May 30, 2007

Don't talk too much about the solution focused approach

Insoo Kim Berg experienced a particular difficulty when she and her colleagues had just started to develop solution-focused techniques: ‘I worked in a therapy practice, and I did well. I worked very hard, and I accepted cases the other therapists would rather not take... But my colleagues did not like it at all.... There was quite a lot of pressure. At a certain point, my colleagues even would look the other way when I met them in the hallway. I now know, I made the mistake of talking too much about what we were doing. That way it got too much attention. We should have just continued without talking much about it. I decided to leave because of the pressure. And we started our own practice’. A good lesson can be learned from this. If you are working in an organization in which many of your colleagues are not familiair with the solution-focused model it is often wise not to talk to much about it. Trying to convince them may not work too well. Often is works better to just take from the solution-focused approach what you would like to use and start using it without talking about it too much. Although it may be tempting to share your enthusiasm with other, it is usually better to wait till they are so curious that they almost make you tell them. Solution-focused change should never become more important than your goals, the things you you are trying to accomplish. I think, the words 'solution-focused' should not play the leading role in a change process. By applying the techniques, achieving results and continuing this, you may create some curiosity about how you are working. If you are interested in spreading these ideas, allow others the freedom to use only what seems useful to them like and ignore the rest.

May 29, 2007

The solution focused approach must be recreated continuously

"For me, this is a central part of the solution-focused approach: the creative way in which it was developed is actually part of the approach. It must be recreated continuously."
- Michael Hjerth

This is what Michael Hjerth said to me in an email conversation we had, some time ago. Just before saying this, Michael had pointed out that Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and their colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center once developed the approach by closely listening to their clients and noticing what worked. They never copied their famous predecessors like Milton Erickson and the people at the Mental Research Institute. Instead, they kept on developing their approach. I think Michael is quite right.

In fact, Insoo Kim Berg never lost this mindset. I once asked her: “Do you see the solution-focused approach as a finished approach or do you think it will keep on developing and changing?” She answered without any hesitation: “Oh no, it’s not finished. For any model to stay alive it will need to constantly keep developing and renewing itself.” She smiled brightly and continued: “So, we need bright young people who will do that.” I like this a lot. It invites us to take up a much more creative and challenging task than just copying what other people have once created.

May 27, 2007

The ABC of compliments

Compliments are pointers of resources and solutions and they make the other person more aware of progress he is making. They are intended to point to the fact that someone has handled a challenging situation well and they help to explore such a situation further. Thus they help identify what works. Complimenting is something most of us are not very used to. Both giving and receiving compliments can be hard. A good way to describe effective compliments is the ABC of compliments. A stands for Accurate, B for Believable and C for Constructive (source:

A- Accurate
The compliment has to accurately refer to what has happened and what the person has done.

B - Believable
The compliment should not be an exaggeration but realistic.

C - Constructive
The compliment should refer to what the person wants to achieve and be useful for making progress.

May 24, 2007

William of Ockham - solution focused philosopher?

Many years before I ever heard about the solution-focused approach I was interested in skepticism (and I still am). That is when I learned about William of Ockham, famous for his Ockham's razor. Later I learned about the solution-focused approach and I found out Steve de Shazer and others have frequently mentioned how the simplicity of solution-focused change resembles Ockham's razor. William of Ockham was a fourteenth century English philosopher who objected against his colleagues who used ever more complex assumptions and theories to understand the world. Back then, it was not uncommon for people to think that whoever came up with the most complicated explanation of a phenomenon must be the cleverest and therefore be right. Ockham argued the opposite: he who came up with the simplest theory that covered the facts must be right. Every unnecessary assumption must be cut away like if you were using a razor. That is key to solution-focused change: keep things simple. What is useful is done, what is not necessary is left out.
Also read: Paul Watzlawick

May 23, 2007


Insoo Kim Berg and Norm Reuss (1995) have found a beautiful acronym that captures wonderfully what managers, coaches and consultants do when they are helping others in a solution-focused way: EARS. The beauty of EARS is that it captures much of what solution-focused change is in such a short acronym and at the same time through the word ‘ears’ show how attentively the client is listened to and how much helping the client is a matter of leading by following. This is what EARS stands for:

E - Eliciting reports of change
Eliciting the situations where useful change is already happening (exceptions/past successes), by asking questions like:
- What is already going well?
- When were things slightly better?
- When has this already happened?
- How do other notice the change?

A - Amplifying the change
Focusing specifically on what was different in the situation of the exception:
- What made it possible?
- What was the role of the individual?
- How can this success be extended?

R - Reinforcing the change
Asking questions like:
- What goes better?
- How does that help?
- How did you do that?

S - Starting over
Plan for more change. Asking for more examples:
- What else goes better?

May 22, 2007

Solution-focused feedback

Today I did a workshop on solution-focused feedback. The feedback approaches I presented had three things in common: 1) they were appreciative (or positive if you will), 2) they were goal oriented, and 3) they were interactive. I used many well-known solution-focused techniques but also two other approaches which resemble the solution-focused approach a bit. One is a feedback approach by David Perkins which he calls 'stepwise communicative feedback' (read more about this approach here). (By the way, David Perkins is also the author of the great book Outsmarting IQ). The other technique I presented is the Positive NO model by William Ury (see more here) about which I hope to write more soon.

May 20, 2007

Thoughts on positive deviance

On his great blog Work Matters, Bob Sutton has a thoughtful post about a book with the interesting title Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. An interesting part of Bob Sutton's comment is what he says about positive deviance. The central idea of positive deviance is to look at those individuals or teams which do far better than the rest and to let the rest of the organization learn from them. Bob Sutton says: "I was taken with the approach. At the same time, I realized that it is remarkably similar to what many companies do when they benchmark: they find the very best performers in their industry – or another industry – and then try to imitate everything they do as closely as possible. This method can be useful, but at the same time, as our work on evidence-based management shows, it is a risky method if done in a casual way, without thinking about what you are imitating and why."
I agree with Bob Sutton and commented this: "I agree with 'Don’t just look at winners, look at winners and losers.' I agree with you that the positive deviance approach as described here has the disadvantage of creating a benchmarking situation. An alternative would be to look at positive deviance not only within the system (organization) as a whole but to look at positive deviance within individual members of the system too. Both with top performers and underperformers you could look at when what they did worked well. If you can identify WITHIN the performance of an underperformer when his performance was adequate or even quite good you can then invite the individual to treat this like an 'INTERNAL BENCHMARK'. This will lead to finding 'internal solutions' which have a higher chance of working because people (1) know how to apply them, (2) have the skill to apply them, and (3) trust in the relevance and effectiveness of the solution. This is one of the basic ideas of the solution-focused approach: help people to learn from their past successes. This can be done even if, overall, they don't function too well at a specific moment. There will always be moments when things have been better (or slightly better). These are the moments from which you often can learn a lot."
I have written about this basic idea before in this post: External solutions versus internal solutions. More about Bob Sutton's and Jeffrey Pfeffer's ideas can be read in this interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer: The Organization as a Prototype

May 18, 2007

Demanding and supportive

"The real art, which you have to learn with your kids as well as your employees, is how to be both demanding and supportive simultaneously. It’s not that easy to learn if you are not a natural. It takes lots of practice.” This is a quote from David Maister taken from this interview I did with him in 2006. As is so often the case, David Maister is hitting the nail right on the head. The reason to talk about this issue with David was an article he had written about an experience he once had, years ago. You can read the article here. I think Insoo Kim Berg had a similar kind of message when she said the following in an interview in 2003: "I do many trainings all over the world, and I am helping many organizations. I do a lot of solution focused management training. For instance, I train middle managers and team leaders. I help them manage their team members in a solution-focused way. Sometimes, when we do role-plays, they are shocked. For instance, we do a role-play in which a manager talks to an employee who shows up late for work. And then I say: 'You must have a good reason for being late. How can I help?' And then I might say: 'What are some of your ideas about solving this problem?' So, by doing this, I am being understanding, helpful, and at the same time I am making my expectations clear. And I keep on asking that: 'What are your ideas about solving this? And those middle managers are amazed and sometimes say: 'If you keep on repeating that, the person will get upset!' But most of the time the employee will not get upset. In fact, the clarity of stating your expectation often helps." Insoo's way of being demanding and understanding at the same time, is very inspiring, I think. Together with my colleague Gwenda Schlundt Bodien, I have written this article and this article which are attempts to elaborate this a bit.

May 17, 2007

Intelligence is very much a product of what you put into it

"People are, to a large extent, in charge of their own intelligence. Being smart - and staying smart- is not just a gift, not just a product of their genetic good fortune. It is very much a product of what they put into it. It means that being smart is a long process of self-development and self-discovery."..."Once people believe that their intelligence is a potential that can be developed, they start focusing, not on the short-term outcomes that might make them look good, but on the effort and the strategies that will lead to learning and long-term achievement." Source: Carol Dweck, (2002) Beliefs that make smart people dumb.
I have not deeply thought about what Carol Dweck's work precisely has in common with the solution-focused approach or in what aspects it may differ. One thing of commonality must be its optimism. There may be other parallels. The workshop Carol describes in this interview (which was developed by Peter Heslin and his colleagues) surely has lots in common with the solution-focused approach. But whatever the commonalities and the differences, I know I think Carol's work is great and very useful and important. I hope many people, in particular teachers and parents, will be inspired by it.

May 16, 2007

You’ve got what you’ve got

“Just take what you’ve got, no matter how incomplete and inconsistent and even incoherent it appears. You’ve got what you’ve got.”

- Steve de Shazer. Source: Hoyt (2001). Interviews with brief therapy experts

External solutions versus internal solutions

Often, when we try to realize individual or organizational change, we rely on external solutions. By 'external solutions' I mean solutions that are based on things that come from outside of the system (the individual or organization). These solutions may be based on success case descriptions in the management literature, they may be based on empirical studies or they may be based on the experience and expertise of a management consultant. External solutions are thus generic solutions based on generalized knowledge. Change based on external solutions is often both expert driven and fashion driven. New management concepts, often called ‘hypes’ seem to spread like contagious viruses. But, in many cases, implementation of these external solutions does not lead to the success that was hoped for.
External solutions raise the following questions with many organization members: (1) Will that work here? (2) Do we know how to implement it here? (3) Are we capable of implementing it? In many cases the answer to all three questions is 'no…' Understandably, the consequence is cautiousness and hesitation.
Solution-focused change makes use of the fact that no problem is constantly happening. There are always exceptions to the problem. Often, these exceptions are situations in which the outcomes you seek are already to some extent happening. Identifying and analyzing these exceptions is a powerful tool in solution-focused change. This process will help you find solutions that are internal. They are based on earlier success. They have been applied before and have proven useful. While external solutions will often create insecurity and hesitation, internal solutions generate the opposite: confidence and eagerness to apply them. Briefly put, the advantage of internal solutions is: they fit!
The reasons internal solutions fit are threefold: the people involved (1) know how to apply them, (2) have the skill to apply them, and (3) trust in the relevance and effectiveness of the solution.
How they know these things? Easy, they have already experienced it in situations of past success. The fact that internal solutions fit so well creates a sense of ownership, which makes it easier for people to restart using them and to keep on using them. Focusing on internal solutions is focusing on what is already there, instead of what is not there. It is based on the assumption that the person or organization has the resources available to be successful. It is an appreciative way of looking at individuals, teams and organizations. It implies they are already good.
More about this here: Managing with what is there

May 11, 2007

Sustaining Change

A department was trying to implement a culture change in which more discipline and sticking better to agreements were important goals. The change process had started and had at first led to promising results. After about one and a half year, it became obvious that the change process was no longer proceeding well. Several old problems reappeared and there were no clear signs of progress. The department manager called for a meeting about the change process. He emphasized that it was normal to be confronted with a set-back and invited all to make a list of everything that had been achieved since the start of the change process. Of nearly everything they mentioned he asked what its advantages were and how they had managed to achieve it. This inquiry led to an impressive amount of material and the spirit of the meeting changed remarkably. The enthusiasm for the change goals grew and people regained their pride and hope. Next, the manager invited every participant to formulate which concrete results they wanted to achieve for the coming period and which small steps they would take in order to achieve them. This led to a very nice list of small goals and steps. The energy for change had been low for a period but after this session it was back without a doubt. 

May 10, 2007

Fast writing

A technique I sometimes apply for eliciting internal solutions is a writing technique I call 'fast writing'. I took it from the book Accidental Genius by Mark Levy (2000). It goes like this:
In this private writing technique one is asked to write for 10 minutes straight without interrupting, without worrying about grammar, or spelling. In other words: write like you think. Part of the deal is that other people never get to read what you have written. Writing for 10 minutes straight is harder than it at first may seem. If you get stuck and don’t know what more to write you can use attention shifters. These are questions that help you find new angles so that you may find new things to write. A few examples of attention shifters are: ‘What is the most interesting thing I have written so far?’, What would a really wise person think about this topic’, and ‘What would be a totally different way of looking at this?’ When people do this writing technique it often happens that they are amazed about what they have been able to produce within just 10 minutes of time. While they are writing one can often see a sudden smile on faces. When we ask afterwards what that smile was about, people often say things like: ‘I suddenly had a great idea’, or ‘I suddenly looked at the situation in a way I had never looked at it’.
I apply fast writing both in individual situations and in team situations. For instance, if a team is stuck on an issue, you can invite them to write for 10 minutes and afterwards invite some of their ideas. You'll probably have a few great ideas to talk about.

Client directedness

This is an interesting figure about client directedness I found in this article by Scott Miller, Barry Duncan and Mark Hubble. The article is about therapy but the model is also very relevant for management coaching and consulting.

May 9, 2007

Changing change

A cliché about change in organizations is that around 70 percent of all change efforts in organizations fail. I don't quite believe this. In fact, I know it is not true (more about that in a later post, I promise) but I do agree that change initiatives in organizations frequently disappoint. Some people fatalistically claim that organizational change is bound to fail because of the resistant nature of people. This is another cliché I don't buy: that people hate change by definition. I think it would be at least as fair to say that people have a natural and more or less permanent desire for change. So, what clues are there about making organizational change more successful? I speculate that there are five shifts away from the traditional approaches to change which are shown in the table presented here. The right column shows some of the essential features of the solution-focused approach (as I see it, of course). Without saying that the conventional approaches should be abondonned altogether, I predict that a shift along all these five dimensions in the direction of the solution-focused end, in most cases will increase the likelyhood of success.

The opposite of mentally breaking people

Donald O’Clifton, who died several years ago, can be seen as one of the founders of positive psychology. As early as in the nineteen fifties, he realized that focusing on what people do well, is the core of making them flourish. What convinced him was a study done by William E. Mayer about American prisoners of war in the Korean War (Rath & Clifton, 2004). American prisoners of war were exposed by the Koreans to a regime that at first glance did not seem to be so cruel because they got food, water and shelter and were not physically tortured.

Mayer tried to find out what was the reason that still so many prisoners died (38%, the highest percentage in American military history). When the prisoners had been set free they turned out be mentally broken. They were no longer interested in calling relatives and there were no friendships between them. Mayer found out that the Koreans had mentally broken the prisoners by using four tactics: 1) inform: prisoners were rewarded with things like cigarettes when they betrayed each other; 2) self-criticism was encouraged. In groups each man had to confess all the bad things he had done and all the good things he had failed to do, 3) loyalty to country, family and among them and towards their leadership was broken down systematically and step-by step, 4) emotional support was kept from them by withholding positive letters by relatives and by consequently letting through all negative letters (for instance about deaths in the family or remarriage of a spouse).

In particular, this last tactic was very effective in breaking the moral of the prisoners and made them lose all hope and the lust for life. Donald O’Clifton was deeply impressed by these findings and decided to spend his career to the opposite of what the Korean soldiers had done. His core question was: if the Koreans, by their negative tactics succeeded in breaking the people mentally, can positive tactics cause the opposite, make them flourish? The short answer to this question, after years of research, is 'yes'. Research done by Gallup has show that managers worldwide focus mainly on negative attributes and shortcomings. The most effective managers, however, do the opposite: they focus primarily on what is going right and encourage people to build on their strengths.

May 8, 2007

The Jericho Rose

A client I coached made good progress but also experienced certain moments in which his problems reappeared. After some time, this person cleverly discovered that the moments of slipping back were associated with forgetting to apply his new found solutions. Over time, he managed to consciously apply the solutions and he noticed that it gradually became easier to keep on applying them. They more or less became new habits. At the end of the coaching process he gave me a little present, a plant by the poetic name of Jericho Rose, originally from the dessert of Mexico. I had never heard of this plant and it did not right away strike me as a special or beautiful plant. But my client explained that it has a very special feature. When the plant gets no water it gets dry, it folds and turns gray and brittle. It can stay this way for extremely long periods of time, without dying. Yet, when it is placed in water it recovers its natural green color and unfolds. It does this over and over again. This client compared this to the process he had gone through. He said: “When I stop applying the solutions the problems reappear. But when I go back to applying the solutions I immediately start to flourish again. Just like the Jericho Rose”. It is still on my desk.

May 7, 2007

Every step may be fruitful

"Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb." This is my favorite quote by Winston Churchill. It is an ultimate expression of optimism and of a growth mindset. What courage and wisdom must it take to express such hope. I also like the way Churchill puts emphasis on improving slowly but steadily. Often the most valuable types of growth and progress happens this way: slowly and steadily. Finally, I like how the quote acknowledges that you will never be ready and that this is in fact good news. New challenges remain necessary to grow further.

May 6, 2007

The No Free Lunch Theorem

"Anyone who markets a heuristic as universally good may be full of more than just good intentions", says Scott E. Page, author of The Difference. Before coming to this statement, the author explains: "Given that there are so many types of heuristics, a natural question to ask is which heuristic works best. It has been shown that comparing heuristics across all problems is a fool's game. No heuristic performs better than any other across all possible problems. This result is known as the No Free Lunch Theorem. We can read this theorem in two ways. It means that for any given problem there will be good heuristics and bad heuristics. It also means that for any heuristic there will be problems on which it performs well and problems on which it fails miserably." .... "As powerful as this heuristic may be in some contexts, the claim that this heuristic works everywhere bumps against the logic of the No Free Lunch Theorem.
What does this have to do with the solution-focused approach? Well, as you may have seen, I have been writing enthusiastically about the solution-focused approach and I have been trying to present it in the form of a heuristic, or an algorithm, a few times. See for instance this and this. No matter how enthusiastic I am and how useful 'the' solution focused heuristic may be, I am nevertheless convinced that it has its limitations, like every heuristic. No matter how great the approach may be, it would be dangerous to think that it is always the best approach to follow, or even, that it should always be followed. What I think is:
  • In some cases SF will be superior to other approaches
  • In some cases SF will be roughly equally effective as other approaches
  • In some cases SF will be inferior to other approaches
  • In some cases a combination of SF and other approaches may lead to best results
We don't know where the limits of the applicability of the solution-focused model are. My hunch is that the more complex a system is (complex as in complex adaptive systems), the more likely it is that the solution-focused model may be superior. That is just a hunch, however. (More hunches are welcome). What does all of this means for our practice? First of all, it means we have to remain modest at all times. We have to keep an open and exploring attitude and not judge other for preferring different approaches. We have to learn more about SF. Second, it may be necessary to develop different versions of the solution-focused model for different contexts (therapy, coaching, management, training, teamwork, ....). Third, we should not pretend to know exactly what the solution-focused approach is.

May 5, 2007

Good enough is the goal

Here is a wise quote by Christopher Peterson from his book A Primer in Positive Psychology : "... some skeptics still believe that positive psychologists miss the "obvious" point that life is tragic. We are born, and then we die. What happens in between is short, brutish, and cruel." A bit later he goes on: "I disagree but will not belabor the point except to note that tragedy admits to gradations. Even if everything sucks, some things suck more than others, an irrefutable fact given how people actually behave if not what they say. We prefer some outcomes rather than others, pursue some goals rather than others, and desire some emotional states rather than others. Whether we label these preferred circumstances "positive" or "less sucky" then becomes a matter of semantics." What I like about this quote is that it acknowledges the importance of fluctuation. Being positive does not require you to believe in perfect happiness or Utopia at all. All that is required is to see the fluctuation Peterson mentions and to focus on amplifying those moments and circumstances that were better (this idea is visualized here). My view is that the goal of the solution-focused approach is NOT to achieve an ideal state, but, instead, to achieve a situation that is good enough (this can be quite good though).

May 4, 2007

Building talents

"Firms that try to win by hiring pre-existing, already-formed talent will never do as well as firms that are skilled in building talented people." This is a quote by David Maister in a recent post on his terrific blog (source). In this single sentence David captures beautifully what I tried to express in this article which, by the way, was largely inspired by the work of Jeffrey Pfeffer and Charles O'Reilly (see more references in the article).

Using the client's exact words

“The field has emphasized "empathic understanding" so everybody strives for this. But that is impossible. I don't ever expect anybody to understand me completely. Sometimes I don't understand myself or I may change my mind. So I think the best we can do is be open to what is said. That is why I emphasize using the client's exact words, instead of paraphrasing. Because when we rephrase what they have said we fit it to our idea of what they mean”

- Insoo Kim Berg (in Short, 1998).

In this case, which I posted a few days ago, you can find some examples of how solution-focused coaches use the words of their clients as much as possible.

May 2, 2007

Pathways to progress

Many things in life can be viewed as work in progress. I have slightly changed a visual I presented earlier on this site (this one) by adding a thing or two to it. I also changed the title to a more fitting one (at least I hope so). I'd like to repeat the model is inspired by the work of Steve de Shazer (1998) and by Walter and Peller (1992). Here it is.

May 1, 2007

Improving Financial Results

COACH: Charles, you have told me that your team’s financial performance has been lagging since the last six months and the team is now seriously behind budget. And the reason for our conversation is that you’d like to have my advice on how to improve it. Right?
CHARLES: Right, I could really use some good advice.
COACH: Ok, first, could you explain to me how being behind budget exactly is a problem to you?
CHARLES: That’s easy, if we don’t make budget that would be bad news for all of us in the team. We may even have to let go of one or more team members, which I would hate.
CHARLES: For me personally, it would be serious, too. I am ambitious to grow within the company but if things go on like this that will be out of the question.
COACH: Hmm... I can see why it is important for you to change this situation, Charles.
CHARLES: Yes, I will have to find a way.
COACH: Ok, suppose, after we have finished this coaching, you would find that it’s been helpful. How would you know?
CHARLES: I would know it had been useful if I’d see an unmistakable improvement in the financial results on our monthly sheet...... Read the rest of this case ....

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