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Explanation focused or progress focused?

The adjective Solution Focused is not always very useful. Everyone wants to work in a ‘solution focused’ way – after all, who wouldn’t? However the term ‘solution’ is used in SF in a different way to everyday conversation: we use it to mean ‘what’s wanted’, whereas in normal usage it is used for ‘what to do’. So, SF coaching, for example, is built around what the client wants, as opposed to problem focused approaches which focus on identifying and fixing what’s wrong. SF usually ends up with the client coming up with ideas for what to do – but that’s the output of the process, not the defining factor.

On a recent trip to Japan for the J-SOL conference I was asked to produce a diagram showing SF along with appreciative inquiry and positive psychology, to show how these approaches were related. I started to think about other defining features of SF practice which might help newcomers discover and explore the distinctiveness of SF.

What emerged was a series of thoughts about the difference between explanation focused and progress focused practice. SF is very clearly focused on progress: Steve de Shazer wrote about ‘Putting Difference to Work’ in his 1991 book of that name, and others have followed his lead (Lueger 2006). SF practice us based on the premise that change is happening all the time. It can be seen as focusing on positive differences – when have things been better, what helps them move in the right direction and so on. One key insight, of course, is that these are not simply the opposites of negative difference. What makes thing better is not the opposite of what makes things worse, and therefore we should start by examining what makes things better, and resisting the temptation to investigate what makes things worse.

Another angle on ‘progress focused’ is that it is dynamic and movement focused. Some alternative approaches seem to me to be more interested in defining and explaining how things ARE, as opposed to how they move. Conventional diagnostic frameworks seem to work like this; the assumption is that if we can define and explain how things are now, this will be a reliable guide to what to do about them. Of course, in many circumstances this is an excellent strategy – a broken ankle requires different treatment to a sprain, and a punctured tyre requires different treatment to a broken wheel-bearing.

In SF practice, however, the question of how things are now is not of primary concern. Of course we will want to listen respectfully to our clients’ stories of their situation, their distress and their concern. Our focus of work, however, is on what makes things better for them, individually and in context. Miracle or Future Perfect questions can help decide what might constitute better, and scaling and exception questions highlight what’s helping already or has helped in the past.

Doing what any good consultant would do, I took these two sets of ideas – what’s wrong vs what’s wanted, explanation vs progress – and put together this framework.


This gives four combinations, each of which might correspond to a different kind of approach to generating change. Let’s examine them. Remember that these are alternatives – I do not wish to imply that one is better than another, merely to explore the differences between them.

What’s wrong and explanation focused

I would put into this category modes of practice which use diagnostic frameworks based on the problem or complaint. These might include conventional psychotherapeutic models using DSM categories, as well as much medical practice.

What’s wanted and explanation focused

I would place the burgeoning field of positive psychology into this category. While the focus of study has shifted away from diagnostic categories of maladjustment and disease towards those of strengths and health, the mechanisms used are the same as conventional psychology with a reliance on questionnaires and instruments which assess ‘scientifically’ the presence and degree of a particular quality. These questionnaires are usually said to measure strengths etc rather than promote or investigate change in themselves – that may come as a next step.

What’s wrong and progress focused

There are many change methodologies in the world of work, for example Total Quality Management, which are focused on building progress by eliminating what’s wrong. The pioneering work of W Edwards Deming on improving manufacturing by ‘elimination of defects’ has spread worldwide, and there are many variants now in use. Problem solving approaches to therapy including CBT might also be put into this category.

What’s wanted and progress focused

This is where I would position SF practice. Our view of ‘what’s wanted’ and ‘progress’ are developed within particular case frameworks, and each helps define the other. We are interested to find ‘what makes things better here’ rather than draw on strategies that made things better for others in other situations. How things ARE is of little relevance – how they move in the right direction (as defined by the client and other stakeholders) is key.

SF is not alone in this category. I would also include Appreciative Inqury (Ai), which started as a large-scale organisational change approach in the late 1980s. Features of Ai include both discovering the best of what is, and dreaming about what might be, before starting to build towards that future. In my view Ai has a different flavour and tradition to SF but there are clear similarities.

Another less obvious member of this group is Agile software development (see for example Cockburn, 2006). The Agile approach has been developed over the past few years as a radical alternative to conventional methods of programming. In the conventional approach, a detailed specification of the required software is drawn up, contracts are signed and the programmers set off to create the code. The result is frequently alarming overruns on time and cost, as developments on all fronts overtake the original specifications.


The Agile approach seeks to work with these (inevitable) changes rather than try to prevent or avoid them. The Agile manifesto (agilemanifesto.org) says:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.


In practice this leads to very close continuing collaboration between programmers and users, specification built up over time and responding to change and rapid iterations of ever-better software. The idea of a clear, detailed and unchanging specification at the outset is seen as impossible – users can’t clearly say what they want now, let alone what they will want in six months time. So a start is made, followed by monthly (or even more frequent) releases of better, more detailed, more user-focused versions of the software.

It seems to me that these three approaches (SF, Ai and Agile), while all fitting their respective fields, have a degree of commonality. We might do well to learn together and expand our mutual repertoires of tools and ideas. Any Agile or Ai people reading this are strongly encouraged to respond, agree, disagree or comment.

References

Alistair Cockburn, Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game (2nd edition), Addison-Wesley (2006)
Günter Lueger, Towards a Theory of Positive Difference, in Solution-Focused Management (Lueger and Korn, eds), Munich: Rainer Hampp Verlag (2006)
Steve de Shazer, Putting Difference to Work, WW Norton (1991)

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Comment by Mark McKergow on March 23, 2009 at 18:41
Hi Kevin, thanks for your comments. I hope this is a good way of helping people be aware of some key distinctions. Maybe the 2x2 matrix, clumsy tool that it is, can help make some basic ideas more clear. SF, of course, being about distinctions rather than binary yes/no things, would probably view this is a bit all-or-nothing, but as yuou say it might be helpful with some clients.
Comment by Kevin Clouthier on March 23, 2009 at 17:40
Hi Mark,

Thanks for the fascinating post. The use of a 2x2 matrix to descern the distinctions of this conversation is very helpful. The quadrants that you have applied are unique and as such assist in making a distinction that is distinct, if I may parallel the more famous Bateson quote of difference that makes a difference. As Paolo suggests, it can assist in the conversation with clients by helping them to appreciate the subtle line of inquiry of SF & AI conversations.

Your article also has me thinking more directly of the use of 2x2 matrices with some clients who are analytically oriented to assist them to move beyond their normal processes to a different method that can assist them to create changes they are seeking. I wonder whether you, or any one else may have experience experimenting with clients in this manner. Has it made a difference at all?

Thanks for a thought provoking article.

Cheers,
Kevin
Comment by Paolo Terni on June 24, 2008 at 18:16
Thanks Mark,
very very useful posting.
I agree with Michael that "conventional psychology", while being a useful label for non-psychologists, could be kind of confusing for psychologists, and therefore further distinctions might be warranted.
Having said that, I love your framework: simple and very clear.
I also liked a lot how you begin your article, with the distinction between "what's wanted" and "what to do", the latter being just an outcome of the process of finding out what is wanted (in SF coaching).
It is a very useful distinction: sometimes while talking with people that are not familiar with SF I realize there is this misunderstanding going on, they think they have the approach figured how but it is not quite so, because they only thing of "what to do".
Bringing this distinction to the forefront will really help me in future conversations with prospective clients.
Thanks!
Ciao,
Paolo
Comment by Shakya on June 18, 2008 at 15:16
thanks Mark for a very helpful and new way of explaining solutions focus and mapping the territory in which we operate
Comment by Michael Hjerth on June 18, 2008 at 9:24
Hi Mark,
Well, I agree that SF is progress, or change focused. I do not agree about the lower column. I think that the below left: what's wrong/explanation box should contain, not conventional psychology, but conventional psychopathology and clinical psychology, that is the sub-disciplins of psychology that deals with what's wrong. Psychology is (or at least is supposed to be) the science of human behaviour. This includes both psychopathology and health-psychology. So the right bottom could contain postive psychology, salutogenis, health psychology, etc.
In the wrong/explanation box you should instead put "conventional psychiatry". Or rather "conventional psychiatry" is oscilating between the two left boxes, being interested in explanation only when it is confortable, and being intersted in progress when that is confortable. Seldom can psychiatry do both at the same time. Again, you would have to turn to neuroscience for a psychiatry 2.0.

I agree that much of psychology has a bias towards problems and what's wrong, finding this more interesting. This is a bias, but it does not define psychology. Certainly not the psychology 2.0 that is the extended neurosciences. The question mark after CBT leans a lot towards a exclamation mark, but that is changing with mindfullness, and ACT approaches, which leans towards the upper right.

I consider myself (at least in parts of my work) as a clinical psychologist, and I would claim to inhabit all boxes except for the wrong/explanation one. And this is for logical reasons: You cannot understand what's wrong in human behavior unless you know what is wanted. Therefor the wrong/explanation box is incomplete, and therefor conventional psychiatry is faulty in many senses. Many psychiatric problems cannot be understood without the "what wanted" understanding.

For example the case of "Dental Phobia", A key to this diagnosis is not only the presence of phobic symptoms but also the fact that these symptoms are a problem for you. They limit you. But the limit you from WHAT? A solution focused approach to dental fobia, as Carolines work shows, is that the goal is the mastery of "satisfying ways of going about dentistry". In Wittgensteinian words: the problem is "I don't know how to go about dental care", and the solution is "I know how to go about dental care". The DMS diagnosis does not contain what kind of mastery or choice that is limited by "dental phobia". The context makes a big difference. If I work in the Dental phobia program, I will first diagnose "dental phobia" and limit the set of possible solution as to include "being able to go to the dentist". The people we work with has to (a) fear going to the dentist and (b) not go to the dentist. From there on, the it is SF. If I work as SF therapist, there is no limit to possible solutions. Are there is no need for a diagnosis. The diagnosis is part of the context. So, the dental phobia is an example of visiting all boxes except the wrong/progress one. Even though we really don't visit the wrong/explanation box. There is no need for much explanation here. The fact that the person fears going to the dentist is almost enough. Knowing why they fear the dentist is mostly important as knowledge of how the brain functions in extreme fear, and some ideas about how to make it function right, relative to what's wanted. That knowledge gives some ideas about how to manage stress, which is really part of the wanted/explanation box.

I hope I make some sense, it is early in the morning for me

cheers,
Michael
Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on June 17, 2008 at 20:31
Yes, spotlighting the similarities between "Agility" and SF is important: Agilty (especially "scrum" as one of the most widespread agile practices) is becoming more and more accepted as a useful alternative option by software developers and project managers. And it is far away to be seen as a "psychological or therapeutical driven method".

And at the same time there are a lot of chances for SF in the agility-arena: As I see it until now in this arena the idea to "understand" and to "explain" especially the cause of failures and misfunctions of the software (SW) is widely accepted as necessary to fix the problems. Well, this is ok as long as we deal with SW-technical systems only - without any human interaction.
But if we start to do this also for the SW-system INCLUDING user interactions then we use problem oriented analyses (which fit to "mechanistic" systems quite well) for complex systems.....

SF is a good option how to deal with with such complex "hybrid" systems (mechanistic SW-technique AND complex user interactons) in a more useful way.

If you are interested to read more about "agility" please have a look into this "container": Solution Focused Agility in Projects and Management

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