June 21, 2012

Case: the trust is gone

Some time ago I was invited to facilitate a session with the management team of a consultancy firm. This constultancy was founded several years ago by five young consultants and had now grown to a few dozen employees. I received a phone call by the chairman of the management team who told me that a conflict had emerged in the management team. He told me that the trust between the individual members of the management was gone and that they would like to try to solve this problem with my help.

At first, the idea was to start off with one-day session and to plan later sessions after that. I suggested to shorten this first session to half a day. Eventually it turned out that no further sessions were needed because the management felt they could continue the process by themselves.

Although I did not mention an agenda or program for the session I did have a rough structure of questions in my mind which consisted of the following elements: 1) What do you want to come out of this conversation?, 2) What is distinctive of your firm? , 3) What does not need to change?, 4) What would you like to be better in 100 days?, 5) What did you find most useful in this session?, 6) What ideas for specific small steps forward have you found in this session? The session took place in a constructive atmosphere and was interesting. The participants were active and open. They could openly speak out about what bothered them and what they felt was important.  Here is a brief summary of what was said: 
  1. Desired usefulness of the session: at the start of the session the participants said they hoped the following things would come out of the session: 1) that the trust and the positive energy at the start of the company would return, 2) that a beginning would be made with the formulation of a specific and shared long term vision for the future, 3) that the communication and openness would improve ("We need to learn that say what is bothering us at the right moment"). 
  2. What is distinctive of the firm? 1) young, 2) involved with and committed to our clients, 3) decent fees, 4) we only do what we are good at. 
  3. What does not need to change?  1) the internal organization of the firm, 2) financial results are good, 3) we are able to create client loyalty, 4) good reputation, 5) we take care well of employees, 6) our portfolio of activities is well chosen, 7) people management is going well enough, 8) good working atmosphere. 
  4. What would you like to be better in 100 days? 1) the communication between us will be better and opener, 2) we implement our ideas, 3) we notice that we are building for the long term, 4) We have taken concrete steps with respect to our office relocation, 5) we not only work in this company we also work on our company, every one of us feels that responsibility. Advantages of these improvements are: 1) we'll have more energy, 2) our enthusiasm will also make employees more enthusiastic, 3) we'll be calmer because we have more clarity, 4) we take on new things, 5) we'll lead more effectively, 6) the quality of our firm will improve, 7) we'll get new clients. This will all lead to: 1) employees will notice that what we say will also get done, 2) clients will see a firm instead of only individual consultants). 
  5. Most useful in this session: 1) to get right back to where we once started (we relived that experience and the enthusiasm and energy came back), 2) we must answer the question: what will we say 'no' to?, 3) it is necessary to formulate our corporate strategy, 4) thinking in terms of that 100 days period, 5) we realize that we must be able to say to each other what we have on our minds, 6) it has become clear that everyone realizes that we must come to a shared strategy/vision for the future. 
  6. Steps forward: 1) plan the follow up session, 2) each member prepares a two page document about our corporate strategy, 3) make an action list. 
At the end of the session something interesting happened. The participants agreed that the session had been useful and that no further help from me was needed at this point. Then, one of the managers said, pensative: "At the beginning of the session one of us said it would be good to find out how this breach of trust could have happened. We did not come back to that ... Shouldn't we still do that?" The others were silent for a moment and then started to mumble things like: "Yeah, perhaps we should." Then the manager looked at me and said: "Perhaps you should do individual interviews with us to find out what each of thinks about how all of this could have happened?"

This type of question is interesting and a bit of a challenge because it raises somewhat of a tension between two solution-focused principles. One principle is to be client led which means that, as much as possible, you follow the clients preference and use their perspective. Another principle is to avoid getting trapped in a downward spiral of searching for problem causes which is not likely to be helpful for building solutions.

I decided to say the following: “It is, of course, fine by me that you will do this but I don't think it is such a good idea for me to facilitate this process." They looked at me surprised. I explained: "I have noticed that I am most effective when I do things that I expect to be useful. And I notice that I don't believe that this is likely to be useful." The suprise had not quite left their faces yet and someone asked: "Why don't you think it will be useful?" I explained: "In the past, I used to work like that and I noticed that it usually did not contribute to conflict resolution and often even made things worse. By focusing on who did what wrong when and why you often relive those painfull situations. The feeling comes back and often the conflict flares up again. I would find that a pity. You also see the opposite. In this session I asked you what you were so enthusiastic about when you founded this company and when we were talking about this you became all enthusiastic again. You see?" They nodded en confirmed that this was what had happened. Then I said: "This is why I think it is better that I should not be the one to facilitate this process for you." Then, the manager who had raised the idea in the first place said: "Perhaps it is better if we forget about this altogether?" And so they did. 


  1. This is a great example of the finding what is working and the ability that teams have to build upon that. Coert, your planning and thoughts before this, by framing the questions and know they are the experts really impressed me. Plus how you handled the request for 1 on 1 problem identification is something that amazed me.

  2. On a cold and grey and wet afternoon in Cape Town, this was a wonderfully refreshing and heart-warming story. Thanks. Sometimes it really can be simple - fortunately, for them and you, simple is how everyone agreed to keep things. Loved your end sentences. Great piece of work. Many appreciations. Svea

  3. Excellent example of being helpful to the client under (their) difficult circumstances. I recently told an audience of SF learners in Belgium that as a solution focus facilitator you often have to take a leadership position with your clients, but strictly about the process, not the content. This is not to say that it's not the client's process too - it is.

    It's delicate issue - who's in charge! If you work for PWC or Deliote, you think you are in charge of both process and content and quite often the client wants to be told what to do (until they have to change their behaviour). When you use SF the client is in charge of the content and has choices about the process (do what works for the client). You, as the SF facilitator have the experience and insights to help lead them with the process.

    I like how you took the leadership about the process and helped your client see for themselves what they needed to do about content.


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