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
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.
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)