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Janine Waldman

The Solutions Focus


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Talking Point: Isn’t it time HR focused on solutions rather than problems?


HR professionals often find themselves carrying out administrative and operational tasks that are the responsibility of line managers.

They also end up being dragged into other people’s problems, which is both time-wasting and exhausting.
How many times have you found yourself doing something that was somebody else’s responsibility, getting bogged down in negativity and feeling tired and overburdened by other people’s issues?
But if you continue down this route, it’s highly likely that over time you will be sucked dry, become marginalised and even find yourself discarded.
So rather than carry out fruitless tasks that make you feel stuck and helpless when others are better equipped and positioned to do them, you could take the opportunity to focus on strategic goals and value-add activities instead.
Taking a solutions-focused approach to day-to-day interactions, for instance, can help to save time, boost your engagement and resilience levels and enhance your performance. Rather than analyse “the problem”, the idea is to sidestep the cause of the trouble and go straight to an answer.
It’s a method that has its roots in US family therapy from the 1970s and has now been adopted by HR teams in public and private sector organisations around the world such as John Laing Integrated Services, Beiersdorf (Nivea) and The Co-operative Retail Logistics.
Rather than encouraging people to dwell on their weaknesses and deficits, the approach focuses on drawing out their know-how, resources, skills, success stories and ideas about how to improve their performance quickly while making significant and lasting change.
Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow summarised the concept in six principles in their book entitled ‘The Solutions Focus – Making Coaching and Change Simple’. They are:
  1. Solutions – not problems
  2. In between, not individual – the action is in the interaction
  3. Make use of what’s there – not what isn’t
  4. Possibilities – from the past, present and future
  5. Language – clear, not complicated
  6. Every case is different.
Three of these principles are illustrated below:
1. Solutions – not problems
With this approach, you talk mostly about solutions – what is wanted, what’s going well, successes, resources, skills, what’s impressed you about someone and what small steps you could take to achieve your aims.
There is little talk of problems, what’s gone wrong, what’s missing or who is to blame. As fun as taking this tack may seem, it doesn’t tend to get you any closer to achieving your goals.
As an example, Terry, an HR manager, found that his time was being taken up by line managers who would drop by his desk and complain about their staff, expecting him to do something about it.
One day, after attending a solutions-focused course, he was visited by a manager who said: “I’m fed up with Mary – she was late again.” Rather than explore the issue and give advice as usual, Terry replied: “Sounds terrible – so you don’t want that?”
When the manager said: “No, of course not,” Terry asked: “So what do you want instead?” The manager said: “I want Mary to come in on time.” “Oh,” responded Terry. “And what do you know about getting people in on time?” On realising that he actually knew a lot about the subject, the manager then went off to fix his own problem.
Some seven people in total came by Terry’s office that day and, simply by asking each one what it was that they wanted rather than exploring their problems, he saved seven hours.
2. Possibilities from the past, present and future
Possibilities from the past can be found by remembering what worked previously – for example, thinking about when you showed resilience.
In the present, you can look for sources of hope – things that make you believe that progress is feasible. In terms of the future, you could identify what you and others would like and appreciate when things are going well.
HR director Karen was working in the public sector but, due to significant budget cuts and numerous restructures, was finding her team meetings very draining.
When she asked people to provide updates, they would complain about their increased workload, pay freezes and lack of resources. As a result, Karen decided to start her next meeting by asking: “What’s gone well since we last met?”
Initially she was met with a stunned silence, but as members of her team realised that an answer was expected, one by one they started to provide positive examples.
This approach instantly injected energy and enthusiasm into the meeting which was, as a result, far more productive than previous ones. As Karen continued to ask her question at the start of each get-together, not only did the team become more productive, but also increasingly enthusiastic and engaged.
3. Every case is different
It is important to approach each challenge afresh and not become burdened down with theory, especially because it is often the exceptions to the rule that offer clues as to a way forward.
Helena, an HR business partner, had developed good relationships with most of the managers in her business unit by being direct and honest in meetings and providing excellent HR advice and support.
But there was one manager, Kevin, who no matter what she did, continually challenged her and would not follow HR policy. None of the relationship-building techniques that she had used elsewhere seemed to work here.
When coached to look for an exception, Helena noticed that Kevin was slightly more cordial if she went to his office, which was in the next building. He also seemed to prefer formal one-to-one meetings than informal chats or group meetings.
As a result, on being about to implement a new performance management system, Helena made an appointment with Kevin in his office prior to meeting with the other managers.
She explained in detail what she planned to do and he seemed pleased to be consulted. When she raised the topic at the next group meeting, Kevin was very supportive. From then on, their relationship improved and Helena met with Kevin in his office once a month.

Business performance
Justine Brown, HR director at support services and facilities management provider, John Laing Integrated Services, has trained herself, her HR team and line managers in solutions-focus tools and techniques.
From a personal perspective, she says that she is now “learning to delegate and coach my staff rather than taking things from them and doing it myself”.
At an organisational level, however, managers who used not to take ownership of a situation are now prepared to see the positive in an experience or discussion rather than focus on the negative.
Therefore, taking a solutions-focused approach “has helped drive business performance and ensure everyone is concentrating on the right things,” Brown concludes.

Janine Waldman is director of coaching and change consultancy, The Solutions Focus.

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