Solution Focus in a Large Complex Organization

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“Now we can see the cheese, not only the holes!” – Head of Strategy Project

Susanne Burgstaller SF headshot

Interview with Susanne Burgstaller who is a Solution-Focused consultant, coach, and facilitator. She is founder and managing director of usolvit consultants GmbH and has just brought out her new book “Solution Focus in Organisations. Consulting and leading from the Future” in German. She is an ICF PCC and does mostly organisational and HR development and change projects in Vienna and the CEE region.

Thinking of your recent project for a high profile public organization, what pleases you most about the work?

What pleases me most is the fact that it was possible to create a work alliance between the 3 presidents, the 40 different leaders of the organization, and a large chunk of the staff members in order to head in a joint direction. Previously, the “strategy” had been something that “those up there” had decided upon and no one else was interested. Through the joint work with everyone in the organisation, it became possible to make it clear to people what the presidents meant by “strategy”… that this “strategy” involved a lot of interactional goals which improved the cooperation in the organisation and was thus “good for them”, and included potentially all members of the organisation in determining future steps for the organisation.

What would the client organization tell us worked best for them?

Recently the vice-head of the organization said during a workshop with all the leaders: “Now we can see the cheese, not only the holes!” and the head of the Strategy Project told me that “the moaners clearly have less space now”. So obviously, people have learnt to watch out for what works, rather than focus on mistakes.

The leaders all agreed that the atmosphere in the organization had improved considerably and that the leaders´ workshop in Jan 2015 had been the best ever. The situation is tough for them, but they are in an optimistic mode. Somebody said half-jokingly: “The mood is better than the situation!” People are communicating more and more cooperatively with each other and during several critical moments in 2014 and early 2015 it was – and still is – possible to observe the members of the organization pulling together to face their challenges rather than going into conflict or accusing one another as was the case before the start of the project.

Their preferred future originally was described thusly:

  1. People work together across departments, divisions and political allegiances: ONE bureaucracy.
  2. People take decisions much lower down in the hierarchy.
  3. People communicate with more focus on outcomes and express appreciation more often.
  4. Staff members can rely on a more consistent standard of leadership behavior and decision making.
  5. They cope with pending huge changes (“de-canting” their historic building, moving into a new location for 2-3 years, and then moving back).

By now a detailed description of their preferred future has found its way into a “mission-vision-values“ statement, which has been defined jointly with all members of staff and is being published as we speak.

You have placed Solution Focus at the centre of your work. How does your client benefit?

I think they benefit by incurring relatively low consulting costs considering that it is quite a big endeavor. This is achieved by keeping the project as simple and slim as possible. This means avoiding grand “consulting designs”, mobilizing and utilizing internal resources as much as possible, using existing channels or platforms of communication, and working very cooperatively and hands-on with the leaders and a group of staff representatives called the “Task Force”. This also means that the people involved take on much more ownership of the initiative. Obviously the fact that we avoid problem-analysis and focus on what is wanted straight away, taking small steps that no one needs to stumble over, and doing all this in a light-hearted atmosphere of confidence and hopefulness also helps. And they also get to learn quite a bit about SF without ever spending a cent on an official training day!

Some other useful differences that were noticed:

  • There is less just talking or writing about preferred behaviours and more doing;
  • Simpler language so that “non-academics” can also follow;
  • More (highly) interactive workshops and meetings;
  • And more colour and “playfulness” instead of fear of mistakes and guardedness against conflicts and attacks.

Outcomes both the customer and myself were pleased about:

  • Unexpectedly big turnout and good feedback for the staff dialogue events in 2013 and 2014.
  • The Task Force volunteered to continue into 2014 and part of 2015.
  • The initiatives in 2014 and 2015 are driven by the people themselves.
  • The Leadership Curriculum has been well-attended and has produced a different attitude of more confidence among the leaders.
  • The new “Mission Statement” has been published.
  • More constructive and appreciative communication and MUCH more cooperation!
  • “Non-academic” staff speak more and show up more.
  • The staff council is positive about the whole endeavor.

You recently spoke at SOLWorld about the near demise of traditional change management approaches. What elements of those traditional approaches still work?

My colleagues at usolvit and myself did a survey in 2013-2014 where we asked approximately 100 managers and staff members within organizations about what behaviours of “change agents” they felt were most effective. Even though these people had not been confronted with SF before, they gave us lots of descriptions of behaviours that we identified as “Solution-Focused”.

They also emphasized some elements of the more traditional approaches to change. These were, for example, “implementation power & perseverance”, meaning that demonstrating continuity and consistency and being able to cope with frustrations and bouncing back from them was extremely important. Also, the traditional focus on “planning & organizing” came up again. Our customers felt that it was important that change champions would get a good picture of the current situation, be very clear about the desired outcomes, inform all parties continuously, demonstrate a systematic approach, and consider all parties or stakeholders affected.

How does SF move those practices forward?

I feel that SF is not necessarily in contradiction to these more traditional ideas, but that it transforms them in a productive way. When I work in change projects I of course emphasize SF behaviours, such as jointly generating an image of the preferred future in much detail, or identifying signs or steps of progress. When more “traditional” elements come into play I include them in an SF way by, for example, communicating respectfully and cooperatively with lots of SF questions, showing a collaborative and respectful attitude, or including stakeholders in the process as much as possible.

SF is essentially a coaching model for organizations. You seem to applying SF in new ways. What’s one application that you have created or used?

Susanne Burgstaller Solution-Focused wheelI am using this metaphor of the “Solution-Focused wheel” as a guideline for my change and OD consulting processes in organisations. It symbolizes that there are certain “stations” that are important to touch upon (the connecting points of the wheel) but that you can move in all directions depending on how things emerge in the situation and everything is connected.


Susanne Burgstaller Solution Focus SCOP-PortfolioI have also adapted the classic “SWOT” Portfolio in the more SF-focused “SCOP” Portfolio. In my experience, it helps avoid “analysis-paralysis” and get groups to move forward much more quickly.



What pleases you most about your book that has just come out on the German-speaking market?

The thing that pleases me most is that it has increased my communication and cooperation with my treasured international colleagues who have contributed to it! Also, I have learnt such a lot by having to write about my practice of SF.

Susanne Burgstaller Solution Focus bookMy best hope for the book is that it will make Solution Focus and the benefits it can bring to work in organisations better known in the German-speaking world. Particularly, I hope that it will show the useful differences SF organizational consulting has to offer in comparison to other consulting disciplines by providing faster and more direct routes to outcomes while at the same time generating more motivation and cooperation. (English edition to follow).

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