August 31, 2009

The inevitability and usefulness of tensions

Sometimes some solution-focused coaches and positive psychologists ask there clients what their ideal future would look like. Or they may ask something else in that same vein, such as: what's your ideal job, what is your big dream? What does your perfect future look like? Perhaps it is not wise to think in these idealistic terms. While life can be pretty good and people can be pretty happy, even very happy, it seems impossible for life to become perfect or ideal. Sometimes it may approach such an ideal state but that seems impossible to last forever. I believe we have to potential for happiness and growth and we can make progress during our lives but I am also convinced that the presences of tensions and the occurance of problems is inevitable.
Here is a paragraph from an earlier article:

August 29, 2009

The usefulness of those who keep on attacking us

Shakespeare famously wrote: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". Isn't that a bit too optimistic? What about free riders, people who try to get away with taking more and contributing less than their fair share? And what about people who constantly gossip and try to make other people look bad? And those who try to climb the corporate ladder by any means? What about bullies? Vandals? Soccer hooligans? Gangsters? Aren't they just rotten apples, parasites? Aren't they just plain bad for organizations and society? Or is it possible too see something good in them? Maybe yes, an example from nature suggests.

Alex Trisoglio has shown that the presence of parasites in a system can dramatically speed up its evolution. A parasite finds a way to take advantage of his host. In response, the host will find a way to defend himself which in turn leads the parasite to find a new approach of attack. And so on. In such a evolutionary arms race the capability of the organism to adapt is its only sustainable competitive advantage (Pascale, Millemann & Goia, 2000). In short, no matter how irritating, malicious these parasites may be, on the level of the organism, organization or the society they may fulfill a useful function. Because of their constant attacks the system is permanently strengthening itself. Parasites remain aggravating and must always be fought but they do have their use. Maybe that idea helps us to view them as slightly less awful. They may be a useful evil. What do you think? Is this far fetched? Or may it be true?

August 27, 2009

What's the best question you've ever been asked?

On twitter I posted a few quotes on questions. After I had just done that, Senia Maymin asked me the following question: "What's the best question you've ever been asked? (You can choose what you mean by 'best')." Hard question, I really had to think about that. Then, after a few minutes I answered: "It was a question asked by a school friend whom I have no contact with anymore. We were about 17 back then. We were sitting with a group of 5 or 6 friends and all of us answered that question. That question, which I think may be the best question I've ever been asked is: "How would you like your life to become?"

What's the best question you've ever been asked?

August 26, 2009

What's the most interesting piece of research you have come across recently?

Tomorrow, I am planning to write a research digest for the coming edition of the Interaction Journal. It will look at research published in the last six months (or maybe a bit beyond that time frame). The research does not have to be limited to the solution-focused approach, it can also be about parallel areas, such as social psychology, positive psychology, neuroscience, and so forth. I already have some ideas about what to include but I welcome any suggestions you may have. Therefore my question is:

What's the most interesting piece of research relevant to the solution-focused approach you have come across in the last 6 month (or so)?

August 24, 2009

Advice asked: case load too high, what to do?

Today I received a mail from a friend of mine who asked me if I could ask my network for help with a question. Here is his question. If you have any solution-focused advice (or other) for him, please let us know.

Dear fellow consultants and coaches,

I'd like to consult with you on the following case. My question is: What is the best advice to give to these women? Today I met two women who work as psychologists in an institution for people with mental and physic disabilities. They have an enormous caseload. Both of them have 300+ clients in their portfolio. Not all patients need permanent care, but the work is very demanding. There is permanent stress. One woman works here for 3 years (she is currently 27) and the other 10 years (she is currently 34). Both of them choose this career for the love of helping clients, providing care. Slowly, but gradually, the feel trapped in the red tape. All the fun of their jobs is squeezed out of them, because of the endless paperwork, with no end in sight. The problem is not uncommon in healthcare, so quitting their job sounds good, but doesn't help. The stress is taking it toll. Work that isn't finished is done in the weekends. I'm under the impression that they are starting to burn up. Now, I'm no career coach. But these women are in desperate need of help. Would anyone care to share some thoughts?

Flexible secretaries

A team of secretaries at a large lawyer practice did not operate flexible enough. Most of the lawyers were not satisfied with the flexibility, the accuracy and the pace of work by the secretaries. Due to this, the lawyers said, they could not serve their clients adequately. The secretaries' team leader had been requested to improve the quality of their performance so she invited the secretaries for a meeting to talk about this. She said the purpose of the meeting would be to find ways to serve the lawyers faster, better and more flexibly so that they would be able to serve their clients better. She began the meeting bys asking the continuation question: "What things that we already do contribute to a good, flexible and fast service to the lawyers. In other words: which things that we already do, do not have to change?" This question led to a nice list of things they were doing that were already working. Then, the team leader asked: "What ideas do any of you have about how we can make our service more flexible, better and faster?" In response to this question, a few of the secretaries came with some interesting ideas, right away. A few others were a seemed a bit reluctant and did not have ideas right away. The team leader set them at ease by saying: "Do take some time to think about this. Please jump in as soon as you're beginning to get some ideas." A few other secretaries were even more reserved and pointed out that the lawyers were not always so flexible, fast and precise themselves. The team leader listened patiently and responded understandingly to this. She asked them how they had coped with the fact that the lawyers were not always doing a good job themselves, which led to a few good 'survival tips'. After that, she kept coming back to the question what ideas there were to make some improvements. Slowly but surely, more ideas were brought forward. The first session turned out to be a good start with some very interesting ideas for improvements. Later, two more sessions took place in which the 'What's better?' question played a major role. Slightly to the suprise of most of the secretaries, there were indeed some things that seemed to be going better. After the three meetings had been held, both the lawyers and the secretaries noticed an excellent improvement. Also, the secretaries noticed that the atmosphere in the team had improved and that they felt more appreciated by both the lawyer and by their own colleagues.

August 21, 2009

Would free access for all to all scientific knowledge be a good idea?

Science relies on systematically testing ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. Not everyone realizes this, but science affects our everyday lives in all sorts of different ways. One principle of science is to let it be public and accessible. This way, researchers can check, respond to and build on each other's work and the general public can be informed about public knowledge, too. There are many ways scientific knowledge can be disseminated to the general public. One important way is through the general education everyone gets. Parts of scientific knowledge find their way into the basic education of everyone (although this sometimes remains a struggle). Another way is through popularized science books (example), a great way to reach massive audiences. An interesting and useful development is also how some universities have started to create chairs for the public understanding of science (for instance Oxford). Then, there the many information technology-driven approaches which enable the further spread of scientific knowledge. Much scientific knowledge seeps through by the wonderful wikipedia technology and community. There are now even peer reviewed scholar sites ( And there are more and more researchers uploading pdf files on their websites (example). Some universities are very generous in sharing their knowledge, too (example). Youtube also offers wonderful opportunities for sharing scientific knowledge broadly (example). In addition, websites like Google Scholar can be a great help in identifying articles.

August 20, 2009

The test-and-learn model of change

Herminia Ibarra explains in her book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career that the conventional way of thinking about career change corresponds with the plan-and-implement model. This model says that you first have to analyse and reflect in order to be able to develop a clear picture of what you want to achieve and only then you can take steps to realize this picture.

However, Ibarra’s research shows that effective career change follows a different pattern, one which is described by the so-called test-and-learn model. This model is based on the idea that learning is a circular and iterative process. “We take actions, one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of those actions such that an intelligible pattern eventually starts to form”. On page 34 of her book she explains this by the following table:

August 19, 2009

Why do 80% of organizational change initiatives fail? Or do they?

Have you ever heard someone claim that research shows that 70 or 80% of all change initiatives fail? Have you noticed that usually such a claim is not backed up by a specific reference to one or more studies or publications? I argue the claim is too general to be valid and useful and can even be counterproductive. Here is why. In 2002, Martin Smith systematically studied Success rates for different types of organizational change by comparing 49 published reports of success of organizational change, representing over 40,000 organizations. Based on his study the following conclusions can be drawn:
  1. Published success rates vary rather widely per type of change. As an example, Smith found that culture change programs fail much more often than strategy implementations and redesign projects.
  2. Published success rates vary rather widely over time. Older findings on success rates for certain types of change may differ from more current findings (due to contextual factors and or improved state of art).
  3. Success rates depend on the success criteria used. In general, the study shows that more broad criteria (financial performance, shareholder value) tend to show higher success rates than more behavioral measures (client satisfaction, management behavior).
  4. Vested interests of people reporting the research may downplay actual success rates. Reported low success rates may be used to sell different change methodologies.

August 18, 2009

Question: can hard work be good for you?

On her SolutionsAcademy blog, solutionist Kirsten Dierolf wrote the post Let them eat cake about the ethos of not-working, the ethics of whatever you want to do it shouldn't feel like work. In it, she writes about her observation that hard work - once an admirable quality- is 'out' and a life of doing what you want is 'in'. She objects to the presumption that it is only natural that people do not want to work and that work is in some way bad for you. She also objects to advice in books like The Four our work week and in a newsletter she read to develop location-free and time-free income, income that does not require your presence and much of your time investment. Kirsten says: "If you just think of the consequences if everyone suddenly turns an independent fortune seeker, the advice no longer seems to lead to an attractive picture of the world."

Over long stretches of time, slowly but surely, for most people around the world the quality of their work has improved, at least to some degree. Centuries ago hard work, in the sense of unskilled physical work in very poor working environments, was the norm. Gradually, through the industrial revolution manual labor has been replaced by more skilled and higher quality working conditions. This process has been given another boost by the advent of information revolution which is still upon us. In this sense, the slow demise of hard work seems to be good thing and we can only hope the process will continue.

August 17, 2009

10 Inspirational quotes from Herminia Ibarra's book Working Identity on the First-Act-Then-Think Change Strategy

The book Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (2004) by Herminia Ibarra is a gem. In the book, she does away with the way most people in the Western world think about career change. Most people think that for successful career change, you first have to diagnose your true self before you can make a plan for your new career and before you can take action to implement that plan. Herminia Ibarra argues successful career change works quite differently as is shown in the following quotes from the book:
  1. Change usually happens the other way around: Doing comes first, knowing, second [...] Career transition follows a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected (p1)
  2. We are not one self but many selves. [...] It is nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves, and therefore, it is equally hard to execute in a planned and orderly way. (p2)

August 16, 2009

Government size and tax

Countries differ substantially in government sizes
In the post What's important is that it works, I quoted Barack Obama who said: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." As a non-economist, I am usually a bit reluctant to write about economic issues because of my limited grasp of the subject. But I would like to make an exception for the issue of government size because I came across some views which influenced mine a bit. There are several reasons I like Obama's statement. One reason for liking this statement is that it reflects the solution-focused principle of doing what works (see subtitle of this blog). Whether a government is effective or not can hardly only be a matter of how large it is. A government may have any size but if it makes unwise policy decisions based on erroneous information or thinking, chances are it won't be effective. Having said this, it is evident that government size matters, too. Countries differ substantially in government sizes. For instance, many Western European governments are much larger than the US government. Federal state and local government revenues in the US are about 33% of gross domestic product, compared with 45% in Europe; Spending stands at 39% of GDP in the US and 46% in Europe. Yet because US taxes are lower than spending as a share of GDP, US deficits are chronically higher (source).

We all stand on each other's shoulders

"We all stand on each other's shoulders", I once replied when a solution-focused colleague complimented me with something I'd written. This was my admittedly strange way of expressing something like that we all build on each other's work and (hopefully) collectively progress our thinking. I was of course making a variation on the metaphor of the dwarf standing on the shoulder of a giant which Isaac Newton used (but not invented; it is attributed to Bernard of Chartres, who lived in the twelfth century). When I had made that strange expression my colleague appreciatively replied: "It shows you're from the country of Escher. M.C. Escher was, of course, the famous Dutch graphic artist known for his lithographs and woodcuts of impossible realities. Well-known examples are Drawing hands, Sky and Water, and Ascending and Descending.

August 15, 2009

Motivational impact of third-person perspective positive behavioral representations

On BPS Research Digest is an interesting article on the power of visualization. (Thanks Jim Mortensen for pointing me to it). It explains there are two ways of visualizing yourself being successful at something: from a first-person perspective as in real-life, or from an external perspective, as an observer might see you. Researchers Lisa Libby and colleagues have demonstrated that it's this latter, third-person perspective that is far more effective in raising the likelihood we will go on to perform a desired behavior. "The researchers said these findings extend prior work showing that we tend to interpret other people's actions as saying something about them, whereas we interpret our own actions as saying more about the situation we're in. So, when we picture ourselves acting in the third-person, we see ourselves as an observer would, as the 'kind of person' who performs that behavior. "Seeing oneself as the type of person who would engage in a desired behavior increases the likelihood of engaging in that behavior", the researchers said."

August 13, 2009

6 Inspirational quotes by Dale Carnegie for dealing with the reactance effect

Have you read my posts Naïve realism and How do you convince people? These posts show how people will tend to resist when they feel someone tries to convinces them (the reactance effect) and think they see things as they really are so their opponent in a debate must be biased or dishonest (naïve realism). If these findings of social psychology are true what does this mean for how to communicate with other people who have different views. One writer who had some ideas about this is Dale Carnegie. His book How To Win Friends and Influence People, which was first published in 1936 and which sold millions of copies (which made it the one of the first self-help best sellers) contains these quotes on this topic:

August 12, 2009

Naïve realism

Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross (photo) calls this phenomenon "naïve realism." The inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, "as they really are." We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree with us, they obviously aren't seeing clearly. Naïve realism creates a logical labyrinth because it presupposes two things: One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion. And two, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren't, I wouldn't hold it. Therefore, if I can just get my opponents to sit down here and listen to me, so I can tell them how things really are, they will agree with me. And if they don't, it must be because they are biased. (Source: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts).

Four useful interventions in Brief Family Therapy by Steve de Shazer and Alex Molnar

One of the nicest early publications on the solution focused approach I find the article Four Useful Interventions in Brief Family Therapy by Steve de Shazer and Alex Molnar. It was published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy in 1984. Here is the abstract:
At the Brief Family therapy Center we have developed some interventions that have repeatedly been found useful. Once a generalizable intervention is designed for a particular case and found effective, the team attempts to replicate by using it in other appropriate situations. When a pattern of usefulness emerges, it is time to think about and study what is going on that makes the intervention useful. The purpose of this paper is to describe four such interventions, the situations in which to use them or not use them, and our thinking about what is going on in each example.
The article then goes on to describe the following four interventions: 1) the First Session Formula Task, 2) Do something different, 3) the overcoming-the-urge task, and 4) the stability as change intervention. With many articles as PDF files online these days, it is a pity that this one is not yet online. At least, as far as I know. If you find it online, let me know. In the meantime, if you want to know more you can read a bit more about it in this article: A brief history of the solution-focused approach.

August 11, 2009

Learning to compliment effectively

Complimenting is attractive for many people. Most people prefer to and view it as more constructive to say something positive than to say something negative. After all, who does not want to be appreciated for what he does? Although everybody makes mistakes now and then, most people mean well, don't they? This way of reasoning is surely plausible which may explain why I frequently hear people saying that is good and important to compliment frequently. They claim that this is the best way to motivate people. It is correct that complimenting can be useful. An adequate compliment provides us with the type of feedback that can help us become aware of which of our behaviors are effective. Furthermore, a compliment can make you realize that there is someone who is paying attention to you and who feels involved with what you do. This is why complimenting effectively can be useful in different contexts like parenting, education, management and co-operation. But is complimenting really always so pleasant and motivating? There are also people who are skeptical about the use and value of complimenting. Some say that they often see compliments as insincere and exaggerated as if it were some kind of trick. Others say they often get suspicious when they are complimented ("What does he want from me?"). Still others say they don't like to be complimented because it gives them the impression that the other person looks down on them (“Who does he think he is to judge me?).
What's the deal with compliments? Are the advocates right or the skeptics? My answer is that both the advocates and the skeptics are right. Complimenting can be valuable but only in certain circumstances and when done skilfully. In those cases the advantages can be achieved while negative side effects can be prevented. Below I will first explain some negative consequences which can occur when complimenting is done ineffectively. Then I will give some practical suggestions for complimenting effectively. Read on.

August 8, 2009

Richard Dawkins interviews Eric Beinhocker on Evolutionary Economics

Richard Dawkins interviews Eric Beinhocker, author of Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics about Evolutionary Economics.
In the interview, Beinhocker mentions something which the readers of this blog will recognize as something very solution-focused: "What some companies do is, rather than trying to outguess where the market is going, they will create some notion of variety within their company, just as the marketplace has a variety outside the company, and then let the market choose. Let customers decide which products and services they like best. And then, quite importantly, scale up or amplify what works and de-amplify what doesn't work."

August 7, 2009

Columbo fragment and the growth mindset

During my vacation in the Czech Republic I ran into some really cheap DVD's of the TV series Columbo (and I bought a lot of them). For you younger readers: Columbo is an American crime fiction TV series starring Peter Falk as homicide detective lieutenant Columbo working at the LAPD. Together with my wife and kids we've been watching many episodes and we loved them. Although the format of the series is a bit formulaic it is wonderful to watch every time. Each episode starts with how a murder is committed. You see exactly how and why the murderer commits the crime and how he or she tries to cover it up. It usually takes quite long before Columbo enters the scene. Columbo is quite a character. First of all, he is rather shabby-looking and he drives a rusty old car which seems and sounds like it could fall apart at any moment. Columbo is a cigar smoking guy who comes across as clumsy and absent minded. When confronted with the person whom we already know to be the murder he presents himself extremely modest and he frequently apologizes for having to ask all of the questions. An example of such an apology might be: "I am sorry sir, but I have a new young boss and he is a little bit over-enthusiastic and he requires me to ask you all of these questions." Another thing is, he always talks about his wife. For instance when he'd interrogate a movie director, he'd typically go on and on about how his wife is his biggest fan. But the viewer never ever gets to see Mrs. Columbo.

August 3, 2009

What is nothing?

When I just started to get chemistry in high school I tried to understand the structure of atoms and while part of it seemed easy to grasp, another part puzzled me. I kind of understood the basic idea of the nucleus at the center (consisting of positively charged protons and of neutrons with no electrical property) and of electrons (negatively charged) revolving around it (in four orbits if I remember well). It was explained that all matter consisted of various type of these little atoms. What wasn't explained and what wasn't clear to me was what was between the nucleus and the electrons. I had expected there would be something there as well. But rereading my school book, I found it said nothing about what was in between. When I asked the teacher, he explained confidently that there was nothing between the electrons and the nucleus. I then asked what nothing was to which he answered: nothing is nothing. I somehow found this not so satisfactory but stopped asking. I wasn't trying to be clever; I fact, I felt I misunderstood something that apparently was rather obvious to everyone else. This explains why I smiled today when I came across this book Nothing, A very Short Introduction by Frank Close. Apparently, a bit more can be said about nothing than: nothing is nothing. (Although I admit I have not read the book and I am not completely sure there is anything in it ;)

August 2, 2009

10 quotes from Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope

When I first heard about Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Vintage), a few years ago, I had never heard of Obama and thought the book was a new self-help book and Obama was some new guru. Well, I don't have to explain that was not entirely right. Only now have I read the book and I like it. Let me not provide a conventional review the book here. I am not sure I can add much to the 743 reviews here. Instead, let me share with you 10 quotes from the book which I found appealing. So here we go.

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