what has been applied to a multitude of situations from planning conferences, 5-minute coaching, and group coaching for career-development, stress-related problems and other worklife issues. Michael's webpage, including his blog, is at www.openchanges.com (English) and www.framtidscoach.se (Swedish). Michael works with FKC which can be found on the web at www.fkc.se. Contact Michael at michael@openchanges.com.