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.


  1. Whilst I agree with every word of this post, there is a danger in becoming too dogmatic about this issue. Of course, focusing on solutions is always better than finding someone or something to blame. However, looking for causes isn't always about looking for scapegoats. Trying to identify actions and attitudes that have prevented success in the past can prevent energy being wasted on solutions that don't have a chance of working, or may lead to the mindful awareness of self-defeating behaviours that could sabotage potentially workable solutions.

    The important skill to learn is the ability to recognise when it is appropriate to look for contributing causes and when it is not.

  2. Hi David, I Agree. We should not become dogmatic about anything also not about this. Recently, I have done a study about coaching effectiveness which showed strongs associations between many solution-focused interventions and coaching success. But there was also a moderate positive correlation between coaching success and looking for problem causes. I can't explain why on the basis of this simple study but it underlines what you say: let's not become dogmatic about this stuff.


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