When the first edition of The Solutions Focus came out in 2002 it marked a genuine step forward in thinking about organisational change. It brought the insights of Solution Focused Therapy (developed in the late seventies by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg) into the workplace. The second edition, published in 2007, broadens its usefulness to coaches with the addition of new chapters outlining Jackson and McKergow’s OSKAR coaching model, manager as coach, team coaching and solution-focused approaches to management consulting.
The beauty of the solution-focused approach is twofold; firstly, like the compatible Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, it focuses on what is working and what is desired rather than on problems and trying to solve them, so it tends to have a heartening and morale-raising effect on individuals, teams and organisations that experience it.
Secondly, and rather unlike AI (or my own background discipline of NLP for that matter), it emphasises the need for simplicity and is refreshingly free from academic or humanistic psychology jargon and what many people in organisations, desparate for practical ways of dealing with ever-increasing demands, may view as “tree-hugging hippy crap” (as one participant at a recent AI event I helped facilitate put it recently).
The book’s writing style does justice to its subject. I knew from taking an accelerated learning course with them about 10 years ago that Jackson and McKergow would present the material in an intelligent and brain-friendly way (the “reformed physicist” McKergow in particular is possessed of the proverbial “brain the size of a planet”, while Jackson’s background in improvisational comedy adds immediacy and lightness of touch) – and so it proves, with each chapter divided into short, easily digestible sub-headings, and plenty of illustrations and practical examples.
The book gives us six principles of what they refer to as “The Solutions Focus”, organised under the acronym SIMPLE:
Solutions not problems
Inbetween – the action is in the interaction (between people)
Make use of what’s there (the parts of the solution that are already happening in the current situation)
Possibilities – the resources and possibilities that will take us towards the solution
Every case is different
Something like the “Inbetween” principle (the idea that some aspects of the solution exist in the interaction between people or as emergent qualities of the system, rather than being owned by any one individual) must have been present in solution-focused therapy as it applied to families. It was a new one on this reader though, as I had previously only used solution-focus in therapy and coaching with individuals. By emphasising the principle here, Jackson and McKergow build a very useful bridge between using solution focus with individuals and applying it to teams and organisations.
We are also given a clear description of the various tools of the Solutions Focus approach. The present situation, the starting point for change, is described as the “Platform” (with its connotations of somewhere to depart or lift off from). The desired outcome – what it would be like if the problem disappeared completely – is the “Future Perfect”. Resources, things that are already working, and times when parts of the solution are happening already are called “Counters”. This metaphor didn’t work quite as well for me. I suppose in some kind of board game analogy. The other tools are Affirming whatever is helping, taking Small Actions (which can make a big difference, and in any case add up), and the extremely useful Scaling (of progress towards a solution, confidence in a chosen option working, or commitment to a course of action) on a scale of 0 to 10.
The part of the book from which I got the most value is the new material added for the second edition. The authors give many practical examples of how to use the Solutions Focus approach in coaching individuals, team coaching, and organisational consultancy. There is also a useful chapter on coaching as a manager.
One of the most helpful insights (no news to experienced management consultants, I’m sure, but very helpful to someone like me with a background in individual coaching who is increasingly moving into organisational changework) is about the need to find a “customer for change”. This is someone in an organisation who is aware that it is time for a change, and prepared to do something about it. If the consultant can’t find one, their change interventions are unlikely to get very far.
Also new to the second edition is the OSKAR coaching model. The acronym stands for Outcome, Scaling, Know-How, Affirm and action, and Review. In some ways this seems to have been bolted on to the rest of the book; looked at from one angle, it seems merely a relabelling of some of the tools described earlier. “Know-How”, for example, seems to be much the same as the resources and abilities described as “Counters” earlier in the book.
My other quibble with the model is that it is more a description of tools than a process model; although the authors say it can be used as a process, the Scaling, Know-How, and the “Affirm” part of “Affirm and action” might be used both when eliciting what is working in the current situation (the “Platform”), and when deciding what to do to get closer to the “Future Perfect”. Also, the authors say that the “Outcome” stage would include both establishing the Platform and envisioning the “Future Perfect”, while the sample questions they give are exclusively about the future, which might lead the careless reader to skimp on exploring the current situation. These are however minor caveats, which I hope a third edition will eventually resolve.
The book finishes up with a short history tracing the evolution and intellectual roots of the Solutions Focus model, placing it in a lineage which includes Bateson’s work on paradox and levels of abstraction, Erickson’s concept of utilisation, and complexity theory.
All in all, The Solutions Focus is an eye-opening book for anyone looking for greater simplicity and effectiveness in coaching, team-building, or organisational change.