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Take a solutions-focused approach to change management

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Solutions approachPaul Z Jackson describes how a solutions-focused approach to change can help create a vision of the desired future, involve key players and make the process as painless as possible.

 


As traditional approaches to change management – by top-down decision making and one-way communication – become less appropriate, a growing number of organisations are looking to introduce more effective methods. Their aim is to create and communicate an inspiring vision of a new future. This encourages everyone in the organisation to take actions that will make the change happen as swiftly, elegantly and thoroughly as possible.

Solutions-focused change

One method which is gaining prominence is the solutions-focused approach. With a solid track record in the people professions – coaching, counselling, education and therapy – it is now expanding into the world of business and organisations.

 

"The essence of a solutions-focused approach is finding what works and doing more of it; finding what doesn't work and doing something different."

The essence of a solutions-focused approach is finding what works and doing more of it; finding what doesn't work and doing something different; finding and using resources; building on successes and simplifying issues as far as possible.

Applying this approach to change management involves picking up on any changes that are already happening, that are moving you in the direction you want – then, using the changes that are working as leverage to get even more of what's wanted.

For example, if you want self-managing teams with greater accountability: find the teams that are already showing initiative, pressing to innovate and relying as minimally as possible on their nominal bosses. Ask them how they do it and encourage them to not only do more but to share their learning with other teams willing to join the change project.

Or if you want to implement a more effective appraisal process: discover which managers are conducting appraisals that leave their staff energised, rather than depressed – and ready for positive action, rather than negative complaint.

Another solutions-focused principle is to stop doing what doesn't work. For example, don't start change initiatives with the people who are most reluctant to engage with them. Instead, start with the people who are already doing something close to what you want, as described above, and let the others learn about it by rumour as the stories of their success begin to spread.

Future perfect

A key aspect of the solutions-focused approach is called the 'future perfect' – a description of how things might be, in an ideal future.

Suppose, in a perfect world, your change project was turning out surprisingly well. What would be the first tiny signs you noticed when you went to work?

The act of generating a 'future perfect' is different from setting goals. Goals are about achievable milestones on the road to success. 'Future perfects' are about creating an idea of what, ultimately, might be the kind of success worth having.

The detailed description of a 'future perfect' provides a clear direction, so that everyone involved knows where they are heading. Jointly describing a 'future perfect' can be an engaging way to get a management team working together and focusing on solutions – the things they want – rather than problems and causes of problems.

 

"As the latest research in positive psychology shows, people respond better when attention is paid to their skills, strengths and ambitions."

For example, in a series of team-building sessions within departments of a well-known art gallery, the staff were encouraged to describe their ideal working arrangements. Doing this gave them a clearer idea of the joint picture and it helped them to feel empowered by being part of the team that created the picture.

They also enjoyed the contrast with the traditional deficit-based approaches, which typically ask about the problems you currently face, the threats you anticipate, the gaps in your arsenal and an analysis of your faults, failures and their causes. As the latest research in positive psychology shows, people respond better when attention is paid to their skills, strengths and ambitions.

This works even when there's a lot of grumbling and negativity in the starting situation. For example, in a team day for senior managers at a holiday campsite, it became clear that senior staff were frustrated with the attitude of the temporary employees who joined during the busy holiday seasons. The senior staff discussed their frustrations, which mostly centred on the young and inexperienced temps. Then came this question about their 'future perfect':

"Let's imagine that, as a result of this two-hour workshop, you went through some sort of miraculous transformation and the problem of getting frustrated with the temporary workers was solved for you. But somehow you weren't aware that this transformation had taken place. When you next were on the campsite, what would tell you that this transformation had occurred? What would you look for?"

They discussed their answers and asked each other questions about ways they were already acting consistent with such a transformation. This produced good, detailed feedback about factors that were within their control and also identified one or two factors which were perhaps beyond their control. From this, they generated small actions which helped them to move in the right direction.

In another example, a component-making factory found that morale was low after a tough year. Its traditional method of dealing with problems was to hold lengthy meetings to analyse the problem, assign blame and determine whose job it was to sort it out. These meetings tended to leave people sapped of energy and creativity.

At a workshop for senior managers, this challenge was set:

"We are going to imagine it is six months in the future. Things will have improved considerably in that time – in precisely the ways we would like them to. We are going to produce an issue of our industry's trade magazine, one dated six months hence, which is a special edition devoted to our amazing recovery and excellent performance. You are going to write the headlines, outline the main points of the stories and create some illustrations showing what is better; what the 'reporters' are noticing that shows them things are better; the human interest stories, of proud achievements in the factory, and the main areas of progress."

 

"Seeing a clear vision not only creates a motivational pull, it also provides measures for the progress so far and the progress still to come."

The group split into teams and began to pile up items for the magazine. More and more emerged about the 'future perfect' description. In half an hour, the participants created a compelling vision of their future, which they had described and illustrated in detail. The mood immediately changed to one of hope and optimism.

The groups then began to look for things that were already working well and they found small steps that they could take to move things in the direction of their 'future perfect'.

The company went on to develop some new revenue-earning projects to get through the tough times and, within a year, it succeeded in regaining its financial health.

Describing your 'future perfect' can lead very quickly to changes in perception and action. It can be a great help in getting a closer fix on what people want and helping them to focus on it. Seeing a clear vision not only creates a motivational pull, it also provides measures for the progress so far and the progress still to come.

Minimal, simple and subtle, solutions-focused approaches are being used around the world across a wide range of professions and organisations. They are making a difference in strategy development, teamwork, coaching and performance management. And, of course, they are highly applicable to complex, people-related problems such as managing change.

 

Paul Z Jackson is a director of The Solutions Focus, which provides coaching, training and consultancy services using the solutions-focused approach. He is also co-author of 'The Solutions Focus – Making Coaching and Change Simple'.

 

One Response

  1. Well done, P:aul
    Sounds like a very workable and effective solution.

    The key to it is getting with the actual people needing change and having them take charge of their future. This method essentially throws out the traditional top-down command and control approach to managing people and uses its opposite, that of bottom up.

    Throwing out top-down is a winner because it naturally demotivates and demoralizes employees with its “shut up and listen” approach. Top-down totally fails to meet the basic human needs of being heard and respected thus failing to unleash their huge potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment on their work. No organization can be healthy without tapping this mother lode of capability.

    In successfully effecting four turnarounds of management disasters, I also threw out top-down. I was able to unleash the full potential of every employee through listening to them and respectfully responding to their complaints, suggestions and questions, essentially turning the workplace over to them and allowing them to develop a strong sense of ownership. This approach and its coherent set of whats, whys and how tos are explained in these Leadership Articles.

    Best regards, Ben

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