Andy Smith’s “Practical EQ” weblog, provides an interesting and useful overview of the latest edition of Jackson and McKergow’s book, Solutions Focus. As someone who has used the Solutions Focus (SF) approach in individual and team coaching interventions, I share Andy’s attraction to the method. The shift in focus that it facilitates – from what needs fixing to what’s already going well that can be built upon – can provide a powerful form of reframing during performance improvement conversations of one form or another.
Building on strengths
Unlike conventional approaches, SF conversations aim to stay with the positives in the current situation, however infrequently and fleetingly these might be experienced. Shifting attention to the perceived shortfalls against an imagined ideal is deliberately avoided. This tends to result in a more energized – and energizing – exchange. During this dialogue, resources are identified (such as past achievements, current capabilities and positive intentions) that can be mobilized to achieve movement towards the desired goal.
If you are involved in team and individual coaching and have not yet made use of SF, I would highly recommend it as a useful technique to employ from time to time. I would also agree with Andy Smith that Jackson and McKergow’s books provide an accessible and practical way into it. At the same time …
Organizational Change is not SIMPLE
In seeking to collapse the essence of the Solutions Focus approach into an easily remembered acronym, S.I.M.P.L.E., Jackson and McKergow seem to imply that bringing about organizational change is also a simple, stepwise affair. Indeed, the subtitle of the new book makes this claim explicit. I would be surprised, though, if they really believe that this is the case. After all, as Andy Smith points out in his review, the authors cite complexity theory as one of the important strands of thinking that have informed the development of SF. And the complexity perspective is about recognizing the self-organizing, non-linear and emergent dynamics of organizational change and performance.
Organizations are not machines. They are what Stacey would call complex responsive processes of human interaction - see Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations, for example (Amazon UK or Amazon US). In the language of informal coalitions, they comprise dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations; people interacting for a purpose - or, more accurately, for many purposes. And these patterns of interaction cannot be mandated by managers – or anyone else for that matter – whether by following step-by-step recipes or otherwise seeking to impose a predetermined outcome on events.
Significantly in this regard, Andy Smith draws attention to what Jackson and McKergow call the “inbetween principle” as the ‘I’ in their acronym. This similarly recognizes that “the action is in the interaction between people.” Leading organizations from a complexity perspective is about seeking to engage with this dynamic network of everyday conversations and interactions in a deliberate, aware and actively participative way. As the patterns of conversation and interaction change, so does the organization. Jackson and McKergow's 'L' in their acronym (for language) again attests to the central importance of this.
Solutions Focus is simple in concept and straightforward to apply as a technique for facilitating particular types of conversation. To the extent that its use helps to shift the patterns of some local conversations in new directions, and to unblock those that otherwise might remain stuck in unhelpful ‘grooves’, it can justifiably claim to be changing the organization. But it is not a process for ‘managing change’, in the sense that this phrase is usually understood. Indeed the idea of a step-by-step process for managing change itself denies the dynamics of complexity that Jackson and McKergow identify as central to the SF approach. It would be a pity, therefore, if what might otherwise be a useful tool for engaging people at work and stimulating constructive approaches to the issues that they face were to align itself with many other n-step methodologies that offer the false promise of painless change and sure-fire outcomes.