Simple questions – but surprisingly not heard that often in corporate life. In the business world we more often shine our spotlight on what went wrong rather than what went right. We spend hours raking over the debris of failed projects, obsessing about exactly why we lost that important client or desperately trying to understand why employees just don’t seem to be buying into our latest change initiative.
Now there are of course scenarios where this ‘problem’ focus works well. A mechanic, for example, will use problem-solving skills to find out what’s gone wrong with a machine – with the diagnosis perhaps leading to replacement of a faulty part. A software engineer can benefit from knowing exactly why a particular application is incompatible with another.
What many organisations fail to recognise, however, is that in any scenario involving inter-actions between people, a detailed understanding of the problem generally does very little to speed progress towards a solution. Indeed, in many cases an over-emphasis on solving problems is the single biggest issue standing in the way of successful change.
The reason why endlessly analysing problems doesn’t work is that people are not ‘things’ that can be fixed or moulded to fit perfectly into place. They are complex beings – and identifying exactly what will make them act and behave in the way we’d like them to (and in a way that supports whatever change we’re trying to achieve) is a subtle business that calls for quiet observation and carefully thought out action.
If managers are busy getting themselves immersed in whichever ‘problem’ is currently top of the pile, then they fail to notice what’s going well and so miss the opportunity to build on it.
Just think for a moment about some of the typical ‘problems’ an organisation undergoing change might encounter. New technology has been introduced but employees are quite happy with the way they were working before and are by-passing the system in favour of the ‘old’ ways. Two sales teams have been merged but staff are still working in their well-established silos rather than pooling their efforts and working jointly towards a common goal.
Now these problems could have a number of causes – but the clues to making progress won’t be found in an analysis of why people won’t change or an investigation into whose fault it is. A more direct route to change is to remind yourself what’s wanted (your goal) and taking a step or two towards it. And that tends to be done most easily by finding what’s working well already and doing more of it. At the same time, you can stop doing the things that don’t work and do something else more useful instead.
The technophobe employees, for example, may still be dead set against the new software in principle – but a few of them have found that being able to house all the latest client information in one place is really quite useful. How can you take that one aspect of the system that people are willing to use and build on it to help them find other benefits? The sales teams still haven’t fully bought into the new structure but are seeing the advantages of a better-resourced back office.
What else could their manager do to make their working day easier so they are more likely to embrace the new way of working?
This approach – known as ‘Solutions Focus’ – is increasingly being used successfully by organisations across the world in a variety of settings and sectors. It’s helping to drive a new wave of change – change that happens with the enthusiastic support of employees, rather than change that is imposed (and therefore doesn’t stick) from the top down.
In the public sector, for example, it is helping managers find new ways of delivering services against a backdrop of severe budget cuts. In the private sector, it is helping to inspire employees to raise their performance and feel more connected to the organisations they are working for.
It’s easy to dismiss Solutions Focus as little more than taking a positive, ‘glass half full’ approach to the challenges of work. But as the growing number of advocates will witness, it’s a rigorously-researched and carefully thought-out approach, with roots in anthropology and psychology.
It provides managers with a whole new tool kit to apply when they come up against seemingly impassable road blocks, whether these are difficult people, fierce competition or tricky strategic issues. Solutions Focus helps managers clarify what matters, harness resources and nudge things in the right direction. As confidence and clarity increase, SF leaders manage crucial conversations more skilfully and find themselves acting quickly and decisively in adversity.
As one of its proponents, John Laing Integrated Services MD Tim Grier says: “SF has allowed us to keep pace with the changing market. The economy is struggling, yet we’ve seen long-term contracts, our business is continually pushing, and client requests for savings don’t bring around doom and gloom scenarios because we’ve already been working on future solutions. We’ve got an idea of what ‘really good’ looks like and we’re working towards it.”
Let me ask the question again: “What’s gone well in your organisation today?”