The Solutions Focus

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Solutions - No Problem

Stop doing what doesn't work. Find out what works and do more of it. These are some of the SIMPLE and powerful principles of the new approach to business problem solving- Solutions Focus.

The UK's Dr Mark McKergow, in a recent seminar at the Ideas Vault in Sydney, taught a group of human resources and business managers how to ask the "miracle" question. And with that, unwrapped for them a revolutionary new approach to business problem solving.

 For years, business managers have sought the "root cause" of business problems. "Let's analyze what is causing it, so we can find a solution". Mark McKergow finds that sometimes it is helpful to analyze how you got yourself into your mess. But as often as not, it is an unhelpful path. His consulting with European businesses has brought him to understand that the key to future success is more likely to lie in a focus on the solution, rather than on the problem.

In his book, "The Solutions Focus: The SIMPLE way to positive change", Mark sites the example of the chemical plant manager having trouble with the new safety inspector. The inspector from the government regulator had the power to go wherever he wanted on site, enforce improvements and even to shut the plant if he wished. While the plant manager and his team had got along fine with previous inspectors, this one was different. He seemed particularly officious. The plant manager couldn't work out how to work with this guy and the relationship was going from bad to worse.

Traditional problem solving suggested the plant manager should

  1. Examine why the inspector couldn't see sense

  2. Do a barrier analysis to determine what was impeding him from seeing that the safety matters were in control

  3. Determine the root cause of the inspector's dislike of the plant management

  4. Have a psych profile conducted on the inspector to see if he was "all there"

  5. Go over the inspector's head to the boss and have him replaced

When Mark arrived, he took a solutions focus approach. He asked the plant manager to rate, on a scale of 0-10, his best encounter with the safety inspector. "Zero" came the reply. "Apart from once, when it was a three for 20 seconds".

In solutions focus you learn to look for what works and do more of it. In that 20 seconds there was the germ of a solution. Mark asked the plant manager what he had done to bring about the dramatic, if brief, improvement. "I suppose I stopped pushing him for a moment and gave him time to think", came the plant manager's reply.

The plant manager and his team then set about listing the things they had done to generate their best exchanges with the safety inspector and they realized that the way they behaved was having an influence. They had pushed him for actions before he had the information he needed; crowded and confused him in meetings and generally not given him the things he needed to be an effective contributor to the plant.

Then they identified ways to avoid doing the things that didn't work and do more of what does. They resolved to bring fewer people to the meetings, so he wouldn't feel so outnumbered; wear name badges, so he could learn who was who; give him more notice of impending meetings and issues; and so on.

No rocket science in the solutions themselves. But for the plant management, the process launched them on the path to success. They had been looking at what was wrong and thought that the best solution was to replace the inspector. By focusing on when the problem was a bit better, they found actions they could take to make the good things happen more often.

The Solutions Focus approach has 6 Simple steps:

1. Solutions, not problems is where you should focus

2. Interactions are where the action is. Look for the action in between.

3. Make use of what's there, not what isn't

4. Possibilities- look for them in the past, the present and the future

5. Language. ­ Use $5 words, not $5000 words.

6. Every case is different- beware the ill-fitting theory

Ask solution-focused questions. Instead of " What is wrong with what you are doing", try "What are you aiming to achieve". Not "How do you know you are making mistakes?" but "How will you know you have achieved it?"

In the Sydney seminar, Mark taught the group how to:

  1. Build a platform for the change you are seeking

  2. Describe the future perfect

  3. Use counters to show small steps towards the solution

  4. Determine a scale to measure progress

  5. Affirm, recognize and value what the people involved are contributing to the solution

  6. Spot the small actions that make the big differences

Along the way, the group learnt that "The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook", William James 1842-1910 and Occam's Razor "Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity". 13th Century philosophers knew you should go for simple solutions. How come 21st Century managers want to analyze things to death, rather than working out what is working and doing more of it?

One of the keys to success in Solutions Focus is to be able to ask the "miracle question". It goes something like this-

" Supposethat you leave here today and you go homeand you finish your dayand you go to bed. And while you are asleep a miracle happens, and the problem that we have just been talking about has vanished! But you were asleep, so you don't know the miracle in your business has happened. When you wake up tomorrow, what will be the first signs that you will see to let you know that the miracle has happened?"

The idea is to get them imagining what the solution might look like. Then help them identify when it is happening, even a little bit, already.

This process Mark McKergow calls the "future perfect". You get them to imagine what the perfect future might look like and then ask "what else?" to help them to describe the details of what it will look like. Ask them to describe the things that they will personally see, and the things that the boss, co-workers, customers, suppliers will see, until there is a detailed picture in the mind.

Then the technique of "scaling" can be used. With a question like" on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is absolutely the pits, and ten is a the perfect situation, where are you now in respect to this particular business problem?" It doesn't matter if they select a "1" or an "8". Whatever the point on the scale, the next question is " what would have to happen to take you one point up the scale?" The idea is to help them crystalise what a "better" situation would look like and how they might get there.

Along the way they can benefit by some affirmation that the things that they are already doing are helping to move them along the desired path. Find those things that are working and do more of them.

The origin of solutions focus was in the work of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in Milwaukee in the USA. In the 1980s they found that looking at the solution, rather than the problem, helped individuals to solve their life problems. They worked with individuals with drug dependencies, marital breakdowns, unruly teenagers, gambling additions. In finding solutions to personal problems, they found it was more helpful to focus on the solution, than to focus on the problem.

This style of approach became known as "Brief Therapy" because it was a shorter route to the solution. They figured that it was less helpful to know why you did it, whatever "it" might be. Charting a course away from "it" was more helpful.

It is from this same source that we now have solutions in business. It may be that knowing how we got here will help us go forward. But do we have the time to dig into it? Let's find a way to give the customers what they want, deliver to the shareholder, or whatever. Let's focus on the solution. Life is too short to spend working out who to blame!

Mark McKergow is based in the UK. For more information on Australian "brief" solutions to business challenges call Graham Nisbet on 02 96172363.

For an easy to read text on solutions in business click here to order your copy of "The Solutions Focus".

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