5 Ways to Better Project Results through Solution Focus

Guest post by renowned European based project management expert, John Nicol

Running projects with Solution Focus methodology shifts your team focus from “What’s wrong?” to “What’s wanted?” Any project I have ever been involved with gets stuck at some point. 

Project stuckness tends to be rooted in problems of resource allocation, poor scheduling and inaccuracies in cost or risk management. In my experience too many project managers will invest far too much time and resources to get a deep understanding of why the project is failing to move forward. Understanding what is wrong and who is to blame gives them the illusion of control. As a Project Mediator I aim to minimize root cause analysis and instead focus more on looking for clues for success. I often throw out the open question; “OK, we’re stuck, so what’s wanted here to put it right?” I am not ignoring problems, I am just not adding more fuel to the problem talk. What I do is support the project team to propose small steps to start unsticking the situation. The problems are still there but the team is committed to share successes and shift towards solutions.

1. Focusing attention on what works always maintains higher human engagement and gives proof that we have good people and systems in place. 

Many people I have worked with have written this approach off telling me; ‘Just being positive won’t help’. This approach is not ‘being positive’. It is about investing time and energy with the team looking for concrete, measurable evidence that we can fix our problems and become unstuck. It is about shining a light on the team’s creativity and thereby driving better cooperation.

2. Deep diving problems drives problem talk, talking about solutions drives sucess talk. 

All projects have strict budgets of people, time and money. In my opinion it is always a better investment of those precious project resources to steer focus away from deeply understanding problems and towards what steps we can take to define and implement solutions. In the process of designing workable solutions, the team begins to describe how much problem analysis is actually useful in this case.

3. Simple questions leverage the resources you have more effectively then small miracles happen. 

As a project mediator I often adopt what SF calls ‘the beginner mindset’ to find solutions. By assuming a position of no project management expertise I can ask simple (even naïve) questions such as “Suppose the tools were working as we need them to, what would be happening?” or “When did you successfully solve a problem like this in the past? Walk me through the steps you took”.  In most cases like this I have heard people speak up who had tended to stay quiet in the past. This is what I refer to as the small miracles.

4. Minimize Problem Analysis to radically reduce bickering in your project teams 

When projects become stuck, what normally happens in the very worst projects? The manager will kick off a Blame Game. He will insist that we need to get control of the situation by writing down everything that went wrong and identifying the guys responsible.  Apart from being an unpleasant experience for everyone in the project, the process of investigating wrongness is very expensive and almost useless in terms of delivering better business results. Using Solution Focus methodology, I absolutely minimize – ideally avoid – investigating why things have gone wrong. Instead I acknowledge that ‘things go wrong’ and encourage those involved to step up and talk about what we can do to get back on track.

5. Solution Focus Project Mediation methods require hours rather than weeks to learn 

Above all the solutions focus tools are simple and require very little training time to apply. Solution focus methodology taught me a couple of powerful principles for managing complex organizational projects

Every project is different

We do not need to deeply understand our problems to find solutions

The first point reminds me to respect the uniqueness of the situations and problems and avoid ill-fitting theory. Experts are only useful in as much as it helps to define and implement the solutions as close as possible to the given project constraints. Solutions always emerge when we ask each other questions about how to best succeed.

The second point emphasizes that the over-analysis of complex problems does not move us towards solving them. Instead it is more efficient and ultimately profitable to spend my team’s time building confidence about how we can design and implement solutions as quickly as possible. I ask very simple questions such as What else? and who else? to start writing impactful project plans.

John Leslie Nicol is a co-owner and partner of Q595.com. He is a Solution Focus Project Mediator who specializes in getting stuck projects moving again towards better results.