March 31, 2007

The WHAT and the WHY and the HOW

"If a manager has been effective in managing the WHAT and the WHY, he or she does not have to be too specific on the HOW. The rest of the organization can be trusted to solve problems, and you can tap into the creativity and strategic problem solving of everyone."

- David Maister, quote taken from this interview

March 30, 2007

The Power of the Positive No

William Ury is the co-author of the well-known book Getting to YES. In this book he explains how he has come to realize that getting to yes is only half of the picture. Ury even says that "whether and how we say No determines the very quality of our lives." The reason is that word No is indispensible whenever you have to stand up for what really matters to you.Certain situations can create tension between an issue which is important to you and a relationship that is also important to you. This tension can make us fall into the three-A trap of Accomodation (saying yes when we mean No), Attacking (responding forcefully) and Avoiding (doing nothing at all). Ury presents the positive No as a way out. In short this means:
  1. Yes! -> positively and concretely describing your core interests and values
  2. No. -> explicitely link your no to this YES!
  3. Yes? -> suggest another positive outcome or agreement to the other person.
Ury goes into much detail about how to prepare, deliver, and follow through your positive No. His style of wrting is crystal clear and his examples are interesting. Some examples are probably very recognizable to many readers (like: how do you say No to someone who wants to borrow money from you when you don't want to). Other examples are much grander (how to negotiate in an inter-ethnic conflict) and also interesting. The core idea of this book is very simple and very important. I was perhaps most interested to read Chapter 2 which explain the importance of a Plan B, which is your backup for your prefered outcome. I'll end this review with a quote by the great No-sayer Mahatma Gandhi (which is mentiond on page 7): "A `No' uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a `Yes' merely uttered to please or what is worse, to avoid trouble.

The Compliments Accordion

Some time ago, I did a post on The compliments wall. Recently, a participant in a training I gave, Ronald Koopman, told me about another exercise with compliments he had done in his team.

It goes like this: all the team members sit in a circle. Everyone gets a piece of paper and is asked to write their name at the top of the paper. Once they have done this, they pass the piece of paper to their neighbor on the right. On the paper they have received they write down what they appreciate in this person. Then, they fold the paper so that the name remains readable but the compliment they have just written is no longer readable. Next, the paper is passed on to the next person and the process repeats itself until all papers have come back to their owner. Each paper is now folded like a accordion. At the end of the exercise every team member has a nice list of things his colleagues appreciate in him or her.

March 28, 2007

Inquiry is agenda setting

"Inquiry is agenda setting, language shaping, affect creating, and knowledge creating. Inquiry is embedded in everything we do as managers, leaders, and agents of change."
This nice quote by appreciative inquiry founder David Cooperrider and Leslie Sekerka (2003) eloquently shows how inquiry is important. On what you decide to focus attention and questions can have far stretching consequences (see for instance here and here).

March 27, 2007

Start wherever you are and start small

Start wherever you are and start small.
- Rita Bailey

I love this quote by Rita Baily from Serenity-Solutions (she is former HR Director of Southwest Airlines). I think it's very simple, wise and solution-focused. In solution-focused change an assumption is that change can start anywhere (it does not have to be directed top down). Also a small steps approach is advocated. Read more about small steps.

March 26, 2007

Successful change programs begin with results

According to me, one of the most interesting management articles ever was written in 1992 by Schaffer and Thomson. To me, this article in its simplicity and results-focus was kind of like solution-focused change management avant la lettre. Their thought provoking article was called Successful change programs begin with results. I can't find a direct link to the article but here is a PowerPoint presentation about it.

Schaffer and Thomson call many change programs activity centered: the focus is on means and processes instead of on outcomes. Great effort is put in implementing programs, methods etc., like total quality management, reengineering and so on, in the hope that results will then automatically follow. The authors defy this logic. They claim that these activity centered approaches hardly ever work because the desired outcomes remain too vague, the change efforts are too large-scale and diffuse, and because means and goals are confused (the method seems to become more important than the originally desired outcomes). Schaffer and Thomson advocate a results-driven improvement process, which has the following characteristics:
  1. Organizations only introduce management and process innovations if necessary;
  2. Empirical tests show what works and what not;
  3. Frequent successes create new energy for improvement;
  4. Management creates a continuous learning process by applying lessons learnt in new phases.
I don't know if Schaffer and Thomson have written any other articles and books but this one is still very relevant and to the point.

March 24, 2007

How important is the concept of strengths really?

Sometimes, in solution-focused change, a lot of emphasis is put on what is called a strengths perspective. I have done that too (see for instance here and here). But I sometimes wonder if focusing on strengths is really one of the essential points of the SF-perspective.

I have two quotes to illustrate my confusion: QUOTE 1: Even seemingly negative traits can be called talents if they can be productively applied. (Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton). This quote by strengths based management guru's actually puts the notion of strengths somewhat into doubt. A characteristic which, in one situation, looks like a weakness, turns out to be a strength when applied in a situation which asks for just that characteristic. Apparentely, strength is at least partly dependent on the perspective you take.

Here is a second quote to add to the confusion: QUOTE 2: We do not believe that people have resources anymore than we believe that people have deficits...We believe that everyone is capable of doing what they need to do to get what they want. (Walter and Peller (1992). Maybe, the essence of solution-focused change (and perhaps this goes for positive psychology too) has even more to do with doing what works than with identifying and applying strengths per se. Doing what works has a lot to do with finding interactions between people and situations/environments which work. Doing what works requires that you specify how you would like things to be, try out different things you think may work, observing carefully what actually helps and doing more of that.

March 23, 2007

Was Bruce Lee Solution-Focused too?

Much of the most important groundwork for the development of the solution-focused approach was done in the nineteen seventies. At that same time kung fu fighter Bruce Lee was busy developing his own style of kung fu called Jeet Kune Do. The principles on which this style is based are: 1. Research your own experience, 2. Absorb what is useful, 3. Reject what is useless, 4. Add what is specifically your own.

Now, doesn't that resemble the solution-focused approach? Attention for what is useful, reflecting on your own experiences, neglecting what is not useful, developing your own solutions..... Was it just in the air in the seventies to come up with these kinds of approaches? Or is it the integration of the Asian and Western perspectives which is at the root of these approaches? (both Bruce Lee and SF co-originator Insoo Kim Berg had an Asian background). Whatever it was ..... researching your own experience, absorbing what is useful, rejecting what is useless, and adding what is specifically your own seems like wise advice in many circumstances.

March 21, 2007

Root your No in a deeper Yes

Positive thinking is hot. There seems to be an abundance of positive change approaches like solution-focused practice, appreciative inquiry, positive psychology, strength based management, positive deviance, change without pain, etc. QUESTION: does this emphasis on the positive mean that we have agree and go along with everything that comes on our path? I am convinced this is not the case; limitations, restrictions and choices are and will remain indispensable. As long as this is the case, the skill to say No will remain indispensable. QUESTION: does saying No imply that you can no longer be constructive, respectful and positive? According to negotiation expert William Ury this does not have to be the case. He has written a book which starts with these insightful words:

“Perhaps the single biggest mistake we make when we say No is to start from No. We derive our No from what we are against- the other’s demands or behavior. A positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for. Instead of starting from No, start from Yes. Root your No in a deeper Yes- a Yes to your core interests and to what truly matters.”

- William Ury, podcast and video, book
I can't wait to read the rest of this book because I think this is important and very useful stuff.

Work with what comes back to you

“Work with what comes back to you.”

- Insoo Kim Berg, co-creator of the solution-focused approach

March 20, 2007

utopia is impossible- ideal leaders don't exist

"... utopia is impossible, which is why management consultants and authors should stop talking so much about how to find an ideal leader and instead focus on placing people into jobs that play to their strengths".

Above is a quote from this article by Jeffrey Pfeffer in which he defends tyrannical bosses saying that tyrannical bosses often thrive in hit-driven industries, where creative thinking is at a premium. It is interesting that Bob Sutton, with whom Pfeffer wrote the book Hard Facts, is currently attacking 'asshole bosses' saying "If you are successful asshole, you are still an asshole and I don't want to be around you". Pardon the language.

March 18, 2007

The Effort Effect

“Just being aware of the growth mind-set, and studying it and writing about it, I feel compelled to live it and to benefit from it,” says Dweck, who took up piano as an adult and learned to speak Italian in her 50s. “These are things that adults are not supposed to be good at learning.”

This is a quote from a new article on the work of Carol Dweck: The Effort Effect.

March 17, 2007


In an earlier post I mentioned scales. A neat application of working with scales is scalewalking, an exercise I once learned from the English solution-focused trainer Paul Z. Jackson. Scalewalking can be done with only one person but is also very suitable for use in groups, small and large (I have done this exercise with groups up to 70 people). This is how it goes:

You ask the members of the group to imagine that one side of the room represents 0, the other side represents 10. The position in the middle of the room you call N.

You ask the participants to think about where they now are on the scale. They don’t have to mention their current position on the scale. Instead, you ask them to think of their current position on the scale as N. Then, you ask all participants to come and stand in a line at position N. (The interesting thing about working with the N position is that it creates security for all involved. There will be no awkward discussions about who is where on the scale).

While they stand on the line N, you ask them to look back at the 0 position and you ask them how they have managed to go from 0 to where they are now. You give them some time to think and then you may ask one or two people how they did it. Then, you ask all participants to turn around and look at position 10. You invite them to come and stand at position 10 for a while and you ask them to visualize what will be different at 10 and what would be possible for them when they will have arrived there. You ask one or two people to tell to the group what will be different for them at 10. Then, you ask everybody to come and stand at their current position N again and you ask them to think of one small step forward they may take tomorrow. They don’t have to mention what the step is. Instead, you invite them to physically take a step forward as a sign to you and the group that they have found the small step forward for themselves. Then, of course, you invite everyone to take that small step tomorrow.

There are several interesting things about scale walking with a group. One thing that is interesting about it is that due to the lively character of the exercise it is usually energizing and stimulating to do this. It is also a very flexible exercise. You may apply it in situations in which all participants only have individual goals. In this case, the scales may have nothing to do with the scales of the other participants. But it is also possible to work with a common theme so that the scale will be a group scale (for instance increasing customer satisfaction). In this case, the exercise will lead to a situation in which all participants will think up a small step forward in the direction of a common goal.

March 16, 2007


" Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

- Leonardo da Vinci

One of the hard things in the solution-focused approach is to keep things simple. Just as hard as asking the right questions and applying other solution-focused techniques is leaving out all kinds of other things like looking for causes, placing blame, actively trying to change other people's views etc. Quite a paradox that doing something simple can be hard.
Also read: Kick-off

March 15, 2007

Positive rumors

Robert is a team manager who gets a new member in his team. This new team member, Diana, has been transferred from her previous department by the general manager after she had a serious conflict. Just after Diana has started working at Robert's department  Robert gets a visit from the general manager. He warns Robert: "Diana is a problem. She is very negative. I think this position really is her last chance. There is no room at our company for people who can only be negative."

Robert is a bit surprised by this message. He has known Diana for some time and is impressed by her commitment and her critical abilities. For a moment he considers defending Diana but he does not. Instead he says: "Thank you for letting me know this. What would you think if you and me would sit down after a few months and evaluate Diana´s performance?" The general manager thinks this is an excellent idea. After some time Diana performs very well in Robert´s team, just like he expected. She is appreciated for her sharp mindedness and involvement and she has more than once kept colleagues from making mistakes.

Robert considers letting the general manager know about this but he realizes that the general manager is someone who is not easily convinced. Because of that he decides to follow a different approach. He begins spreading positive rumors about Diana. Rumors that are completely true, however, about how well she fits into the team, how engaged she is, and so forth. Robert trusts that it will be just a matter of time before the general manager gets the word.

And indeed ... Already within some weeks, the general manager comes up to Robert and says with a surprised smile: "I am hearing some good things about Diana." For a moment Robert feels like saying: "Told you so! This is just what I could have told you!", but he does not. The general manager continues: "I think that your team is a much better place for her. Robert nods and says: "Thanks for your intervention. I think this has helped to bring out the best in Diana." Robert realized there are three winners in this process. 

March 14, 2007

Their Focus Was Always a Few Yards Ahead

“They wanted to be bigger than Elvis. But their focus was always a few yards ahead.”

This is a quote by Greg Clydesdale, who researched the success of The Beatles. This quote reminds of the importance of focusing on continuous improvement by constantly concentrating on a clear goal in the near future. The research by Clydesdale also covers another interesting theme: competitive innovation. Competition was important in two ways. First, as a band, The Beatles competed against other groups:
"As an example, he cites the Beatles’ desire to outdo their contemporaries, particularly the Beach Boys. “When the Beatles first heard – and analysed – the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds, they asked their manager George Martin if they could do as well. He told them they could do better. The Beatles’ response was to produce Sergeant Pepper.”

Second, there was competition within the group:
"He says the rivalry between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was also an important factor and supports earlier research suggesting competition and cooperation can be intertwined. He quotes McCartney as saying: “He'd write ‘Strawberry Fields’ and I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’”. Dr Clydesdale says the rivalry was friendly, largely because the rewards were shared: “The whole group benefitted from performing an excellent song. And regardless of which one wrote it, the song went down as a ‘Lennon and McCartney’ composition.”

This seems like a sound analysis. Like this, to me it sounds like co-operation through competition. How may this be applicable in organizations?

March 13, 2007

Positive Organizational Scholarship on Organizational Resilience

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) is a branche of positive psychology dedicated to finding out what makes organizations function well. Here is a website dedicated entirely to POS.
One of the most impressive POS studies I have encountered is one done in the airline industry by Gittell, Cameron, and Lim. Some time ago, I wrote this article about their research.

March 11, 2007

Gentle and patient

"Whatever question you use, your challenge is to ask it with a gentle and patient spirit."

- Robert Maurer, author of One small step can change your life

March 10, 2007

If you HAVE to point.....

“Point at solutions instead of at each other.”
- Jeffrey Pfeffer

This is another quote which fits well with the solution-focused model in that it invites to not place blame but instead go directly to what can be done to improve the situation at hand. Last year, Jeffrey Pfeffer was kind enough to grant me an interview about his book Hard Facts, which he wrote with Bob Sutton (read the interview here). This week Pfeffer testified to congress about the implications of evidence principles for the Hearing on Federal Personnel Reform (Read here).

March 9, 2007

Soothing someone's strong emotions

"Perhaps the most powerful way to soothe someone's strong emotions is to appreciate their concerns. People often want you to realize that they are angry or upset - and to see the merit in their concerns. Until you appreciate their experience, the intensity of those emotions is unlikely to diminish."

- Roger Fisher & Daniel Shapiro, authors of Beyond Reason (p152)
Beyond reason is an interesting book about negotiation. The quote mentioned above is very appealing to me because it fits well with the solution-focused approach in which you validate other people's perspective whenever you can.

Don't fit people to your concept of what they should be

Each person’s map of the world is as unique as their thumbprint. There are no two people alike…no two people who understand the same sentence the same way…So in dealing with people try not to fit them to your concept of what they should be’

Also read: Milton Erickson

Pathways to solutions

I often like to find ways to visualize the essential steps of the solution-focused model because I have found that many people tend to find these to be very helpful. One of the ways I have found is the Pathways to solutions model which was developed by Walter and Peller in 1992 (who in turn, I guess, were inspired mainly by earlier models by Steve de Shazer).
I made this powerpoint slide of the model. I changed rather many of the terms though and also bit of the structure, so don't blame Walther and Peller for any mistakes. You may use this model to help yourself find solutions to problems and you can also help others solve their problems by guiding them through the steps.
This is work in progress. If you have any suggestions to improve this model, let me know. Do you know of other interesting visualizations of the solution-building model, also let me know.

March 8, 2007

What have we done right?

"Instead of asking 'Why is there war' we need to ask 'why is there peace'.

Instead of asking 'what have we done wrong' we need to ask 'what have we done RIGHT?'"
- Steven Pinker at the TED 2007 conference (source)

March 7, 2007

The compliments wall

An exercise which I often use in team sessions is the compliments wall. This is a simple exercise which you can do in 15 to 30 minutes with a team. You can view it as simple strengths focused 360 degrees feedback exercise. The exercise helps people to get a clearer view on their own strengths and the strengths of their colleagues. Furthermore, it creates energy and strengthens relationships and trust. It works like this. Hang a flip over sheet on the wall with all the names of the team members on it. On the top of the sheet you write:


Then, invite everyone to take a marker pen and to write whatever compliments (and however many) they want under the names of their colleagues. When, after maybe 15 minutes, everyone is ready doing this, you can look together with the team at what has been written. It may be interesting to talk a bit about some of the compliments. As a facilitator, I usually focus on one thing per person that catches my attention and ask a few questions about that compliment like: “Who wrote this compliment?” / “How did/ do you notice this person has this strength? / “What do you appreciate about it?” / “What makes it important /valuable for you to have a colleague with this strength in the team?”
Often, the responses are quite enthusiastic. Complimenting people directly and accepting compliments can sometimes be awkward. But with this exercise this usually quite easy and pleasant. After you've done the compliments wall exercise you can, of course, easily use it for other things. For instance you might invite people to look at the compliments wall and to approach a colleague with a strength which compliments their own strengths and invite them to help them achieve a certain goal.
Here is an example of a compliments wall.

March 5, 2007

The Problem with Problem Analysis

Solution-focused change is often rightfully described as a positive approach to change. This doesn't mean, however, that talking about problems is a taboo. On the contrary, paying attention to problems is not only inevitable it can also be a very useful starting point for improvement. But the following point is important. You can deal with problems in a variety of ways but these ways are not all equally effective. How precisely you pay attention to problems matters a great deal. This article, The Problem with Problem Analysis, compares problem analysis, problem denial and problem acknowledgement and recommends the latter.

March 4, 2007

Positive Exceptions

One of the most distinctive and helpful features of solution-focused practise is the way it helps people find solutions for problems. The way this is done is to look at what is usually called exceptions or exceptions to the problem. In SF, an assumption is that the intensity of problems fluctuates constantly. There will always have been situations in which the problem was less intense and when things were better. These situations are identified and analyzed because they will often help to find ideas to solve the problem. You can find more on the subject of exceptions in this article which I wrote in 2004: Positive Exceptions.
By the way, since the time I wrote the article I have have begun to think a bit more in terms of past successes or earlier successes, instead of exceptions because I think they capture the essence a bit better. The essence, I think, to identify specific situations in the past in which things have already gone better. This might involve: a) an exception to the problem: the current problem was less problematic, or b) an earlier success: the situation you want to achieve was already happening to some extent.

March 2, 2007

Criticism quote

“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance and arouses resentment. … Instead of condemning people let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intruiging than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness. To know all is to forgive all.”

Also read: Kick-off

March 1, 2007

Insoo Kim Berg

The article mentioned three posts ago was dedicated to Insoo Kim Berg. Insoo was co-originator (together with her husband Steve de Shazer and with their co-workers) of the solution-focused approach (read this article about the history of the solution-focused approach or watch this Youtube video).
Insoo died quite unexpectedly a few weeks ago. I am thankful to have known her and have worked with her and I guess I learned more from her about solution-focused practise than from anyone else.
I did this interview with her in 2004 which, I think, shows a bit of how remarkable she was. Together, Insoo and I also wrote three little articles:

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