What Solution Focus is – A brief overview by Philip Lievens

Solution Focus (SF) is an approach to change that is connected with practice rather than theory; “make something happen”. SF practitioners use it to create solutions that are different to what is currently happening in the organisation. They seek what is working in this organisation, in this context, with these people, and guide them in the direction to reach what they want [1]. They treat every case as different.

They focus on solutions and not on problems, which contrasts SF with most conventional approaches, where first people investigate the problem and then develop the solution, e.g. diagnose the problem, discover causes, address weaknesses, run a detailed action plan. Such conventional problem solving has its merits in the technical domain, and we can be happy that if a problem occurs, e.g. on a piece of machinery, a technician works in a problem focused way to solve it. However, in the context of moving people in organisations to reach new goals, the step of problem analysis in many cases does not help or motivate and is not necessary to build solutions.

We have to know the facts of the situation, and people must feel listened to, yet we do not need to give the problem more explanation than necessary to help people make progress. Indeed, talking about the problem and its causes can often make the problem larger; people can have different opinions, perspectives and arguments and problem talk does not empower them.

SF practitioners switch quite quickly to a solution focus: what do we want instead of the problem? What does the client want to happen in the organisation? 

“Change is: doing something in a different way, or looking at it in a different way, and often the one leads to the other.” Gregory Bateson, Anthropologist.

They focus on what is already working in an organisation, what is moving in the right direction, and build further on this to progress change in the organisation, step by step. It uses the positive forces in the organisation to make this progress. SF is simple and extremely subtle. It is positive [2] and creative.

The SF practitioner co-creates a set of activities with the customer(s) to help them see (as in a mirror), understand and take action to improve the situation as they have defined it. The customer(s) is the expert in their own situation. The SF practitioner facilitates the customer(s) to discover more about the situation, decide how to progress and reach their goal. The result is that the customer(s) has more ownership of the recommendation, the solution and the actions. This is empowering and motivating.

Solution Focus uses little theory, rather it is practice based. Success or failure depends on the work of the SF practitioner in cooperation with the customer(s), because it is better that the person with the problem develops their own solution. The good SF practitioner does not know beforehand what precisely will work. If they do “know” in advance what will work, we can question their thinking.

While helping the customer, the practitioner keeps the conversation focused on what is desired rather than what is not wanted and what can be done about it; on problems that can be solved, where something can be done. He or she tries to find people in the client organisation who want to try something different, who are willing to do something, instead of relying on others to do something. When somebody starts to do something differently, others are likely to be influenced too.

The practitioner seeks to employ the resources and strengths, the capabilities in the organisation, moving them in the direction of what will be the solution. They help people discover what works and encourage them to do more of it.

[1] This text is based on : McKergow Mark & Jackson Paul. Z., Solutions at work. An introduction to solution focused coaching, consulting and facilitation, (Audio CD), London, www.thesolutionsfocus.com, s.d.

[2] It has many similarities with Appreciative Inquiry, but SF and AI are not simply the same. For a comparison : see here.

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