June 30, 2007

Often, being right isn't the point

"Very often, When managing people, having the right answer isn't the point. What matters is not being right, it's being helpful."
- David Creelman, Being right doesn't help (2007). Website.

What were they thinking?

Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the authors from who I intend to reed every book they'll write (Robert H. Frank is another one). I am expecting to receive my copy of Jeffrey Pfeffer's new book any day now. Bob Sutton has already received and read his copy. Here is his "deeply biased" review of the book: Pfeffer at His Best: What Were They Thinking? A few quotes from the review:
If you look at the work of any organizational theorist who has ever lived, no one except for perhaps Nobel Prize Winner Herbert Simon exceeds the breadth and depth of Jeff’s contributions.

Jeff isn’t as well known in managerial circles as Peter Drucker or Jim Collins. But I believe that his work should be as well-known because his ideas are so research-based and so practical. And unlike most star academics in his field, Jeff is deeply immersed in the stuff of organizational life.

And no matter how strongly you disagree with him, he has this annoying habit of basing his arguments on the best theory and evidence in peer-reviewed academic publications. Plus when he writes about an unstudied topic, his logic is often so compelling that refuting his arguments is extremely difficult.

June 29, 2007

The importance of saying No gracefully

"Because it can be so destructive, No is the word that is hardest for us to say. But, if we can learn how to say it gracefully, if we can learn how to say it positively, I believe it can really help transform our personal lives, our work lives and the larger world." This is a quote by William Ury, author of the new book The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, taken from an interview I did with him which will soon be published.

June 27, 2007

Personal disclosures by helpers are not beneficial to clients

On Science Blog I read this: "In well-intentioned efforts to establish relationships, some physicians tell patients about their own family members, health problems, travel experiences and political beliefs. While such disclosures seem an important way to build a personal connection, a University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry investigation of secretly-recorded first-time patient visits to experienced primary care physicians has found these personal disclosures have no demonstrable benefits and may even disrupt the flow of important patient information." I think exactly the same goes for most other kinds of helpers like: coaches, therapists, constultants, and mediators. Focus on the client and leave your own views and experiences out of the picture. The solution-focused approach has emphasized this all along.

How good does it get? (6) - The unexpected role of adaptation

If you think that buying a luxurious car or having more money will structurally increase your happiness, please reconsider. Economist Dick Easterlin has shown that this will probably not happen. His research has shown that 1) after some time people will not say that they have become happier (you get used to your possession and it no longer brings you extra satisfaction), 2) often, however, they will keep on thinking that the next desired object (a boat?) will succeed in making them happy. But it won't, because the same thing will happen: they will get used to that, too. Will a higher income lead to more happiness? Not necessarily. One reason for this, as research by Easterlin has shown, is that the positive effect of having more money is 'deflated' by the fact that peoples perceived needs have increased correspondingly. The reverse thing can happen too. People can adapt to many tragic life events too and gradually get back to their earlier level of happiness. (This adaptation is not always complete, by the way; maybe more about that later). Robert Frank (previously mentioned here) is another economist who has written much about adaptation and well-being. Frank explains that the main reason we buy luxury goods is to demonstrate to others that we can afford to, thereby trying to distinguish ourselves from them. In doing so we try to achieve happiness by improving our relative status. The irony is, however, this doesn't work. The satisfaction we get from luxury spending, which Frank calls conspicuous spending, depends largely on context. The satisfaction we get from luxury spending lasts only shortly. Two examples: 1) If we buy an expensive car, this distinguishes us from our neighbor and we feel happy. If, however, next month our neighbor buys an even fancier one, our satisfaction will be largely gone. You can see how this leads to an escalation, an arms race, with no winners. 2) The satisfaction we get from luxury goods tends to decline steeply over time. We tend to get used quickly to what we have and the favourable features of the luxury good tend to fade into the background rapidly: we no longer notice the fancy features of our expensive car and our satisfaction diminishes. Bottom line: this increasing conspicuous spending does more harm than good.

June 26, 2007

Knowing problem causes is hardly useful for building success

Antonio, in the first Act of William Shakespeare's play 'The Merchant of Venice', says these words:

He says he MUST find out why he feels so miserable. He HAS to know the cause of his misery. Apparently, this strong tendency to look for causes of problems is not something only we have in this day and age. Shakespeare wrote this in 1596! No matter how strong our conviction may be that problem causes need to be found there is often little use in doing so.

The last half century or so, we seem to be getting more and more aware of this. In 1961, Timothy Rowe said: "You can always take any given situation and dissect it, and there´s always a finger pointing in another direction. You begin to realize that it's useless to even dissect the reasons why something didn't work out." Of course, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg have often explained in their work that finding out what caused a problem (if you succeed at all in finding that out) may not be so useful for finding out how to build a better future. Okay, then you know what caused your misery. Do this mean you now also know what causes your well being? This discovery, that what causes problems is not so useful for building successes, is a major theme in solution-focused practice, in positive psychology, and in appreciative inquiry.

But even in completely different fields there is a growing discontent with looking for causes. Matt Ridley for instance, who writes about genes and evolution says: "But what is cause? The causes of human experience include genes, accidents, infections, birth order, teachers, parents, circumstance, opportunity, and chance, to name just the most obvious.[..] I hope to throw the whole notion of "cause" into confusion." A special case of focusing on problem causes is trying to find out who is to blame for what went wrong. But how useful is it to accuse a person or a group for what went wrong? How effective can that be expected to turn out? Probably often that won't help much either. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, authoritative organizational researchers, wrote in their last book: "Point at solutions instead of at each other." But this awareness is only slowly growing. Most people are still shocked when someone suggests to skip problem analysis and to go straight to solution building.

Visualizing progress: expect fluctuation and watch the trendline

Progress hardly ever happens in a straight line. The picture to the left shows a real life example of an improvement process. The red line shows the actual values found. As you see, it constantly fluctuates. The blue line is the trend line which shows that over time there is a slow but steady improvement. The arrows show the following: Arrow 1: fast first results, quick progress. Arrow 2: rather heavy fall back. Arrow 3: quick improvement again. Arrow 4: serious fall back again after which improvement picks up again. It would be very easy to get discouraged when focusing too much on the fluctuations, at point 2 and 4 for instance. Two things are important to remember: 1) It is normal for progress to show this kind of fluctuation, and 2) The trendline is an important line to watch. This line shows you that there is actual growth overall. The trendline is a very motivating line to watch.

June 24, 2007

Quote by Harlene Anderson on not-knowing

"Not-knowing refers to the belief that one person cannot pre-know another person or his or her situation or what is best for them. It refers to the intent and manner with which the coach thinks about and introduces his or her believed knowledge and expertise (what they think they might know). Knowledge and expertise (e.g., whether from research, experience, or theory) are tentatively offered as food for thought and dialogue and remain open to challenge and change." This is a quote by Harlene Anderson (source). Harlene Anderson and Harry Goolishian were the ones who first introduced the concept with that name to the field of coaching and therapy. Here are some references to publications on not-knowing:
  • Anderson, H. (1990) Then and now: From knowing to not-knowing. Contemporary Family Therapy Journal. 12:193-198.
  • Anderson, H. & Goolishian, H. (1992) The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy. In. S. McNamee & K. Gergen (Eds.). Social Construction and the Therapeutic Process. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Anderson, H. (2005) The myth of not-knowing. Family Process. 44(4):497-504

How good does it get ? (5) - Is happiness relevant and attainable at all?

The previous posts have argued that total peace of mind will never exist for anybody and they have pointed at the inevitability of tensions and problems. Then, it was suggested that progress is crucial for finding a certain degree of happiness in life. Before exploring this, there is the question of: given that problems and tenstions will always be there, is happiness a real and relevant concept at all? Robert H. Frank, professor of Economics at Cornell University addresses this question (among others which I may write about later) in his new book Falling Behind, How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. He explains that, while many economists have remained skeptical about happiness research, happiness is indeed a real and relevant concept. It exists and it is important to people. Most of the criticisms about happiness research are aimed at one of the primary lines of happiness research: surveys. In these surveys, people are asked to classify themselves into one of three categories: very happy, fairly happy, not happy. At first sight I tend to sympathize with skeptical responses to the relevance of these measures but once you know more, you may become more convinced. Some arguments for taking these measures seriously are:
  1. People differ in there responses to these questions,
  2. People are remarkably consistent in their answers to these questions,
  3. The answers to these questions correspond closely with responses to other types of questions assumed to be associated with happiness,
  4. The happiness survey responses also correspond consistently with specific distinguishable brain wave patterns,
  5. They also correspond with certain social behaviors assumed to be associated with happiness (like initating contacts with friends, helping people, etc),
  6. They also correspond with signs of physical and mental health.
Happiness exists. People differ in the extent to which they have it. People value it. It would be worthwhile to figure out a way to build it. What can we do indivually? What can we do collectively?

June 23, 2007

How good does it get? (4) - Fluctuation and progress

Thus far in this thread, I have argued that life cannot do without tension and problems (see here, here and here) and that Utopian circumstances will never exist (I also pointed this our here: Good enough is the goal). However, this ubiquity of tensions and problems does NOT mean that life is doomed to be miserable and tragic. I like what Chris Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology would say to people who think this: "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 Peterson points at is what I tried to explain is this post: When and where can you find solutions?. This visual shows that many phenomena in complex systems constantly fluctuate. Sometimes things will be worse, sometimes they will be better. I believe however, we can add an element of gradual progress to these fluctuations. By analogy, I'd like to use of share price fluctuation here. If you look at share price fluctuation over a relatively brief period of time, you will often perceive what seems to be a rather random fluctuation. The price goes up and down and there may seem to be no overall growth (view example). When using a wider view by looking at a longer time period, you notice that share prices of and index on average usually steadily grow over time (view example). I believe this element of progress is crucial for finding meaning and gratification in life. In a later post, I'll go into how progress over time may be built.


June 22, 2007

Not-knowing made easier

The solution-focused approach advocates an attitude of not-knowing. It is an approach which uses and celebrates the power of the question and of exploration and discovery. That is why I like the following quotes of acknowledged geniuses. Nobel prizewinner Niels Bohr said the following: "Everything I say must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question." American quantum physicist Richard Feynman said: "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I am not absolutely sure of anything and many things I don't know anything about.... I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things." Isaac Newton (considered by many as one of the two greatest scientists ever) said: "I do not know what I appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on a seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me." Now, doesn't this make it a lot easier for US to acknowledge the limits of our understanding and to assume the not-knowing posture?

June 21, 2007

How good does it get? (3) - The inevitability and usefulness of tensions

If William James was right contrary impulses within people are inevitable and useful. From the outside these ‘inner stresses’ are usually hard to perceive. This may explain why people may (falsely) think that other people –unlike themselves- don’t have these inner stresses. And it may explain why we are easy preys for professionals who try to convinces us that experiencing difficulties must mean we need (their) professional help. From a distance other people may look very calm and controlled.

The reality is that there is a more or less constant tension within any  complex system. From a distance, a famous organization may appear to function very smoothly. They serve their customers, they make a good profit and they innovate. However, if we’d get a chance to look from the inside we might see all the messy processes and inner tensions and conflicts that occur within the organization. A great pop star or movie star may appear to lead a glamorous and problem-free life. However, when their biographies come out we may find out about the struggles and problems of their lives too. The same with historical figures like Caesar, Alexander the Great, Beethoven and Darwin. We tend to remember the glorious ‘summaries’; of their lives. Close inspection, however, teaches us that they were more like us than we thought. They had to deal with problems and struggles constantly, like we do.

From the outside the system seems stable and steady, from the inside there is equilibrium of many contrary forces. Beautiful examples in nature are the stars in the sky. From a distance we may think of a star as a glorious solid shining body in the sky. But, from up close, a star is more like a collection of very dynamic processes than a solid body. The star is the result of the balance between two oppose forces: an outward force caused by a process of nuclear fusion by which hydrogen is steadily converted into helium and an inward gravitational force. These two opposing forces create a state of equilibrium. At some point the outward force will decline because the star will be running out of hydrogen. This is the beginning of the end of the life cycle of the star. This is an interesting perspective: the inner stresses are the essence of the ‘life’ of the star. 

Back to human beings and organizations. A realistic perspective seems to be that the problem-free life, the life of constant comfort will never exist. We should probably not let professionals of any kind convince us that experiencing problems or doubts necessarily means we need a therapist, coach or consultant. Instead, we may be wise to embrace our stresses and dissatisfactions and consciously use them to make progress.

June 19, 2007

How good does it get? (2) - Problem induction

In the previous post I argued that it is important to have valid expectations life. Some authors have claimed that popular psychology has planted some wrong expectations into peoples minds. Canadian psychologist Tana Dineen has written a book called Manufacturing Victims:What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People. In this book she accuses mainstream psychology of creating a generation of victims by encouraging people to dwell on their "inner stresses'. Dineen claims psychologists do this on purpose to make people need therapy and thus enlarge their market. I personally don't believe at all that the majority of psychologists deliberately would do such a wicked thing. But I think to some extent they may do such an ineffective thing while having the best intentions in mind. I do believe that often psychologists and coaches encourage people to analyse and focus on their inner stresses, insecurities and so forth. I call this the defect focus and I think Dineen is right that this often does more harm than good. It is a case of what is sometimes called "problem induction". You did not worry much until someone gave you the idea that your situation actually IS worrisome.

Another psychologist, Robyn Dawes, in his book House of Cards, has a more or less related criticism. He criticizes the so-called self-esteem movement. He says that many pofessional psychologists have promoted a simplistic philosophy of life. This philosophy maintains that the purpose of life is to maximize one's mental health, which is dependent wholly on self-esteem. The self-esteem movement argues that in order to function well you have to feel good about yourself first. Dawes debugs this claim. He explains that planting this idea into peoples minds will often do more harm than good. It may be wiser to focus on functioning well and doing good first because this will increase the probability of you feeling you deserve to feel good about yourself (this is one of the basic ideas in Martin Seligman's wildly popular book Authentic Happiness).

My take on this is that it is inescapable that you will not always feel good about yourself and your circumstances. It is inherent to life that this will be the case frequently. I think it is normal and not necessarily a sign that something is fundamentally wrong. Inner conflicts and inner stresses are normal, I think, and they will keep on happening as long a you live. I like a quote by the great American philosopher William James illustrating the inescapability on inner stresses and even their functionality:
Nature implants contrary impulses to act on many classes of things, and leaves it to slight alterations in the conditions of the individual case to decide which impulse shall carry the day. Thus, the greediness and suspicion, curiosity and timidity, coyness and desire, bashfulness and vanity, sociability and pugnacity, seem to shoot over into each other as quickly, and to remain in as unstable equilibrium, in the higher birds and mammals as in man...


How good does it get? (1) - What should we expect?

Positive thinking seems to be back in style. Positive psychology, appreciative inquiry, solution-focused change, and positive deviance are some popular positive change approaches. These approaches tend to focus on strengths and virtues that enable individuals and organizations to flourish. I think positive change approaches hold a great promise. Maybe they can help us to improve our lives, our organizations and hopefully even our world. But just how positive can we expect life to become? This may be an important question. If our expectations are too low, they can make us passive and thus prevent us from improving our circumstances. In these cases our expectations have become self-fulfilling. High expectations may be self-fullingfilling too, up to a point. If they are unrealistically high, they can turn into a recepy for desillusion and frustration. Expectations play an important and sometimes paradoxical role. A case in point is a party. Sometimes you go a party with low expectations and you are pleasantly surprised by how much fun it turns out to be. At other times your expectations are high -this is going to be so much fun!- and it turns out rather dissappointing. In these cases the contrast between what we expect and what we find seems to impact our feelings and behaviors dramatically. So, what is wise to expect about life? How good can life actually get? Is a problem-free life within our reach? Can we ever approach a total peace of mind, free of worries and fears? Can we always be feeling good about ourselves and our accomplishments and live in peace with our fellow human beings? Or is it wise to lower our expectations drastically and expect life to be one damn thing after another? Or is there a middle way? When is life good enough? More about this soon.

June 18, 2007

Stereotype vulnerability research: bridging social and ethnical performance gaps

One line of research I am following with much interest is stereotype vulnerability research. Stereotype vulnerability is the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category. Two pioneers of the field are Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. Here is a wikipedia page explaining the general idea. I find this line of research so interesting because it allows for some optimistic conclusions about bridging performance gaps between different social and ethnical groups. University of Texas psychologist Matthew McGlone, for instance, wondered what would happen if you prompted people to think about their strengths rather than their stereotypical weaknesses - would that be enough to improve performance in areas where they weren't supposed to do well? McGlone, working with Joshua Aronson of New York University, found that the answer is yes. "The idea that something is immutable due to some biological factor can be trumped," McGlone said (source of this quote). If you want to know more, here are some interesting articles:

I hope Joshua Aronson, one of the leaders of the field, will soon write a book about this fascinating topic, containing the latest research findings and practical suggestions for teachers. That would be a much needed book for many.

Related: The true Nature of Intelligence / The Growth Mindset

June 17, 2007

Making everything 1% better

In the nineteen eighties, Pat Riley coached the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had just lost the MBA championship final to the Boston Celtics. There was some panic within the Lakers group. They wondered how they could ever win the Championship agains the seemingly unbeatable Celtics. They would have to get so much better and they chance to that seemed slim. But Riley, a great strategist, knew how to do this. He did not buy expensive new players. He did not double the amount of training hours and he did not put extra strict demands on his players. He only challenged them to improve every single aspect of their game with a mere 1%. The result was surprising. The Lakers won the championship. Not only in that year but also in the folowing year. Riley proved that many small steps, steps which may seem insignificant, can lead to great results. Read more about how small steps can lead to surprising results in this article: One small step forward.
Thanks to Mark Westerhuis.

June 16, 2007

What you would fight FOR

Salman Rushdie is to receive a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth. I admit I have never read any of his books but I like what I once heard him say: “It’s a more important question to ask yourself what you would fight for rather than what you would fight against.” (Source: interview at Nova, 19 aug 2005). Of course, there is a link to the solution-focused approach which stresses positive goals. Read more about that in this article: Realizing Change through Achievable Goals.

June 13, 2007

People become uniquely themselves when they do their best work.

"People are like other people when they do ordinary, competent work. They become uniquely themselves when they do their best work."

- Fletcher, J. (1993). Patterns of high performance

June 12, 2007

Acknowledgement quote

"You really give them a sense that they've been heard; that their experiences have been acknowledged; that who they are has been valued and validated." This quote is from solution-focused practitioner Bill O'Hanlon. It nicely shows the emphasis on acknowledgement in the solution focused approach.

June 10, 2007

The tendency to overemphasize cultural and ethnical differences

"I think too many people talk about culture/ethnicity as being a bigger difference than is necessary." This is what Insoo Kim Berg said in 2003 in this interview with Victor Yalom when asked about how to apply solution-focused techniques in different cultures. She further said: "I have a lot of gripes about the way that cultural differences are talked about in this country. My main gripe has to do with emphasizing the differences between cultures—what is different between you and me, instead of talking about what is similar between you and me. That we are all human beings with the same aspirations, same needs, same goals. When I look at those things, it's very easy to translate [solution-focused techniques, CV]. It's the same everywhere you go. Everyone wants to be accepted, validated, supported, loved, and to belong to a community. That's not different at all, no matter where you go. It's a different way of belonging to the group, but that's a small difference. But even among the same culture, like among the white middle class, there's so many variations. Just because you went to college and I went to college doesn't mean we came from the same kind of families. Even some Jewish families, some Korean families are so different. So I think too many people talk about culture/ethnicity as being a bigger difference than is necessary. I feel very comfortable no matter what culture I go. I just look at you as another human being rather than I am this group and you are that group. I think it's very divisive. So that's my main gripe. People ask me, "Aren't you feeling discriminated against because you're Asian, and a woman?" I think "so what?" Some people get discriminated against for being too short, too tall, too blond. So what? It's not that different from any of those things. I don't really pay attention to that."

I think she's right.

Eight questions for solution focused coaches

As part of a workshop I did some time ago I presented eight basic questions for solution focused coaches. The responses I get to these questions from workshop participants are generally very enthusiastic. So, I'd like to share them here. These 8 questions are starting questions. Of course, you can respond by summarizing, probing etc. Here they are:

June 9, 2007

Deliberate practice

“Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice –an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance.”
- Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson is one of the leading experts on expertise development. He has demonstrated through research that building top expertise is more than anything else a matter of long and repeated deliberate practise. Fast company published this article about this topic.
Also read: The Effort Effect

June 8, 2007

From activity centeredness to outcome centeredness

In an earlier post I mentioned Schaffer & Thomson (1992) who argued for an outcome focus instead of an activity focus. They say that in activity centeredness means and goals are easily confused. The activity seems to become more important than what you would hope to achieve. This is essential in solution-focused change too. Sometimes, right after the problem has been clarified the client focuses on a specific activity, behavior or solution before he has specifically formulated his goal. The client may have a theory about how this may help or maybe someone suggested this solution to him. But this preferred solution might not work well at all. We need to know what we want to achieve in order to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of an attempted solution. It is often wise to help the client focus on his goal again before actually attempting this solution. Consider this example of Jim, talking to his coach about a conflict with his manager:
JIM: This conflict with my boss is really driving me crazy.
COACH: Considering what you have told me about the conflict I can imagine you want things to be different. How would you like things to be?
JIM: I know what I have to do: next time I meet him I am going to tell him exactly how I feel about him and explain to him what a terrible person he is.
COACH: How will that help?
JIM: How will that help? ... Well ... I suppose if I get that off my chest I won’t think about this conflict with my boss all the time.
COACH: What could you do then?
JIM: Then I would be able to concentrate on my work again.
COACH: Sounds good... What will be different if you can concentrate on your work again?
JIM: ... (thinks) .... I’ll answer all those unanswered emails I have.
COACH: Aha, what else?
JIM: I’ll write that proposal I should finish this week....... And I’ll finish some other stuff.
COACH: How will you be different if you do all of that?
JIM: ..... (Smiles) ..... When I will have finished those things I guess I will be more relaxed and friendlier to people around me.
COACH: (Smiling) Alright! .... And if your boss would see you then, how would he notice the difference?
JIM: He’d be very pleased. He always says I am delaying things too much so he’ll be very pleased if he sees me finishing my work on time. He always complains about me missing deadlines.
COACH: Aha, I am beginning to see how it is important for you to find ways to be able to concentrate on your work so you can finish things on time.....
JIM: (Energetically) Exactly!

June 6, 2007

Leapfrogging over the problem

We often seem to assume that saying what we don't want automatically implies what we do want. But this is not the case. Here is an example:

GREG: We need your help because we have conflict in our management team.
COACH: I would be glad to help. How is the conflict bothering you now?
GREG: It is terrible! It is keeping us from discussing important organizational issues and from making necessary decisions. In the organization our lack of unity and decision making power is even beginning to cause rumors. This is beginning to undermine our credibility!
COACH: Is that so? Well, then I can imagine you want things to change!
GREG: Exactly, I want things to change badly!
COACH: I understand. How would you like things to be?
GREG: Well, I want the conflict to disappear, of course!
COACH: Sounds like a good thing! And what will be different in the team when the conflict will have disappeared?
GREG: What will be different? (Four seconds of silence). That is an interesting question.... Let me think…. (While thinking, slowly, a smile appears on his face). Well, we would get along with each other well.
COACH: Aha, and what will be possible, when you will be able to get along well?
GREG: We will be able to talk about the important issues without fighting. .............
COACH: Great! What else?
GREG: And we will be able to make timely decisions... We will be able to meet our deadlines once again. People will start talking more positively about the management team again.

Notice what happens in this brief interaction. At first, the coach acknowledges the problem and helps the client to specify how the conflict is hindering the team. While describing how the current situation is, both client and coach become more aware of how it is a problem and why change is needed. Next, the coach helps the client to start defining how he wants things to be different. He does this in an interesting way, which is frequently employed in solution-focused change. By asking ‘And what will be different in the team when the conflict will have disappeared?’ he invites the client to leapfrog over the problem to the desired outcomes (I got this term from Henden (2003): Team Remotivation). When at first, the client defines the goal in negative terms ("Well, I want the conflict to disappear, of course!") the coach helps the client again to describe the desired situation in positive terms. At first, the client describes the goal in rather abstract terms ("We would get along with each other well."). The coach then helps client to define the desired success in more specific terms.

Slow movement

I like this quote by Confucius: "It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop". This quote emphasizes the importance of keeping on taking steps and keeping on moving. At the same time it relaxes the idea of having to be fast and take large steps. This is, of course, a familiar idea in the solution-focused approach (see this article on small steps). Not only is it often not necessary to go fast, it can sometimes even be a disadvantage as this quote by Insoo Kim Berg points out: "..at times, "going slow" seems to get you there faster."

June 5, 2007

Prioritizing problems

Sometimes it is not easy to quickly understand what your client wants to be different. One example is when a client presents several problems at once. A client may say: “I am very dissatisfied with my work. There is a lot of stress, I don’t really like the work I am doing and I don’t get along with my boss. And now I am even taking my work problems home with me. I don't sleep well and I have some relationship problems too." In these situations it helps to prioritize problems. One simple way of doing this is to ask: “What is the first of these things you would like to talk about?" or: "What is the first thing you would like to be different?" Note that this does not have to be the most important problem. Sometimes clients want to address the most important problems first but often they prefer to start off with an easier topic. And it really doesn't matter where you start. Once the client starts improving certain aspects of his situation other things will start to improve too. The key thing is to let the client choose so that the conversation will constantly be about things that are relevant for him.

June 4, 2007

Draft a future article

In their book ‘The Heart of Change’, management authors John Kotter and Dan Cohen recommend a team exercise that highly resembles solution-focused techniques in the sense that it helps to visualize the desired future. They write:

"If a guiding team does not have a vision for their change effort, or does not have a vision they are satisfied with, try this: Work with this group to draft an "article" for Fortune magazine about the results of their change effort, projecting five years into the future. In the article, talk about the following:
  • How the organization is different
  • What customers have to say about the company
  • What employees are saying
  • Performance on relevant indexes
In doing this be concrete, include quotes from people, use actual numbers, and a clear description of a new product or service or process." (Kotter, 2002). Read more about this book in this review by solution-focused practitioncer Jim Mortensen.

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