Northwest Brief Therapy Training Center
Solution-Focused Management: Pitfalls
The Solution-Focused approach to management is deceptively simple. There are several common potential “pitfalls” beginners face as they start to adopt a solution-focused management style.
Too much problem talk. Oftentimes meetings are full of exquisitely detailed descriptions of what is wrong and how bad it is. Although it is often a good idea to attentively listen to an outline of the problem (and listen for potential useful elements) so that the person or group feels heard and acknowledged, once the problem has been described sufficiently, it is time to to find out what is wanted instead. A way to focus the discussion might be: “So what do you want to have happen instead?”, “How would you like this situation to be different?”or “What kind of changes are you looking for?”
No customer for change. Someone has to decide that it is time for change. If people complain about “the other people” and expect them to make changes, without being ready to to anything about it for themselves, then little will shift. It is useful in that instance to discover what, if anything, the complainers might do to influence those they want to have change. Asking them to make small changes to influence the others and on an experimental basis can be helpful.
Trying to solve an unsolvable problem. There are many problems that managers do not have much, if any, control over. They might complain or be unhappy about it and the problem may be a genuine hinderance for the organization. For example, funding for a particular program may be controlled by someone outside the unit. However, focusing on what cannot be solved is not helpful and can bog down effective action. Questions such as “Is this a solvable problem? How do you know?” or “How would it look like if this problem was solved?” can help move beyond this dilemma quickly.
Goals are not clearly specified. When solutions are described in vague or abstract language or as the absence of something rather than the presence of what is wanted, it will be hard to tell whether the goal has been reached or the problem solved. This is where talking about the miracle comes in handy. It can take the form of “Supposing this goal was reached, what would be different? How would you (and others) tell? How would I be able to tell?” And then, asking “What would be the first step toward that goal?”and “What will you be doing, what will you be saying?” helps ground the goal to reality, making it more likely to be meaningful and achievable.
Finding the “cause” of the problem. Arriving at a detailed understanding of the problem by analyzing it’s causes is often not particularly helpful in discovering a solution. In many situations, the causes of a problem interweave or may no longer be present. As a result, searching for causes will be an exercise in frustration. Knowing causes can also prevent us from seeking other answers as well as look for solutions. Explanations do not lead to positive changes. Instead, it is more useful to look for ways to produce change by looking for exceptions to the problem or to paint a clear picture of the desired outcome.
Blaming. When there is a problem, it is tempting to look for the problem inside a person rather than in the interaction between people. Everyone exists in a context that ultimately determines what happens and how we behave. Therefore, solutions lie in the way people interact with their surroundings and doing something different is a productive way to deal with the issue rather than blaming. It is nothing personal.
Looking for “underlying” problems. This assumes that a cause is underneath something, and therefore not visible (except perhaps to some wise consultant!). It is much more useful to stay at the surface, there is plenty to work with there. If some other elements are also important, they will show themselves as you do the work of finding what you want and what it will take to get there. Many times, underlying aspects turn out not to matter once you begin the work. Keep it as simple as possible.
Looking only at positives. As Insoo Kim Berg said: “Just because I am solution-focused does not mean I am problem-phobic.” Being solution-focused is not “positive thinking” where problems or challenges are ignored. Instead of ignoring the negative, it is taken into account first to be able to decide what you want instead. By assessing the problems and challenges, you can tell what aspects a good goal picture needs to include to be workable, realistic and effective.
Expecting resistance to change. Resistance is a sign that you have not yet found common ground on which to cooperate with someone. In fact, often resistance is a result of the person not feeling heard or their difficulties appreciated. The first strategy is to slow down if the person feels forced and listen closely to what they want. You don’t have to agree with their view, but you want them to know you have heard them.
Knowing too much. When you apply a solution-focused approach, you want to have an open mind and avoid prejudging what is most important. If you are listening with your mind already made up, you will miss much valuable information and pay attention only to the information that confirms your judgement of what is going on. The challenge is to let go of expectations and judgements, listening, noticing and responding to everyone and every situation individually. You will be able to come to solutions that are the best possible fit for the situation, saving yourself much time and effort of having to revisit issues over and over again.