You can focus on the problems you have. Or you can focus on the solutions. As big ideas go, they don’t get much simpler than solution focus. It’s simply a binary choice to focus on the future, rather than the past.
Solution focus has its origins in Solution Focused Brief Therapy. But therapy isn’t what we specialize in here at Management Pocketbooks. So, instead, we’ll turn our attention to what managers can learn from the ideas, and put to use in solution-focused problem solving and coaching.
Why a Solution Focus?
You have a problem and it’s tempting to focus on the problem. Unfortunately, what we know is that, in doing so, we become more fearful and less resourceful.
Owl or Cheese?
Ronald Friedman and Jens Forster learned published a series of experiments in 2001. In those experiments, they split students into two groups. They then set each group the same simple maze to solve.
The mazes had a mouse in the middle and the groups were set different objectives:
- One group had to solve the maze to get to the cheese.
- The other was told to avoid the owl, which would eat the mouse.
After solving the maze, the students tackled a creative thinking task. The findings were stark.
Students in the group that had helped the mouse to find the cheese were twice as creative as those in the group who avoided the owl.
As soon as we get into the ‘must be safe; need to avoid danger’ mode, it seems our natural caution closes off options from us. On the other hand, when we are looking for something, we slot into a discovery mode that opens our minds to new ideas.
Solution Focus Gives Better Results
A large part of management is problem-solving. And another big chunk is coaching people to help them make improvements. But if you try to fix a problem or avoid an outcome, it will make you and your team defensive, and less imaginative.
On the other hand, you can re-frame the problem as ‘how to achieve a desirable outcome’, and focus on the solution. And, when you do that, you will do far better.
What is Solution Focus?
In therapy, solution focus concentrates on what a client wants to achieve. It does not explore the history of or background to the problem.
In the same way, we can limit our focus on the problem itself to only that which is valuable in finding the solution we are focused on. That is, understanding causes.
Typically, when we focus on the past, our minds turn to blame – which never progresses a situation. And, likewise, if you focus on the present, discussions turn to values, priorities, and rules. It’s only when we focus on the future that actions and solutions come to the fore in our thinking. And, as a manager, it’s actions and solutions that usually matter most.
Solution Focus is a Simple Change of Mindset
It starts with what we know and what already works, and moves to fixing problems and making things better. As in the therapeutic context, I’d put questions and affirmations of useful contributions at the heart of the approach.
I also think that we can adapt much of the therapeutic methodology into our organizational context
How to Adopt a Solution Focus
There are three basic questions that underpin solution-focused brief therapy. Here are my organizational/managerial adaptations of them. What:
- are your best hopes from this coaching/problem-solving session?
- would your/our day-to-day-life look like if these hopes were realised?
- are you/we already doing and have done in the past that might contribute to these hopes being realised?
The Miracle Question
Solution Focused Therapy also uses a ‘Miracle Question’. This poses the solution as a miraculous event in the future, and it unlocks unconscious thoughts about what the solution may look like. Again, I have paraphrased an example of a miracle question:
- “If you got into work tomorrow, and a miracle happened so that you/we no longer had the problem, what would you see differently?”
- “What would the first signs be that the miracle occurred?”
The OSCAR Coaching Model
The most obvious application of Solution Focus to the workplace is in coaching. And Management Pocketbooks authors, Paul Z. Jackson and Janine Waldman, along with Mark McKergow, are the minds behind the OSCAR Coaching Model that is based on solution-focused principles.
What do you want from your coaching?
The coach helps uncover what the client wants and what outcomes will make the sessions worthwhile.
On a scale of 0 to 10, where are you on that scale now?
Calibration is an important part of Solution Focus – it allows us to know how close we are. And it also gives the client a sense of objectivity.
What helps you perform at your current level on the scale?
This helps the client access what already works for them. A solution-focused assumption is that there is already a lot of valuable knowledge and experience the learner can apply to the new context.
- Affirm and Action
What’s already going well and what is the next small step?
This is really two steps. Affirming your useful experience and valuable qualities gives you confidence.
And second, that will help you to select a sound next step.
What has got better?
In subsequent sessions, the coach facilitates a review focused on success and progress.
This leads back to the start, to consider what the next important outcome is.
What is Your experience of Solution Focus?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.
To learn more…
It’s not about coaching and problem solving, but Paul Z. Jackson and Janine Waldman adopt a solution focus in The Resilience Pocketbook. It is full of tips, techniques, and tools on how to stay calm and confident in times of difficulty and bounce back from setbacks.