Solutions-focused Thinking

A traditional approach towards problemsolving is analysing the problem thoroughly before generating solutions. Although this route can produce some useful insights and ideas, it will often lead to a negative and unconstructive outcome. Fortunately, there is a positive and powerful alternative; focussing on finding the solution, rather than unravelling the problem.

Concentrating on the solution sounds logical. Yet it is rarely done in practice. No surprise, considering that a focus on solutions requires a radical shift in our thinking. Unlike conventional ways of dealing with problems, we start and act with the (desired) end result in mind.

Focussing on the solution is a proven way of bringing change to people, teams and organisations. The approach leaves the (often fruitless) attempts to reveal the causes of a problem, and skips directly to finding a solution. The method focusses on solutions (instead of problems), on strengths (rather than weaknesses) and on what’s going well (instead of what’s going wrong). All of which makes the method an extremely positive and pragmatic way of making progress.

The key principles are:

  • Develop a beginner’s mind.
  • Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
  • Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do something else.
  • Find what works, and do more of it.
  • Be sensitive to positive outcomes.

Although these key principles may be simple, they are not always that easy to pursue.

Develop a beginner’s mind.

There are downsides to being an expert. Your experience and knowledge can blind you to novel ideas. If you want to find surprising solutions, you’ll have to be willing to develop a beginner’s mindset.

Like the monk Shunryu Suzuki used to say: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Every challenge is unique. All the aspects (the moment, environment, stakeholders, location, etc.) have an influence on the situation and turn it into something new. Of course once in a while circumstances will look quite similar to something you’ve encountered before. Yet it is very risky to assume that the new challenge can be solved with an earlier found solution.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Especially if you are a specialist within your field, it’s important to have the courage to put your knowledge and experience aside. Because as we all know, implementing the wrong solution or solving the wrong problem, can do a lot of unnecessary damage. Ignoring the first solutions that come to mind can save you a lot of time, money, effort and resources.

In their book The Solutions Focus, Paul Z. Jackson & Mark Mc Kergow explain that the route to the solution depends on what the solution is, rather than on what the problem is. They argue that making positive change by looking at the solutions prevents wasting time on ’problem talk’.

People are comforted by knowing the cause of a problem. Strangely enough, the more we talk about our problems the bigger and more complex they seem to become. That’s why we need to replace ’problem talk’ with ’solution talk’, discussing and discovering how the solution is already happening and making use of that knowledge to increase this effect.

Stop doing what doesn’t work, and do something else.

Southwest Airlines had a problem with planes that took an expensive 40 minutes to refuel. They asked themselves: ”What’s the problem? Why are the planes spending so long on the ground?” They discussed the question but were unable to find a solution. The answer came when they changed the question to the more constructive and solution focused ”How can we get the planes to spend less time on the ground?” They shared ideas and finally adopted the pit-stop turnaround from the Formula One racing. The solution reduced the refuelling time to 12 minutes.

Find what works, and do more of it.

Unlikely as it may sound, parts of the solution are often already occurring within the system. No problem is continuously present. We need to be open to the moments when the problem does not occur and spot the early signs of the solution.

Management of a chemical plant in Zeneca, Italy, had a trouble getting their workers to wear safety equipment. The managers (and the law) demanded employees to wear safety glasses, but the workers neglected the warnings and regulations. Despite many attempts to convince them otherwise, the employees persistently refused to wear the protective gear. The solution emerged when the managers asked themselves: ”When does the perfect future even partially occur? When do our people wear glasses, even when they don’t strictly need to?„ When do Italian men wear glasses, even when it is not necessary? When the glasses are cool and fashionable! The firm commissioned a set of glasses with mirror shades and gave them to the workers. As you might guess the employees started to wear them almost immediately, even outside working shifts. A tiny change in the design led to a major change in behaviour and to an improvement of the working conditions.

Be sensitive to positive outcomes.

In the 1960s Honda entered the US motorcycle market. The Japanese company tried to conquer a share of the major market for big motorcycles. It soon became clear that Honda could not compete with other big motorbikes like Harley Davidson and the company was heading for defeat. At the same time, however, the Honda employees started noticing the popularity of their smaller motorcycles. The bikes the staff of Honda had been importing for their own personal use! Honda decided to change its strategy and would soon gain ground by switching to selling small and user-friendly motorcycles instead.

The solutions focus is all about developing a radar for the positive exceptions and utilising them to establish a sustainable solution.

What minor signs of a possible solution can you spot within your challenge?

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Flickr Creative Commons Image via Aero Icarus.

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