The conventional view on how people can achieve change best corresponds with what is call the 'plan-and-implement model'. This model says that you first have to analyze and reflect in order to be able to develop a clear picture of what you want to achieve and only then you can plan and take steps to realize this picture. This conventional change approach thus consists of the following four steps:
- Goal setting
- Plans making
- Implementing plan
The solution focused approach works from the assumption that effective change in complex systems corresponds with the so-called 'test-and learn model'. This approach is based on the idea that learning is a circular and iterative process. The test-and-learn approach is quite different from the plan-and-implement model in several aspects. Researcher Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, has found that the test-and-learn-model corresponds with how people make effective career transitions. She describes it as follows: “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”. While the process unfolds knowledge grows about what works and what not. Also, the test and learn model is a dynamic approach in the sense that the goal is not a fixed picture but evolves as the process goes on. While the plan-and-implement model requires that you first know before you can act, the test and learn model turns this on its head; first you act, then you know.
Complex systems require a the test-and- learn approach to change
The solution-focused view on effective change resembles more the test-and-learn model than the plan-and-implement model. This does not mean the plan-and-implement model is regarded as useless. Rather, the question is: which change model do you use in which circumstances? My hypothesis is that the more complex a problem is, the less effective the conventional plan-and-implement model of change and the more appropriate the test-and-learn model will be (in Complex problems ask for the simplicity of the solution-focused approach you can read more about what is meant with complexity in this context). What is important here is to know that a conventional view on change holds that change happen in a linear way which means that the effect is expected to be proportionate to the intervention. It also assumes that change must be initiated and controlled in a top down fashion. A solution-focused view corresponds with a complexity perspective which says that change in a complex system happens in a non-linear way. This means that small events can ripple through the whole system and change may begin anywhere within the system.
Main advantages of small steps
Solution-focused practitioners generally focus on one small step forward instead of a big leap. Intuitively you may think that taking small steps may only be useful for situations in which you have small problems but this is not the case. On the contrary, when problems are large, taking small steps may be even more powerful. In fact, the solution-focused approach assumes that they are often the only way to start tackling problems that nearly overwhelm us. Why is this so? Here are four reasons:
- Low threshold: when the step forward is as small as possible, the requirement of energy, motivation, and trust is minimal. The threshold is so low that the willingness to take the step will be maximal. The low threshold stimulates a high probability of change.
- Low risk: when taking a big leap you may achieve a lot at once, providing the direction chosen turns out to be precisely right and providing, figuratively speaking, the landing turns out to be soft. But it the direction was not accurate, you may end up way off-track. And if the landing was hard you may break your ankle. Small steps don't have these disadvantages. Little precise knowledge and certainty is needed about the effectiveness of the step. The step can be seen as an experiment. If does not work not much will be lost. The chance of damage and wasted energy will be minimal. In the unpredictability that characterizes many work situations this is a great advantage. The one small step approach makes it easy to respond flexibly to developments.
- Positive message: saying that only drastic change will be sufficient can be rather demotivating. People may feel unacknowledged and unappreciated for their previous efforts ("if such big change is necessary, apparently, we have done everything wrong until now"). Aiming for a small step, however, implies something positive, namely that there is already a lot functioning well as it is. Changing no more than strictly necessary is really like saying: “There is already a lot going well and we do not want to risk of losing that by changing too much. It will not be necessary to drastically change our course. A subtle change will do.” A positive message like that reflects trust and works motivating.
- Positive snowball effects: the one small step approach has a surprising side advantage: it may lead to a snowball effect. Edwin Olson and Glenda Eoyang, authors of Facilitating Organizational Change: Lessons from Complexity Science (2001) describe such a process as follows: “A small change in one part ripples through the organization and can have tremendous unintended consequences far from the site of the intervention”. Why is that so? The reason is that in a complex system, everything is linked to everything. Maybe you know the so-called butterfly effect from chaos theory? Scientist Edward Lorenz argued that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might cause a tornado in Texas. Likewise, taking one step forward as an individual can eventually lead to system wide progress. The behavior of one person will affect the behavior of another person, which will affect yet another person, and so on. In this way, small-scale actions may lead to large-scale change.
Also read: Assumptions In Solution-Focused Change