How to Apply Solution Focus Sustainably in Organizations

Interview with Michael Cardus  of Create-Learning, Buffalo, NY: 

What three things please you most about your work in delivering Solution Focus to individuals and organizations?

  1. That it works.
  2. Co-discovering exceptions and putting differences to work.
  3. Solution Focus places the person and me on a team. A team that is serving their goal. We see their goal (what they want to have happen when the problem is absent) and my goal (supporting them to achieve their goal) as the client. So, we work together to serve a shared client.

Can you point to one aspect of the Solution Focus approach that sets it apart from other organizational approaches/tools?

No, I can’t. I see SF as de Shazer said, as a ‘Skeleton Key.’ Any existing tool, like most locks, can be opened and with SF skeleton keys.

Many approaches and tools are seen as “root cause” & “problem focused” diagnostics. They have a Skeleton Key of: “How should the system perform?” or “Go to the Gemba site of the problem” or “What would the solution look like?” or “Is this within our common cause variation or is this a special cause variation?” etc…

You can take most organizational approaches/tools and work to find a SF Skeleton Key that will open or find a door to make progress.

You work on team building with people/organizations using the Solution Focus approach. What are a couple of the barriers to success in the use of Solution Focus among your clients?

One common barrier is our desire to “figure out what went wrong” or “pinpoint the problem.”

In most discussions, teams and people want to look back and point to the breakdown. Even when we start talking about progress steps and exceptions to when the problem does not happen and we are making progress…we step back to a need to dig until we find the broken piece.

I have found that when we place focus on solutions that we already know and that are working well, we (myself included) think “Nah, I already know that and I am a smart person if that was the answer, it is too obvious and I would have done it already.”

Another barrier is the assumption of speed and recognition at which BIG THINGS happen when they hire an expert. Some clients expect me to walk in and dictate what they should do and then they do it or I do it for them. This rarely ever works and usually reinforces some people’s idea and makes others angry because my solution will not work for them.

Solution Focus can be a powerful tool when it’s used in organizations. For some, it’s, at first, counterintuitive to the way people think/behave. How do you help your clients deal with that issue/opportunity?

I just do it. From when I enter to us framing the situation through steps to determine decisions and directions, Solution Focused is how we work.

It is seeing the person as a resistor or cooperator. If I see them as a resistor, that they are “broken” and my job is to force them to comply with my expert opinion, they will find me and I will find them counterintuitive.


If I see them as a cooperator, and any obvious resistance is a chance for me to determine how they cooperate, there is no “issue,” there are shared opportunities to continually work together to achieve shared goals.

Working to not see our approaches in conflict, believing they are the experts of their world and I am an expert of mine, and that together, we are here to work and cooperate and achieve a shared goal, brings everyone together.

If I was one of your clients and I’d successfully adopted the approach in my work, how would I have transitioned my learning into doing things better/differently (or more of) using SF?

You would have a set of your own ‘Skeleton Keys’ that are effective in making progress on challenges you are facing. With these keys, the change in perspective would be noticeable. In a meeting when the group began to go towards the direction of finding resistance and possibly falling into an asphyxiating doom loop, you would be able to use a SF Key to hold the group and make a slight shift to make progress.

For example, “Bill from finance will NEVER go for this change. The whole finance team immediately rejects any idea we have.” You might ask, “What is it that we want from Bill in finance and what is it we want to have happen from this change?” and “When has Bill and the finance team worked well with us and what did we do to make that happen?” and “If we could design this change to be perfect what would it look like? What about this is already happening? How did we do that?” …

The better/different question would be a change in how you approach things and other people leading to your ability to make progress and be calmer while getting the work done.

The idea is that you would be able to see someone else’s perspective and share your perspective in a way that is different enough to help change happen.

Some people are skeptical about change and approaches like Solution Focus. How do you help your clients overcome the skepticism they meet in their work?

I am very skeptical myself. To me skepticism is a healthy reaction and I would much rather have a group of ardent skeptics than pliant, apathetic people. My work begins in curiosity and reality testing. I ask questions and take people at their word to drive real actions of what they see, how they see it, and what will happen when what they see is absent – how will we recognize success when we see it, and when will we be done?

Then small changes and more of what they are doing that is working becomes amplified. Change is inevitable and while change is happening, they may not notice it until we reflect on what is working well and how it happened.

I constantly highlight small successes, and changes and show them how they did what they did to move a team forward. Even the skeptics, while some remain skeptical, are making the changes happen.

What one client story do you have about SF that shows it has made a difference in an organization?

Working with a crew of 12 aircraft engineers, maintenance and repair people to determine why a certain screw continued to vibrate beyond the control measures. The team and I had spent three, ten-hour days working through root-cause analysis and struggling to determine what was causing this certain screw to vibrate loose during flight.

We had statistics, charts, specifications for all sorts of things…and I was there to facilitate the team through innovation models to develop a solution to this vibrating screw.

At the end of day three, we were all losing patience and we felt it was hopeless so I tried the following version of the Miracle Question a common Solution Focus Skeleton Key.

“Things are rough and I am not sure what else I can throw at you. We know what we want to have happen; we have the right people here to fix this and we are not making progress. Here is my suggestion, let’s stop now and come back at this tomorrow AND before you leave I have one last thing…

Think about this question and return with an answer for the team at 0800 tomorrow:

You leave here and place your project planning and analysis results on your desk. Then you do what you normally do after work. While you are asleep, one of your staff finds the project plans and analysis of this problem and he knows exactly how to fix it and he does. BUT because you work a different shift and he knows better than to take documents from your desk, you have no idea he fixed this problem. What would be the 1st concrete thing you would notice when you walked in here tomorrow morning to know that this problem is fixed?”

I heard a couple of team members make “what is he talking about?” comments as I went back to my hotel room.

The team arrived at 0800. Before I could even ask for responses to the question, 3 people were charting action items and the rest of the team were nodding their heads. By noon, they had the screw in the test lab and by 1500, they had reached the solution-point.

Michael, tell us about who are you and what do you do?

I am a person who loves work. Hearing about how people accomplish their tasks within their roles at work is a passion. Solution Focus, when I found it, fit into my view that we all want to do our best and what stops this from this happening are systems within our lives and work that we cannot see or navigate around at that time. I work with companies, teams and people to show them the path to do their best work.

About Mike:  Mike is the principal consultant of Create-Learning Team Building & Leadership, Inc.,  Create-Learning believes that people want to do their best work, and that systems drive behavior. Improve the systems, and unleash the capacity of people to do great work and love what they do.

7 thoughts on “How to Apply Solution Focus Sustainably in Organizations

    1. Alan Kay

      Thanks Mike. The joy in interviewing folks about how they use Solution Focus is finding the diversity of perspectives on it’s application in the workplace, and how the tools / practices of the approach have a universality that’s gratifying to see.

  1. Rob Rave

    I really like the SF keys and the imaginative Miracle Question plus the perspective around SF that “fit into my view that we all want to do our best and what stops this from this happening are systems within our lives and work that we cannot see or navigate around at that time” Great article!

    1. michael cardus

      Thanks Rob. I think that the obstacles we cannot navigate around at that time may be a perspective on needing to define problems and losing site of the solutions right in front of us. Trying to also walk the talk is a fun challenge.

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