November 24, 2011

The change sparsity principle in solution-focused organizational change

A solution-focused starting point in deliberate organizational change is to not change any faster or more than necessary. Often, when things are not going well, there is an understandable tendency to initiate drastic changes in organizations. But such an approach can lead to tensions and insecurities. When a "drastic change is needed" message is communicated in organizations employees may interpret them as "much of what you have done was not good enough". Because of this such messages may undermine employees' sense of autonomy and competence and demotivate them. Another potential risk of drastic change approaches is that they may also disturb or destroy practices or processes that were actually working well. Because of this, unexpected problems may emerge.

The solution-focused change approach favors a principle of change sparsity: Do not change faster or more than necessary. When facilitating meetings in an organizational change process, solution-focused coaches may start the meeting with the continuation question which they may phrase as follows: "Thank you for inviting me to facilitate your discussion about what needs to change in your organization. Before we are going to focus on that I'd like to suggest we take just a bit of time to focus on a different question. I have seen examples of organizations in which they have changed more than necessary. They changed things that actually worked well. In order to prevent that from happening here I'd like to ask you the following question: ''As far as you are concerned, what does not have to change because it is already going well enough?"

Focusing on what does not need to change has some beneficial effects. First, it helps gain a clearer focus on what specifically needs to change and why. Second, it helps employees realize that it is acknowledged that they have been doing many things which have worked well. The psychological message which is sent by asking the continuation question is: "Of course, you have been doing good work. We must be careful not to change the good things you have been doing."

Instead of requiring drastic change it will usually work better to ask for small steps forward. This is less threatening and more motivating. Employees will experience a lower threshold to start changing things. The small steps approach is also less risky. 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 risk of damage and wasted energy will be minimal. In the unpredictability that characterizes many work situations this is a great advantage. The small steps approach makes it easy to respond flexibly to developments.

Also, the small steps forward approach can actually generate larger change. Once many employees start taking small steps forward their aggregated changes may influence the organization substantially. Because of the interconnectedness of people and systems within organizations small steps forward may ripple through the organization and cause positive snowball effects.

The change sparsity principle does not mean that change in itself is a bad thing. On the contrary. The small steps approach makes change more of a continuous process. It encourages a test-and learn mindset in which people are doing little experiments on day to day basis. When change will have become more continuous this may help to prevent the necessity of drastic change. But drastic change may not always be avoidable. When management thinks that drastic change is indeed needed the burden of proof is on management to explain why it is. Great change requires great rationales.


  1. Nice article.
    Thinking about organizational change we often want to shake things up and show huge successes. And as you wrote about this ignores all the great stuff already being done. I am working with a large company and we have established a "small wins" daily chart. Using a very similar frame to what you wrote about. At first management was hesitant because "it wasn't big or fast or drastic enough" and now with 3 months of small wins the returns are impressive.

  2. Good example Coert and a nice idea Michael. For me the biggest shift which a solutions focus contributes to is what I call a shift from digital to analog thinking. Many managers use the digital language - its all good or more often its all bad - there is only 100% performance or 0%.

    The SF approach that Coert so well describes is a shift to analog thinking - to remind people that they are somewhere along the scale from 0-100 and using the momentum of the base of what is working well enough they can springboard to further small actions that all add up.


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner