My story of discovery – the power of solution-focus


An Old Sea Dog Can Learn New Tricks

I want to tell you why my approach has changed so radically over twenty years as an Organizational Development practitioner. I want to tell you why I love my work now more than ever and why my clients do as well. I’ve grown into using the OD approach known in Europe and Japan as Solutions Focus1. We’ll start with a true story.

It’s December, 2008. I’m in a conference room in The Mariner’s House in downtown Boston. It’s an Inn where sailors have been visiting for 160 years. You can practically smell the salt in the air and feel the roll of the ship underneath your feet. I’m facilitating an inter-sector collaboration event with forty-five members of the US Coast Guard. Bill Schenkelberg, my internal partner, approaches me. Bill is the Special Agent in Charge of the Coast Guard Investigative Services. He’s one of those rare clients that really understands both the nitty gritty challenges his agents face and the concepts of organizational development. He and his eight liaison agents are the hosts for this event, to which they’ve invited several other Coast Guard sectors. He has a worried look on his face. “Some of these guys look tense. Most of them only see my men when we’re investigating somebody within the Coast Guard. Are you still confident that we can pull this thing off?”

I survey the room looking at the inflow of sturdy sailors of all ages. These people look like they could face down the perfect storm. I doubt they would tolerate anything that is not eminently practical. Looking back at Bill, I put as much confidence into my voice as I can and say, “It worked with the Transit Authority, and they had a much tougher situation. These are good people here who are passionate about their jobs. We’re using language designed to work with their physiology. It’s very powerful. Plus, we’re giving them a chance to achieve collaboration, which is in everybody’s best interest.”

As Bill begins his introduction, I notice a burly weather-bitten man with his arms crossed and a look of real skepticism on his face. Let’s call him “Mike.” Seeing Mike’s dubious expression, I now need to reassure myself. To do that, I think about the training and preparation we’d already done and begin to relax. Bill and his crew of eight agents had proven to be as tough and resilient mentally as they were physically and emotionally. They had learned the brain science I’d taught them. They’d really grasped the concepts on how to craft language that motivates others rather than scaring them into fight, flight or freeze. Most importantly, they had created very moving “Solution-Focus Power Reframes” about the value of each sector and the importance of collaborating with each other.

As the Power Reframe presentations are happening, I can see most people relaxing, with smiles appearing more frequently and more and more nods of agreement. During our first discussion there is an almost tangible spirit of openness and sharing. Bill and I tell each other, “Things are going well.”

Later in the training, I lead the group in a feedforward2 exercise. Mike approaches me still looking skeptical. In a deep growl he asks, “What’s the point of this positive stuff anyway? Does this activity really make any difference?” Taking a breath to keep myself calm I reply, “In ten minutes (gesturing to the group), they will tell you the answer to your question. Yet I can tell you now if you’d like.” At his nod, I continue, “My experience and many scientific studies have  shown that people are much more open to new ideas when you build on the strengths they have and focus them on positive outcomes. There’s a clear place to address problems, but a vast majority of the time focusing on solutions is faster, easier and a whole lot more fun.” Mike’s expression softens a bit, but he still looks a bit dubious.

As the activity continues I muse on Mike’s question. I think back to how I became so convinced of the power of more positive approaches. Twenty years ago when I first began consulting with organizations I used the classic root cause analysis approach.

I still remember the one event   fifteen years ago that was my catalyst for using Solution-Focus with my clients.

We were in a beautiful conference center in central Massachusetts. I was facilitating thirty members of a small medical clinic – helping them to improve their teamwork. We brainstormed a list of problems with their teamwork and began a Gap Analysis to see what needed to be done to fix the problems. I watched the group closely and noticed that their motivation continuously waned as we talked about the problems.  This distressed me as they had started out enthusiastic and optimistic when we did our team simulations. I asked myself, “How I would feel if I were in their group right now?” I realized with a start that I would also be depressed by the conversations we’d been having. I then realized that I didn’t use this approach with my own life because I didn’t like the way it felt and found it so negative that I’d often abandon problem-focused efforts mid-stream. So why was I using it with them? … Because that’s how I’d been trained.

Over the next few weeks I thought about what actually works best for me personally, and what works with my own employees. Over time, I realized that focusing on three topics energized and directed us very well. I sat down and wrote down what I came up with:

  1. Goals? Clarifying what we are trying to attain together and why.
  2. What works? Listing all the things that we and others are doing that are ALREADY working towards this goal.
  3. What else? Brainstorming new ideas or approaches to achieving our goals together.

(Note: Years later these topics evolved into my Solution-Focus Change Questions – see full article)

I began to get very excited about trying this with my consulting clients. I also began to feel very nervous. I worried, “This just wasn’t the way it was done. What if clients don’t like it? What if they find it too ‘touchy feely’? But I decided it was worth the risk.

To my great relief and excitement the approach of focusing on solutions not only worked, it worked far better! It also was faster, which surprised me at first. Then I realized that often focusing on problems takes the group down rat holes of blame and defensiveness, and then it takes a long time to get people focused on the goals again. This new approach was also more fun. This didn’t surprise me as talking about strengths and energizing visions is generally motivating.

Over the years I experimented with many ways of guiding my clients to focus on solutions. I kept honing the concepts, tools and my approaches. I took courses in Appreciative Inquiry3, learned about building on strengths4, and studied emotional intelligence5. I began using Marshal Goldsmith’s feedforward model2. I loved them all and adapted my favorite ideas and concepts into an approach that I began to call Solution-Focus. I discovered more and more research that supported my experience6. I was delighted to discover a burgeoning movement in Europe called, delightfully enough, Solutions Focus1!

This led me to using the Solution-Focus Change Questions with the Coast Guard. Responding to these questions was clearly building energy and focus, whereas in the past focusing on the problems between the sectors had often led to more conflict.

The Coast Guard members are done with the feedforward activity and I bring myself back to the present. I ask them each to share one word about what the   Feedforward activity was like for them. The energy builds in the room as they excitedly throw  out words like “enlightening”, “engaging”, “fun”, “educational”, “helpful”, “insightful” and “energizing”. I look at Mike to see if he is satisfied with their responses. He nods at me thoughtfully. The smiles and creative ideas people have shared understandably build far more credibility than my reassurances had.

The feedback at the end of the event includes phrases such as “built bridges”, “I now see how much we need each other”, “I have great ideas for better cooperation”, etc. Bill and I feel great and talked excitedly about next steps to keep the momentum going. The icing on the cake, however, is when Mike approaches me and asks, “Can I have your business card? This would be really helpful in my sector too.”

The views expressed in this publication belong solely to the author. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Coast Guard.

[Follow this link for a copy of the full article including sources quoted – go to “Publications” on the lower left of the page]

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