Why is it Comforting to Listen to Problem-focused Media

Problem-focused Media, TransparentThe job of the journalist is to create transparency.

So, why do we pay so much attention to the media’s incessant drumbeat about the world, our country and our city falling apart?

Why do we turn on the online news before breakfast and again for the 6 o’clock TV news to hear the latest list of situations and issues presented as catastrophes? Why is it that journalists dutifully ask a politician who is problem-focused ask questions about the problem that the politician has divined as critical to our well-being (when it’s actually, a vote gathering tactic)?

As Lyndon Johnson, a media observer, says: Journalism, largely, has become a battle for clicks and attention, and there is little in the way of true investigative journalism anymore.  In part, it’s because solutions aren’t interesting to the masses.  The train wreck is far more interesting than how to avoid its recurrence.

Suppose the media turned to solutions journalism – would it necessarily mean less engaging, ‘happy news’ would become the norm? No. Instead we’d see more of the story. Can we totally avoid problem-focused news? No, some catastrophes need to be reported the way they are, e.g., the recent unexpected volcano eruption in Japan that killed nearly 50 people. Or, when a bomb explodes in a crowded market. That said…

The job of the good journalist is to create transparency…from all sides!

Can Solution Focus help the journalist (and their editor) do a better job creating transparency? Here’s a framework that might help:

  • What’s the problem/issue we are investigating and reporting?
  • How can we clarify the nature of the issue without focusing on only one part?
  • What’s the other side of the problem story, i.e., what about the part of the story that is not a problem, and/or what’s being learned from this change that we are reporting?
  • What questions can we ask the person explaining the problem, (e.g., the politician) that can help them highlight where progress can be made?

More video on Solutions Journalism

Adding lightness in order to get your team to take flight

In the world of aviation design, there’s a practice of removing weight so an aircraft requires less energy to fly higher, faster and further.Aircraft, reduce weight

It seems simple, but it takes considerable skill to know where to remove the things that matter. Retaining an aircraft’s structural integrity and building its backup systems are critical for the sake of avoiding risk.

In organizations, this practice works in reverse – we add simply weight to avoid risk. Organizations are full of leaders, departments and individuals unconsciously weighing down the vehicle and preventing forward momentum. The organization may also be burdened by external legislation that leaves people twisting in the wind. We neglect to ask how we may move faster and further.

How do we add lightness to people’s work in organizations?

How do we lighten up the load and make the organization’s people more productive and stronger?

Workarounds are the traditional route and they’re helpful, but they simply reinforce the trap of living with, or adding, unnecessary weight. They avoid the obvious need for real change.

We can free up excess weight by clarifying the problems that people tackle, but do not take them on board.

Here are several tools from my colleagues who use Solution Focus. Use them to shed the weight that will get your team in the air.

John Brooker of Yes!and… How to Trigger Creative Ideas http://www.yesand.eu/173-how-to-trigger-creative-ideas/

Coert Visser of The Progress-Focused Approach: The curse of Knowledge http://www.progressfocused.com/2014/09/the-curse-of-knowledge.html

Michael Cardus of Create Learning: 7 questions to solve problems and innovate http://create-learning.com/article/manager-training/7-questions-to-solve-problems-and-innovate

Still not convinced? Of douse, you could wait for a certain Brazilian billionaire businessman buy your organization and eliminate jobs with the stroke of a pen. There’s a lot less problem talk on those organizations!


To Improve Engagement, Eliminate Your Problem Analysis Virus.

Much good work is being done to create organizations that have engaged leadership, employees, and customers through non-hierarchical (even holacratic*) approaches. Increasingly driven by creativity and self-governing processes, these businesses stand out in intensely competitive markets or sectors.

Meanwhile, in some organizations – even those with an eye on the engagement approach – the problem analysis approach lives on. After all, civilization was built on solving problems, wasn’t it?!

Virus problem monkey
The problem virus monkey

We have been indoctrinated to believe that you must know the cause before you can do something about the problem – Insoo Kim Berg

If we want more enlightened leadership, employee engagement, non-hierarchical structures, creativity, etc., there’s one more thing to put on the forefront of the organization’s agenda – developing a solutions culture. The goal is to move away from, or at least reframe, the people who are experts in defining the problem, fascinating though they may be.

Problem focused experts in your organization are a virus.

Here’s an example to illustrate the virus at work – think about global climate change. The glaciers are melting. Scientists have captured, examined and analyzed the data they need to help explain the root of the problem and its consequences. These scientific experts have also shared their insight into the problem with the general public, we’re well aware of what’s happening. Yet, with all that information, understanding and concern, we are not making much progress. We’re driving the scientists crazy. Why? Because we’re not clear on what we want collectively. The solution to global warming, for some, is to simply reduce our carbon emissions. Others suggest the solution is to increase forest density or put a stop to our consumption mania. Of course, there are others who simply deny the existence of the problem – their solution is to extract more oil faster so they can pay for proof that the scientists are wrong. And so on…

So, you’ve figured out the problem. Don’t build the wrong solution.

The problem focused folks came up with green energy – wind farms, solar power generation – but that’s proven to be an expensive mistake.

Now that you’ve analyzed the problem, assume that the perfect solution will become obvious.

Actually, no. Solutions built on problems are almost always less than optimal. In the problem solving quest, problem analysis is not the issue – it’s assuming that the situation is dire because the experts in the defining problem must be right. They may well be right, but so what?! That’s what slows down progress, especially in human systems. The problem experts:

  • Take credit for defining the problem and force solutions that work exclusively for them
  • Prevent listening and blame others for the situation
  • View people with alternative solutions as less competent than themselves
  • Undermine strategic efforts at engaged leadership and employee motivation and customer focus

What’s the option to the problem virus? And why is a Solutions Culture preferable?

1. Think this way all the time, namely: a) Ask ‘what’s working?’ b) Ask ‘what do we want to be better/different in the future?’ c) Pick some small visible action steps towards that future (see yourself learning).

2. Be clear, this is NOT superficial positive thinking. It’s purposeful thinking about what you want instead of the problem.

3. By all means do the problem analysis. Take it seriously, not literally. Think of it as, a) clarification of what you don’t want to happen and, b) a light to help guide you to decide on what you want to do instead.

4. The most stubborn problem experts will protest. They’ve got a lot to give up, so don’t expect miracles. They will learn something new, but not at the same pace as those building solutions.

5. Avoid worrying if what we want is wrong. It’s more useful to fail-forward and learn early than to chew up significant time and resources with analytics that can be equally wrong. There’s plenty of thinking on the value of making mistakes.

The path to success is paved with mistakes. Great mistake-makers win. Lousy mistake-makers lose. – Dan Rockwell

6. Get unstuck and move forward towards even greater organizational engagement.


So, in building the engaged organization, how do you show the problem virus out the door?



Just do it: Making Risk Easier

Risk avoidance is easy. Risk assessment and action is harder.

'We need to check one more time!'
‘We need to check one more time!’

The CMO had stuck his head in the marketing team’s door. They were anxiously discussing the merits of the organization’s proposed brand and customer experience position. He said, ‘Stop the discussion and get on with implementing it…now!’ One of the team said, ‘But the research people are worried that we can’t verify that it will work.’ With a hint of irritation, the CMO responded, ‘Please, just do it!’

Manage change and conflict or it will manage you. – Terry Paulson

It’s normal for organizations to think that, despite extensive development and testing time, a decision of this nature requires debate, consensus and verification. They think that they need to reduce the risk that a major programme may not work, even when deadlines are looming – deadlines that can always be extended for something that might not yet be ideal.

Noting G.K. Chesterton’s line, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” Michael Hyatt advocates, doing is better than not doing perfectly. If it’s worth doing at all, we should keep going.

Hence risk avoidance is easier than risk assessment that leads to decisions.

To see your drama clearly is to be liberated from it. – Ken Keyes, Jr.

History proved that the CMO’s act of doing something made a difference. 10+ years later, the effort propelled the organization – including an acquisition of a smaller organization – to a consistent #1 spot in brand valuation and customer experience.

Can we use Solution Focus to take action when people want to ‘check one more time’?

How can we get the team to make a decision without being told what to do?

1. State empathetically: You’ve done a lot of hard work. It’s very normal that with so much information you’d want to check that you’ve not made a mistake.

2. Ask: Suppose we were to implement this activity, what would we see as some of the useful outcomes for (name the key stakeholders)? Examine each stakeholder scenario in detail. Keep them focused on ‘useful’

3. Ask: What are the key barriers to success? Get a short list. Ask: Suppose we are successful with #2 (above), what would we have done to overcome those barriers?

4. Ask: Suppose our choice encounters some issues in our implementation, a) what would they likely be?, b) What would we be doing instead?, and c) How will we use the learning to move forward? Keep them focused on ‘learning’ vs. avoiding

5. Ask: Suppose we are successful in the future and we are looking back to today, what will we see ourselves doing to get started right away? Develop lots of small immediate and concrete steps that are visible to the organization

Will this approach guarantee success? No. But, it will guarantee that there is forward momentum and learning from action.

Will this keep the leader and the team awake at night? Possibly, but they’ll have done something that moves the organization forward vs. double-checking to avoid doing something.


When I Insist, You Resist. How Not To Create Engagement

On the one hand, the old line, ‘organizations are full of people anxious to be told what to do’ may still be true. Organizations are also full of people resenting hierarchy, or at least, wishing there was less of it, especially the hierarchy that generates politics.

I Insist_You resist
So, here’s how you’re going to do it…

The hierarchical types usually ask, ‘Why won’t they do what I tell them?’

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could issue clear goals and direction and that they could be well understood? Ideally we could then let people get on with things and be totally engaged in making it happen. But, life and the organization are not that simple.

We’re not talking about bringing social justice to organizations. Nor about the few folks do like being ordered around.Command, insist, resist

The one thing we can take for granted is that if we want to create engagement, this line matters:

When I Insist, You Resist.

While the thinking about applying the idea comes from the likes of Steve de Shazer’s therapy and coaching, it applies equally to management and leadership.

So, when we do know where the organization, or the team is headed it’s increasingly important to create employee engagement, transparency, etc. How do we avoid resistance?

Here’s some practical Solution Focused principles and practices to overcome your insistence and their resistance by getting people engaged from the start:

Slow the Pace 

– It’s counterintuitive, but this will always speed things up.

Develop a deeper understanding

– Help them understand the direction and thereby understand more yourself.

Avoid being the expert who knows exactly what needs to be done

– The people doing the work need to figure out for themselves how it will get done. Besides, collectively they may know more than you! Assume they are the experts – even though they may not know it.

Seek details

– Not just about the obstacles, but what’s already working. Then, how they see direction being implemented.

Find the compelling reasons for change

– Help them see for themselves why the change/direction is necessary, plus how they will get there.

Establish mutually agreed upon goals for change that will bring the project goals to life

– Besides the big picture, how they will get small implementation steps and momentum happening.

Go on. Give it a try!


How to bring transparency to, ‘That’s Not What We Wanted!’

We’ve all been there. You’ve worked hard to develop the presentation or proposal. During the meeting there’s shuffling of feet. Suddenly, a member of the team says, ‘This is interesting, but…’Presentation. Briefing. Alignment. Solution Focus

The presenter of the bad news has only mild awareness that likely this situation arose because they were, a) under skilled at briefing, and/or b) the project briefing and its context have changed.

In a world of increasing transparency, we still work with the fallacy that when the customer (your boss, a client, etc.) asks you (the manager, supplier, etc.) to address a goal or answer a problem, that your initial proposal will be the right solution.

Why does this happen? The art of giving good briefings is lost on some. Plus, change is constant. The time between a briefing and the presentation may only be a few days, but it’s subject to constant change. And, few projects involve only one stakeholder – just think of the changes going on around each stakeholder. All of this undermines what you were told in the briefing (vs. an information dump!).

Hence, when you present your ideas, there’s a good chance that what you show makes the key decision maker and/or some of the stakeholders fearful, i.e., that they will have to implement it, or that it will conflict with their own emergent strategies and tactics.

Using Solution Focus how do you, the presenter, a) respond, b) help the client (internal or external) to avoid this happening again?

1. How to respond to ‘That’s not what we wanted!’

Don’t fold. Their perceptions or the specs may have changed, but there’s still value in what you brought to the table. After all, they may have gotten some of the brief right! Rather than trying to justify the solution you brought, or worse becoming defensive (remember, it’s their problem!), try this approach:

a)     Ask them to clarify what they meant by, ‘not wanted.’ Sometimes people overreact when they see what they asked for. Just let them speak and don’t respond.

b)     Refresh them on the original briefing, but don’t open up a debate about it.

c)      Ask, ‘What parts of the proposal do work for you?’ relative to the briefing. If the answer is ‘nothing,’ try scaling 1-10 the various elements (1 is worst, 10 is ideal). The parts that get better numbers should be noted. Make sure you hear the different stakeholder perspectives – that will help them see what they have in common and their conflicting perspectives

d)      Ask, ‘Thinking of what’s not working, what would it look like if they were to get better?’ This will encourage them to clarify what they originally wanted and what’s changed.

2. How to help the customer avoid giving you a thin brief next time they request your thinking (and a lot of your time)

Take a leadership position and assume that it’s your job to help them give you a good briefing. Instead of an information session, make the briefing process an outcomes clarifying experience.

a)  During the briefing ask, ‘What’s working (relative to the project) that we don’t have to fix?’ And, ‘What’s the one barrier that we have to overcome?’

b) Make sure you get the perspectives of each the key stakeholders. For stakeholders not present at the briefing, ask the briefing person/team, ‘How would you see that working for your other stakeholders?’

c)  Ask, ‘Suppose we are successful in not only bringing you a good proposal, but implementing it so it’s a success – what would be different/better?’ Again, from each stakeholder perspective

d)  Ask, ‘Suppose during the proposal development period things changed, how would you see yourself handling that so that our proposal continued to align with your circumstances?’ And, ‘Suppose we check in with you to see what progress/change is happening how would you see that being useful to you?’

Why does this approach work? Because we take responsibility for helping people making a request are clear on not only what they are asking for, but also the outcomes that they seek. Hence, greater transparency.

The oldest line about the client/supplier is that they can never fully align. Use Solution Focus better questions to help your customer increase the likelihood of sustained alignment in an infinitely changing world.

More about better briefings and presentations in my book, ‘Monkey Free Meetings.’


To Tell, To Mentor, To Coach? That is the question!

‘Why is it that when I ask people to do something they don’t follow up?Team. To Tell, To Mentor, To Coach?

This came from an exasperated leader of a volunteer group. The organizational setting was more cross-collaboration than hierarchical, but actions that lead to outcomes were no less essential to the success of the group.

The leader and I talked about the issue of having to influence versus being direct and still have people take ownership and accountability – plus, allow for the varied skill level and motivation of the individuals.

I always try to get people to have a different outlook. When you do that, people take ownership of the information. They don’t ever have to reference me because I’d like to believe as an educator, I’m empowering them to have those thoughts themselves. Neil deGrasse Tyson

How do we lead by influencing when directing isn’t likely to work?

Ideally, we start off by having the discipline and time to practice approaches such as a clear, well articulated strategy (that’s designed to deal with constant change) and Jesse Lyn Stoner’s team charter.

going slow in the beginning can help you to go faster sooner faster in the right direction, with smarter decisions –Jesse Lyn Stone

In practicing Solution Focus in organizations, we help people find the solution that works for them. It’s a very successful approach to coaching. But, how do we help them when we need to give them instructions in an influential way, i.e., get them to buy into the direction they need to follow?

Organizations are full of people keen to be told what to do. How you tell them matters.–Unknown

Questions to ask that will help influence action:

Telling/directing by asking better questions that sell your idea

Here’s what I/we see is need to do to be successful with (project) and the desired outcomes. What do you see us needing to do? (Response: acknowledge their statement and, if necessary, reframe your briefing). Suppose we are successful in achieving the outcomes, how do you see that being useful to our team/group?

Mentoring to educate, influence and increase buy-in and motivation

I was once involved in a project where we (describe some of the approaches taken and advantages/ lessons learned). How do you see that description being useful to you in thinking about our project? Have you considered (possible actions, people to draw support from)? When you have experienced this sort of activity, what did you see yourself doing?

Coaching to help them sell themselves

Now that you have a clearer picture of the project needs and outcomes, plus how we might go about it, what might you see yourself doing? How would that be useful to others? How would you see yourself getting support from others? On a scale of 1-10 where are you on your understanding of this project and your role? Suppose that number went up, what would you have done to make it increase? Suppose you took personal ownership and accountability for the work, how would you see that being useful to you?

Would you need to use all of these questions to increase your leadership influence and help people perform well on their project?

Tell Mentor Coach

Maybe, but just asking the questions will help both you and the people doing the work.

There will be fewer surprises afterwards. And, you won’t need to resort to autocratic demands that may not be understood or accepted.



Use Transparency to Clarify Problems, Build Solutions

Much has been said about the chronic need for transparency in government, on Wall Street, etc. The advocates of transparency like WikiLeaks see themselves as champions of the truth.Transparency, problems, solution focus

Transparency is an essential component of making progress in society. Some would say that a few of the champions of transparency are a bit obsessive; they become so enmeshed in proving their point as a means to an end that the ‘end’ is no longer clear.

The problem with understanding something is that it gives you the illusion that you can fix it–Hart Blanton

Similarly, those who obfuscate to prevent transparency are sustaining their need to remain opaque solely in their self-interest.

How can we use transparency and make progress in organizations?

In Solution Focus, we aim at helping people get to the solutions they want by reframing their view of the problems they face. Most problems in organizations are a construct.

Construct: (noun) an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements, typically one considered to be subjective and not based on empirical evidence Oxford dictionary

When you are looking for the root cause of a problem by pressing for transparency you may never see the end of the analysis, and it often results in assessing blame.

A transparency problem ‘construct’ points at blame vs. solutions.

It defeats transparency. So, understand the problem, just don’t enter into it.

Instead, focus on transparency in order to clarify what needs to get better and build solutions.

A solution focus perspective on transparency:

The old transparency model Transparency that leads to solutions
– Dramatize the person’s problem for the sake of getting their attention (as well as the attention of others) – Ask the person what they are doing that works and what needs to get better
– Attack the opposition’s credibility in order to get them to change their mind – Ask the person what they are aiming for and how that will be useful to others
– Expose and force the person to admit they are wrong – Allow the person the space to admit they have learned from the situation

Will this change the opaque bankers or WikiLeaks people? No! But, it can help people in organizations make progress using transparency about the problem and the desired solution. 

How to get understanding if not agreement

Matt Ridley, the rational optimist, has a wish about, ‘economists versus ecologists and the limits to growth’:

‘If I could have one wish for the Earth’s environment, it would be to bring together the two tribes—to convene a grand powwow of ecologists and economists. I would pose them this simple question and not let them leave the room until they had answered it: How can innovation improve the environment?’ *

ecologists and economistsHow would we use Solution Focus to transform the debate at Matt’s powwow of ecologists and economists?

First of all, lets’ lower expectations and instead consider where we could achieve understanding if not agreement. After all, the powwow would be full of experts anxious to prove that their theory was correct or, at least, superior to the others.

Winners & LosersTo avoid a winners and losers debate Matt’s powwow of experts might apply this thinking:


4 new and better steps for getting expert agreement … and make progress on change.

Using a Solution Focus approach, the powwow participants might also:

Prior to the powwow, the experts might agree on desired outcomes for the event, i.e., imagine what success looks like

During the session, having actively listened to each other, take small steps forward

After the powwow, take what they have in common and publish it (vs. what they found wrong in each other’s ‘arguments’)

Why understanding if not agreement?

  • The issues are complex and the views are based on a multiplicity of expert analysis of the problems.
  • Letting go of long cherished ideas, albeit fear-based, is hard.
  • Reframing the ideas by asking better questions to open up listening and finding common ground helps make progress.

* Why most resources don’t run out – Matt RidleyMake progress visual copy



7 Steps to Build Your Personal Brand Story…Now!

If you don’t think you need to pay attention to building your personal brand, just Google your name several different ways. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by what you find. Maybe nothing.Writing Your Personal Brand Story

Whether you’re employed or an independent knowledge capital worker, you need to define your brand or the world will define it for you in ways that you may not like.

No, your Linkedin profile is not your personal brand – it’s just one expression of it.

For more reasons, read the Tim Morawetz blog 7 insights on building your personal brand.

How do we create the content for our brand story?

Perhaps you’d like to create your personal brand story using 7 Solution Focused better questions to help you develop it, and make it happen

1.     List all the things your clients, colleagues and bosses (your stakeholders) would say if they were touting your excellent qualities. Pretend you are a detective – go through the list you’ve made and imagine you are interrogating these folks for more details on each one of these items. Better still, interview several of them directly. Avoid modesty – you’re doing this to amplify what already works.

2.    Write a list of things that you’d like to be better called ‘scope for improvement.’ Now put it aside. Have you ever heard about a brand that told you about its shortcomings?

3.     Review the list of excellent qualities from #1. Imagine those who sung your praises are now telling you the essence of your good qualities. Remember the Economist Magazine’s editorial policy; condense and exaggerate! Go ahead, synthesize #1

4.     Now ask yourself about how #’s 1 & 3 are useful to your stakeholders (clients, bosses, colleagues) and answer, what value do others get from my work – my skills, behaviours and attitudes? How do I help them?  This becomes your elevator speech

5.     Answer the question, suppose a wizard was to wave her/his magic wand and I found myself doing #3 in the near future in ways that not only pleased others, but myself also – what else would I be doing? Describe a typical day in your better future.

6.     Take a glance at the ‘scope for improvement’ list. If it’s bugging you ask, suppose I get to that future (#5), and I look back. What will I have done differently in order to address that list?

7.     Continue looking back from the future (#5) to the present, ask yourself what were the 2-3 small steps I took in the first week of building my personal brand?

7 Better Questions to Build Your Personal Brand Story
7 Better Questions to Build Your Personal Brand Story

You now have

  • what you offer (# 1)
  • your positioning or elevator speech (#’s 3, 4)
  • your value to others (#4),
  • where you want to get to (#5)
  • what to stop worrying about (#’s 2, 6)
  • your first steps towards progress (#7)

Now you can reframe / revise your resume, biography, Linkedin profile, etc.

And get out there networking!