April 29, 2007

The right questions

"We must learn to ask the right questions and we have to ask those questions often."

- Garry Kasparov, the most successful chess player of all times and author of How Life Imitates Chess

April 28, 2007

Understandingly but firmly

Steve, a manager in a factory department, had to engage in a difficult conversation with Richard, an employee who had shown some intimidating behavior towards his colleagues several times. A few colleagues had already mentioned they were actually afraid of him. Steve had once before said to Richard that he would not accept physically aggressive behavior. Richard had responded evasively and had said: ”It is very hard for me to control my temper because I was molested as a child myself!” This conversation between Steve and Richard did not lead to a clear understanding and agreement. Recently, there had been a new situation of Richard intimidating a co-worker and Steve wanted to talk to him about it. This time, Steve had prepared well for the conversation. As a preparation, he had written down on a piece of paper what he expected of Richard and why. During the conversation he did not use the piece of paper but he remembered well what he had written down. He said: “Richard, you are appreciated a lot in this department because of your commitment and your readiness to help others. So I guess you can imagine we would very much like to keep you around. In order to be able to do that, you will need to learn to restrain yourself when you feel provoked and angry so that your colleagues can feel safe around you at all times. How can you manage to do that?” After a few seconds, Richard replied: “I understand you're asking this of me but it is very hard for me to control my anger when I feel provoked. Steve responded understandingly but firmly “Sure. I can imagine that after what you have told me recently. And given that it is hard for you …. How can you manage to restrain yourself anyway so that people will feel safe around you and we can keep on employing you here?” During the conversation Steve kept on coming back to this HOW-question. The conversation proceeded constructively and Richard and Steve made an agreement that Richard would control himself when angry at all times. Richard has since found a way to do this. (Source).

April 27, 2007

Resisting the temptation to cut corners

An interesting and important insight by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the following. We may sometimes be tempted to do our work with as little effort as possible. We try to cut corners and take shortcuts by avoiding challenge and complexity and get the work done in the easiest way possible. Often, we'd rather relax and be free than work and challenge ourselves. But Csikszentmihalyi's reasearch shows that seeking challenge and focusing on the complexity of our tasks is more likely to add to our fulfillment and happiness that relaxation and pleasure. You can read a bit more about these ideas in this review.

April 26, 2007

Possibilities for problem resolution

"Any change can provide possibilities for problem resolution"

This insightful quote is from Barry Duncan, author of What's right with you? and co-author of The Heroic Client. The Heroic client is an excellent book which explains how therapy has for too long been been neglecting, ignoring, and depersonalizing clients, by its over-emphasis on methods and techniques, by following the medical model, by its emphasis on pathology, by hegemony of biological approaches, and so on. Here is a review of The Heroic Client. René Butter and and I have tried to translate the client-oriented and outcome-informed approach which the Heroic client argues for, to the context of management coaching and management consulting (read more).

April 25, 2007

Where is intelligence?

"Intelligence is not only between the ears but also between the noses."
- Anonymous

Does it always have to be great?

Authors of management books and articles often describe large and enormously successful companies like General Electric, Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, and so on. The most famous example is Jim Collins' book GOOD TO GREAT which is now the best sold managment book of all times (here is a review of that book). David Maister wonders what the relevance of these great examples is for normal people in normal companies. He has started a discussion on his blog by asking “What about people and firms that, quite consciously, make a choice that they don’t want to pursue “Olympic Gold.” They want to do good work, serve their clients well, while making a decent living. Do business authors and consultants have anything to offer such people?” Read here what he and his readers think about this.

April 24, 2007

Will the Barclays - ABN Amro deal be successful?

British bank Barclays is buying ABN Amro for 67 billion euros (see more details here). It is said to be the largest financial merger ever. Barclays / ABN Amro plan to cut around 23,000 jobs. That is roughly one in ten jobs. They hope to achieve 3.5 billion euros of cost savings and additional revenue by 2010, largely from axing or migrating 23,600 jobs (see here). The bank will be the world's fifth-largest bank. Many people wonder: will this take-over (or 'merger' if you find that term more appropriate) be successful? Will the new bank be able to realize lasting improvement of its financial situation and the improvement of its share price? Often, mergers and takeovers turn out less succesfull than expected. But they don't always fail. What causes them to succeed? Wayne Cascio is one of the researchers who studied this systematically and longitudinally and found some interesting answers. Here is a review I wrote of his book Responsible restructuring. Rereading it, I am not too confident about this restructuring. Will there be enough structural improvement of the organization? Are costs of the downsizing being accounted for realistically? And most importantly, from which mindset is the downsizing done? How will it affect loyalty and commitment of personnel?

The Power of Positive Priming (2)

Do you like to play the game Trivial Pursuit but find it hard to win? Reading this article may help you to win next time you play it. The 4 experiments described in this article by Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg established that priming the stereotype of professors or the trait 'intelligent' enhanced participants' performance on a scale measuring general knowledge. Also, priming the stereotype of soccer hooligans or the trait 'stupid' reduced participants' performance on a general knowledge scale.

April 22, 2007

The prediction task

Jeff Hawkins is a brilliant guy who has developed a theory of intelligence, which may go to the heart of it. Hawkins understanding of intelligence is now helping him to create intelligence in computer systems which is already leading to unprecedented accomplishments. More about Hawkins can be read in his book On Intelligence and in this review of that book. Here, I want to focus on one aspect of his view on intelligence and that is the major role prediction plays in intelligence. Briefly put, Hawkins is convinced that prediction lies at the core of intelligence. Based on our representation of reality we constantly predict what will happen next. As long as our perception fits our prediction our attention stays low. Only when our perception conflicts with our prediction we will pay attention. Hawkins says that predicting something is literally the start of how we do it. He also says the human neocortex directs behavior to satisfy its predictions. You might think: SO WHAT? Well, the important role of prediction has been recognized for years by pioneers in the field of solution-focused change. A well-known intervention in the solution-focused approach is the so-called prediction task. In essence with the prediction task, the coach asks the client:

"Each night, before going to bed, predict whether or not you will succeed in ............. (whatever it is the client wants to accomplish) the next day."

Steve de Shazer wrote this in 1988: "Prediction tasks are based on the idea that what you expect to happen is more likely to happen once the process leading up to it is in motion. In pragmatic terms, this means that the prediction, made the night before, can sometimes be seen as setting in motion the processes involved in having a better day. No matter what guess the predictor puts down, the idea that he might have a good day is bound to cross his mind. Of course, having a good day is what he really wants and therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy might develop and this might prompt "better day behavior" the next day, right of the bat. When someone consistently predicts better days, which might just be the expression of a wish or hope, it seems reasonable that they might then act to have better days and thus fulfill their wish." (source: Clues. Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy).

So, think about what you want to happen and then frequently predict the chance of that happening.

April 20, 2007

The compliment and the acrimony

In Success built to last I read this fragment about Maya Angelou: "The reward for the doing must be the doing. When people tell her they love her work, she responds with a simple, "Thank you." And when called a "liar, or hack or worse -I've been called all those things- I say, "Thank you.". If she buys into the adulation, it would make her vulnerable to a focus on outside opinion -so when she hears harsh criticism, she would be vulnerable to that as well.
Neither the toxic nor the intoxicating influences of celebrity status are helpful in achieving your goals. Angelou feels they both threaten to distract from the creative work. "As the African proverb says, I don't pick that up; I don't lay that down. Because, if I were to pick up the one (the compliment), I have to pick up the other (the acrimony). And I still have my work to do!"
I like the idea of not being distracted by both criticism and compliments. I think it is an interesting and wise thought that compliments can be distracting too... The remark "I still have my work to do", shows a great focus and determination, which must be very fulfilling. What I also like is to thank the other person, not only for praise but also for criticism. It implies you think the criticism was well intended.

The urge-overcoming skill

In the solution-focused approach it is seen as normal that people who try to change their behavior will sometimes feel the urge to fall back to old, less desired behaviors. Most people who to quit smoking will at some point feel the temptation to light another sigaret. Giving in to this urge can threaten the change process because it can nagatively affect your motivation to go on. A great skill to develop in change processes is the skill to overcome the urge to fall back into old behaviors. The way solution-focused practitioners often help their clients to discover and develop this skill is to suggest the following to them: "Pay attention to what you do when you overcome the temptation or urge to fall back". This type of observation task presupposes that the client will indeed be able to overcome his or her urge, at least in some situations. When you find out how you resist and overcome the temptation you can become more aware of this skill and further develop it.

April 19, 2007

We can't copy our way to success (2)

Two days ago I posted this. I said that many books suggest that if we study other successful companies or individuals and copy what they have done, we can be successful too. The book SUCCES BUILT TO LAST seems to do the same but this is not so. It explicitly states the following:
"Your enduring success is not about following anybody else's roadmap, goals, or achievements. It must be constructed on a foundation of very personal choices that only you can make. None of the people you will meet in the coming pages are being offered as folks you should imitate."
This is an interesting book. Maybe I will write some more about it soon.

April 18, 2007

What success means

"Until you figure out what success means to you personally and to your organization, leadership is an almost 'pointless conversation'."

- Peter Drucker, quoted in Success built to last

I think defining success is indeed very important. This article is related to that. It is about developing goals in such a way that they become achievable. The trick is to develop goals in terms of positive concrete results.

We can't copy our way to success

An interesting quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the following: "A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe." Often, we seem to think that we can copy our way into success but usually we can't. Management books suggest that if we study other successful companies and closely copy what they seem to have done, we can achieve the same success. Books for personal effectiveness do the same. If we closely look at successful individuals we can copy their success and we'll be successful too.
But there is one thing we can't copy by definition. The successful companies and individuals which make it to the books have usually discovered themselves how to develop success. When we try to copy exactly what they have done this is the very difference between us and them. They did not copy anybody. Instead, they discovered their path to success themselves.
When we look from the outside at successful companies or individuals we can only see superficial characteristics. What we don't see is the underlying philosophy which is consequently implemented in countless day to day micro decisions. An example is US Airlines which tried to copy Southwest Airlines in 1994. US Airlines tried to understand the phenomenal success of Southwest and copied several aspects of the Southwest approach like informal clothing of personnel, no meals, more frequent flights, faster handling of baggage). The attempt failed and the market share of US Airlines grew weaker instead of stronger. It had copied only superficial characteristics, not the day to day details, not the underlying philosophy.
Here are a few hunches about successful individuals and companies:
  1. They don't have a copy mentality. They don't try to discover a shortcut to success but they patiently and persistently develop their path to success.
  2. They are skeptical about management fads. Only when they are really convinced it will be useful for them they will carefully try them out.
  3. They will not let themselves be talked into approaches by consultants or coaches.

The interesting thing about the solution-focused approach is that it helps people to develop their own goals and to discover steps forward in the direction of those goals. This enables them to develop an individual success path.

April 17, 2007

Three dogs (a case with scales)

Using scales is a wonderful aspect of the solution-focused approach. You can almost attach every separate solution-focused intervention (like exceptions, small steps, defining goals etc) to scales. I have once seen a video by Steve de Shazer talking to a handicapped young man and throughout the whole conversation Steve was continuously using scales. The flexibility of scales is enormous. Several years ago I was exploring the possibilities of scales and I asked Insoo Kim Berg how she dealt with situations in which her clients rated themselves extremely low, for instance at 0 (or even lower, which they sometimes do, although the scale runs from 0-10). Knowing Insoo, I was not surpirsed that she came up with a lovely example:

"I was coaching a woman who was so angry at the whole world and no matter how I tried to find something to compliment; she would not hear any of it. So, I gave up and I knew that miracle question would be way out of line. She was very depressed. I used a scaling question with her asking her where she was on a scale from 0 to 10. She responded immediately that she was at 0. I replied: "Aha, that’s not bad. Considering your situation, how come it is not a minus 5?" She yelled angrily: "You did not say I could say a minus five, otherwise I would certainly have said that!" I responded: "You’re quite right, I should have mentioned that. But you know, many people in your kind of circumstances do say, they’re at minus five, even if I don’t say they can use that score. I wonder why you did not do that." She was quiet for a moment and then said: "It’s because of my dogs. They are the only ones who love me unconditionally." I smiled and said: "You are smart women. Most people would buy just one dog. You buy three dogs!" And she WAS smart. She knew what she needed and she got it. For the first time, the woman's anger had disappeared and she smiled."

April 16, 2007

When the average is excellence (2)

A few days ago I posted this. Here is another example of how the average can be excellence: "Average faces tend to be more attractive than distinctive faces, but average faces made using computer-graphics are highly symmetric and have very smooth skin. Because both symmetry and smooth skin are attractive, this might contribute to the attractiveness of average faces." If you want to know more about this, go here.

April 15, 2007

Affirming questions

"Affirming questions are often much more effective than simple direct compliments. One reason for this is that they are not experienced as a compliment but has a similar uplifting quality. Another reason is that they affirm by inviting people to explore and develop successes, choices and achievements." This quote is taken from this post by Michael Hjerth on his blog Open Changes. In this post Michael provides some additional thoughts to the topic I wrote about a few days ago (see here).

Independence and activity

“People appear to live the happiest lives in free, democratic societies, and the strongest correlates of happiness are independence and activity. This may seem strange if one thinks of happiness as mere sensory pleasure or contentment, but it fits the view of happiness as a signal of human thriving.”
- Ruut Veenhoven, source

April 14, 2007

When the average is excellence

"With most things, the average is mediocrity. With decision making, it's often excellence", says James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki's book is a great and important book. Decision-making processes in organizations often look much like endless discussions in which the quality of the decisions made is unsatisfactory. My 2005 article Tips for intelligent group decisions, based on the book, offers some suggestions for making effective use of the wisdom of groups.

April 13, 2007

Mary's quiet class

Mary is a teacher on a small town school. The school is seen as a problem school. One of her new classes in particular has a reputation of being a tough class. At the start of the new school year, the situation in the classroom is rather disorderly. Mary decides to make very clear what she expects of the pupils: behave well, be on time, do your homework, bring your book and your work, work quietly and do your best to get good grades. After some time the situation is improving in Mary's class. She has made clear what she expects of the pupils and they seem to go along with that more and more. After about half a year things start to fall back a bit, however. Pupils start to be less quiet, are late for class more often, behave less well-mannered and so forth. From other teachers Mary has heard that this class is very problematic in their lessons too, driving some of them almost to despair. She tries to solve this by being strict. She demands the class to be silent and corrects pupils when they behave badly. Frequently, she sends pupils out of the classroom. However, this strict approach doesn't seem to work too well. Pupils say to her she is much too strict and some pupils seem to get only more difficult and annoying.
On a certain day, at the beginning of the lesson, Mary asks herself desperately what she can do with this class. She doesn't know. Silently she sits in front of the class. Once again, the pupils behave very noisily. Mary stays silent and keeps watching for minutes at what happens and thinking about what to do. At some point, some pupils begin to ask: "Miss, why don't you say anything?" But Mary still does not know how speak effectively to the pupils so she decides to wait some more and stay silent until she knows what to say and do. The noisiness goes on for a few more minutes and then some children start to take out their books and start to work. It is becoming more quietly in the classroom. Mary is still silent. After another 5 minutes it has become really quiet. One or two pupils are still talking but most of them are working quietly. Yet another 5 minutes later it is completely silent in the classroom. Then, Mary starts talking: “I was very curious about whether you know what is expected of you in the classroom. I wasn't sure you knew. But now I know you do know. All of you are working quietly. You are doing exactly what's expected of you. I find that a very good sign." She gives some pupils some specific little compliments about their behavior. The pupils look at Mary, at first a bit surprised. But then some of them begin to smile. From that moment on, Mary has complete attention of the class. When one pupil begins to behave loudly again, he is corrected by other pupils almost right away. The rest of the lesson goes on very quietly and pleasantly. Mary is pleased with how this has worked.

April 11, 2007

(Why) is acknowledgement important?

In the solution-focused approach acknowledging the perspective of the other person is quite important. Insoo Kim Berg and Therese Steiner underlined the importance of acknowledgement when they wrote: "..all people want to be treated with respect, want to be valued and accepted, loved, and cherished, and made to feel they are making important contributions to society and that their wishes and desires are heard and respected." When you acknowledge the view and behavior of the other person he or she feels taken seriously which helps to create a better co-operation between the two of you instantly. Bill O'Hanlon said the following about the powerful effect of acknowledging: "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."

Yet, when viewed from the opposite perspective (your own perspective) it seems wise to de-emphasize things like acknowledgement, recognition, praise, etc, a bit. Alfie Kohn, author of the thought-provoking book PUNISHED BY REWARDS, wrote: "Why is it important that excellence be recognized?" In his book, Kohn convincingly argues that material and immaterial rewards can distract a person from his task, diminish intrinsic motivation and impair relationships. If Kohn is right, and I think he is, focusing less on rewards and becoming less dependent on whether (or WHEN) you receive praise and acknowledgement may be wise. Many great artists and scientists from the past have only received full recognition after their death. Only their independence from recognition allowed them to go on and develop their work.

Mmmm... what does this mean? I guess, in solution-focused practice, acknowledging and complimenting is done most effective when done in an implicit way. An implicit acknowledgement, recognition or compliment is a part of a question. It works like this. Instead of saying: "Well done, you did an excellent job!" you might ask: "How did you manage to accomplish this very hard task?" When you do it like this, what you say does not feel like a reward or praise. Because of that, there is less chance that the other person's motivation and the relationship between the two of you will be impaired. Rather, it activates the other person to actually think about his accomplishment and how he did it.

April 10, 2007

Effective questions for helping and providing direction

Asking questions is an important characteristic of the solution-focused approach. Rather than telling clients how to think and what to do, a solution-focused therapist, coach or consultant asks questions which help the client develop goals and find solutions. Examples of useful questions are scaling questions, the miracle question, perspective change questions and coping questions. Asking rather than telling potentially has the effect of activating the other person. This does not only work in the context of helping (like in therapy, coaching and consulting) but also in management and organisational development. The following quotes are nice illustrations of the power of questions:
  • “We run the company by questions, not by answers.” - Eric Schmidt (picture), CEO of Google (source)
  • "Great results begin with great questions. - Marilee Adams, author of Change your questions, change your life.
Of course, it is important to know how to ask EFFECTIVE questions. After all, not all questions will lead to great results. In this article we provide some suggestions on how you can ask activating questions while at the same time providing direction.

April 9, 2007

Perspective change

A useful and simple way to help people (including yourself) is the technique of the perspective change. You visualize how the situation will be different and better when the goal has been achieved. With this technique you ask in essence:”How will other people notice things will have become better?" A few examples:

- How would the customer notice our service orientation will have improved?
- How will other colleagues notice the conflict has been resolved?
- How will your manager notice this coaching will no longer be necessary?
- How will our competitor notice our company has become more competitive?

The perspective change helps people to get a broader perspective on themselves and their situation so that they can develop clearer goals.

April 5, 2007

When and where can you find solutions?

I have made a simple visual to illustrate when and where solution-focused practitioners may look to find ideas for solutions. It is based on the assumptions that the intensity of problems and successes always fluctuates. In other words no problem is there all the time. There are always times when things are a bit better, or a lot better. The picture visualizes this schematically. So, my question is: WHEN and WHERE do solution-focused practitioners look to find ideas for solutions? This visual provides two answers.

April 3, 2007

Paul Watzlawick

I have just heard that Paul Watzlawick has died a few days ago. He was a member of the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California and author of books like The Situation Is Hopeless, but Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness) and Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues Jay Haley and John Weakland had a considerable influence on Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg who were the main developers of the solution-focused approach.

April 2, 2007

Canalizing energy and information in groups with post its

While working with groups I sometimes notice that complaints and problems are discussed in a serial way, one after the other. The first 20 minutes are used for a talking about a problem in purchasing; the next 20 minutes are used for problems in sales, and so forth. This serial way of discussing problems is often frustrating for participants in the discussion. Most people have to wait a long time before their problem or goal can be discussed and they disengage from the process. Often, at the end of the session little has been achieved. Is there an alternative? Yes. A solution that often works well is to make the process of identifying conversation topics parallel.

By asking good questions you can canalize the energy due to which everyone can mention everything which is important to them within a short time. In group situations I have often had good experiences with exercises that canalize the energy in the group. An example is an exercise that I often use in the beginning of workshops. It goes like this. I write down a few questions like the following on some flip over sheets:
  • what is already going well with .....…… (the topic of the workshop)?
  • what improvements are necessary?
  • how would you notice afterwards that this workshop has been useful?
  • what can you do to make it useful for yourself?
Within ten minutes or so the participants write down their answers to these questions on post it notes and hang them on flip over sheets. Next, we decide which topics should be discussed, when they have to be discussed and how much time will be taken for that.

The advantage of this way of working is that a lot can be shared within very little time. Positive and negative things can be shared and every member can input whatever he or she thinks important. Because of this, this is a great way of involving everyone at once.

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