Explaining Solution Focus to an insurance actuary

Insurance actuary Solution FocusMy colleague Promod Sharma of Taxevity* is an insurance actuary. He wanted to hear via a typical client story about how I personally use the Solution Focus approach to help support change in organizations. I was keen to give him a good example of the excellence of SF!

Main topic: Small-steps lead to big change

For the interview we used the small-steps theme featured in my last blog post.

A professional development tool for managers

I also talked about where I think SF fits as a professional development tool for managers, namely that they already have a practice skill (like Promod’s actuarial capability) and how SF will add a powerful extra change leadership dimension to their capabilities.

*Promod Sharma of Taxevity

Ten Views on Leadership. What’s Your’s?

My colleague, Mark McKergow (and his colleague, Helen Bailey) will be publishing a book on Host Leadership* which got me thinking about the vast number of views on leadership.

Which leadership model / appraoch?
Which leadership model / appraoch?

Here’s just ten of them (stated under the banner of leadership), followed by a few questions:

The host – dancing between hero and servant: A host is someone who entertains guests – friends, enemies or strangers. Traditions of hospitality have been a key part of all cultures worldwide. The metaphor of the leader as host builds on the idea of leader as servant, and offers a new, rooted yet innovative framework. Mark McKergow

Leadership is not a position, it is an activity. Daniel Newman, The Millennial CEO

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership. Nelson Mandella

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes. Peter Drucker

Don’t find fault, find a remedy. Henry Ford

 Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected. Steve Jobs

Before I went to jail, I was active in politics as a member of South Africa’s leading organization – and I was generally busy from 7 A.M. until midnight. I never had time to sit and think. Nelson Mandela

I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading. Amy Poehler

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In our experience, however, only about 15 percent of the companies that voice a need for change are truly in crisis. A far more common situation – involving as many as 60 percent of those companies – is a state of inconsistency. Booze & Co, Strategy+Business

And so on…

What’s your favorite leadership quote or perspective?

Or, conversely is there one that you can’t stand?

So much for the guys! What about quotes from the many women leaders?

Do you have a Solution Focus quote about leadership?

*Host Leadership

How to Have Monkey-Free Meetings. A Better Questions Cheat Sheet

How do we be a solutions provider and a leader / influencer in meetings? You didn’t think there were so many better solutions-oriented questions to ask about a meeting, did you?

Here’s your checklist cheat sheet to pull out before, during and at the end of almost any meeting.

Before the meeting:

Where have you already made the most progress (on the topic of the meeting)?

What is the one thing you want to be better (as a result of the meeting)?

What’s the one thing you want the presentation to enable you to do in your work?

When you receive a really good presentation, what format and content works best for you?

Suppose we have a good meeting, what will be different afterwards (that’s useful to you)?

What do you need me/us to focus on in the meeting?

Starting the meeting:

The goals and agenda for this meeting are… What do you need me to focus on?

Suppose this meeting goes well for you and your team, what will have worked best?

Suppose we have a good meeting, what will be different afterwards (that’s useful to you)?

You mentioned X in our lead up to this meeting. You’ve probably had experience in that area. What worked on those occasions? 

During the meeting:

Thinking of the presentation so far, how would you see this working for you?

You have just mentioned you like X … suppose we had implemented that element, how would that be useful to the organization? How would that help you with your larger goals?

What would you see being done differently to make it work for the customer? And how would you see this proposal as useful in making that happen?

Towards the end of the session:

Thinking of the various elements that make sense to you, how do you see them working for you / your team?

You mentioned you’re uncertain about (topic). Suppose we were to move ahead with the overall proposal and we made that work for you, what would you see us doing?

Inattentive, distracted, or uncomfortable audience:

How do you see this (presentation / section / concept) being useful to you so far?

What can you tell me that has been useful in the presentation so far?

On a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 means the presentation has limited value and 10 means  you’re ready to get going, where are you now?

Irrelevant questions:

Good question! In order to deliver on our meeting goal, I’d like to answer that at the end of the presentation. Go back to agenda.

I want to respect your time and the question that’s just been asked. How would you like me to handle it? Go back to agenda.

I’m glad you asked. I mentioned X, Y and Z earlier. My answer to your question is (respond). I think you’ll get more insight on your question if we go back to the agenda … point B in the next section should be helpful.

Challenging questions:

I’m glad you asked. My answer is (minimal detail). How do you see that being useful?

I have an answer, but first, who in the group can share some insights?

I’m impressed by your question. Particularly by (topic). You must know a lot about this area. Can I hear a bit more?

I can see that this proposal requires a lot of thought. When you have undertaken this kind of activity in the past, what worked? How did you manage to do that?

What gives you grounds for optimism that things will work out this time?

Thinking of today’s proposal and the parts that make sense to you, what would you see yourself doing right away?

Tough questions:

(Don’t disagree. Restate their point and ask) Did I get it right?

I am curious about the thinking behind your question. Tell me more?

People would say that’s a great question. I suggest it’s a bit ahead of the agenda we agreed to. Let’s continue and get back to the question later in the meeting and make sure it’s not missed.

Suppose your point was no longer an issue, what would we be doing instead?’

Sounds like you are (concerned) about (topic). Suppose we were able to address your concern, what would we be working on once we’d implemented it?

Thinking of your good question, and what we have proposed…suppose it did work, what would you see being useful to the customer, (other stakeholders, etc.)?

Closing the meeting:

When we have implemented the programme, what’s the one thing you see being most useful to you / the business / the customer?

I’d like to ask each person in the room how you see this meeting outcome being useful to you.

More on Monkey-free Meetings + A book full of ideas


How to build leadership and capacity in NFP orgs

The not–for-profit sector is a large employment sector. It’s important to economies. It does things neither government or the private sector can do.


With a few notable exceptions, it is starved of quality management!

The sector is funded both by public money and donor funders. Now that economies are shrinking / consolidating…

a) The old funding model is grinding to a halt,

b) The recipients are competing fiercely for a shrinking pie,

c) Governments and other funders are aligning their handouts with their own goals and converting the funding / granting process to a bidding system.

Hence, the funding crisis is actually a leadership crisis. It’s at both the board and executive leadership level.

Here are 18 proven ways to help the NFP organization make progress on an issue that’s no longer under the radar and can easily be turned into an opportunity!

1. The #1 opportunity / task, by far, is to change what’s measured. Measure outcomes, not budgets and programs. Change or re-frame the desired outcomes. Beyond that…

2. Think larger systems* Start focusing on outcomes for the larger community, not just the narrow interest of the NFP.

3. Audit the body of knowledge your NFP has and the unique skill sets you possess. Align them with the larger need. Stop doing the things that others do better than you.

4. Don’t make fundraising a key strategy if that’s your main survival tactic. What you do should be so good and distinct that funding comes to you.

5. Change happens all the time. Endlessly! Find the useful change that’s needed and amplify your skill set within it.

6. Consider partnerships, collaborations and consortiums among which you can shine and deliver real value. Perhaps be the lead or backbone of the group.

7. Think about the needs of your funders. What value do you need to deliver to them so they can continue to support you? Incidentally, this is often simply the data that funders need to rationalize supporting you.

8. Pitch your audience on purposeful outcomes (e.g., prosperity, self-reliance, etc.) beyond solving the immediate ‘problem’.

9. Focus on strategy and outcomes over the long haul (which will keep changing). Budgets and programs follow strategy, they don’t lead it.

10. Use fact-based information and insights to drive your strategic questions. Ideology makes for passion but limits change and forces a narrow focus.

11. Make strategy a ‘learn / do’ effort, not a theoretical or administrative exercise.

12. Set measurable goals, track them, don’t expect miracles, but demand progress.

13. Don’t think about shrinking funding. Reframe it as capital generation, (i.e., more than money). Look elsewhere for the resources you need.

14. Think about leadership at all levels. Don’t tolerate the administrative and programme delivery mindset.

15. Develop a leadership strategy for the board. Refresh the board regularly with people who have skills that contribute to the organization’s vision and strategy.

16. Set in place a decision-making framework for the board and staff. Encourage dialogue and challenge. Eliminate recursive debate, especially about problems.

17. Send your staff executive to management school. If they resist change, (especially the change strategy) let them be successful elsewhere.

18. Use Solution Focus throughout to frame the opportunities, strategies and implementation plans.

How do we know this will work? It’s already happened in the best practice NFPs. Go find them and ask for their advice.

*Also, take a look at this approach, Collective Impact


Six ways to banish monkeys from meetings

It’s a productivity issue, not just a matter of either bursting blood vessels or falling asleep over time-wasting meetings.

But first, you know these meeting behaviours, don’t you?

Still, win-win, collaborative meetings do not need to be a feel-good fantasy!

They are entirely within your reach

Just try one of these recipes in the book Monkey-Free Meetings.

Not only do you get…

Meeting Tenderizer: Soften up your prospective client and make a sale without being an expert sales person.

Meeting Resuscitator: When you want to make sure your organization will implement the plan.

Teams at War: Get the angry / frustrated / in-denial teams collaborating before that next big meeting.

The Roundtable Model: Maximize the thinking of the organization in an alternative and highly productive meeting framework.

Better First Impressions: Ask questions to show your listening skills in your first meeting with a client, your new boss, or that important networking meeting.

Questions to Move People off Problem Monkeys: Become the master of asking questions that chase the monkeys out of the meeting room.

But also…

Email templates for pre-session input, Win-Win scenario set-up tools, Agenda templates, Action plan templates, Cheat sheet questions, and much more.

The outcome of your investment:

Will this make you a meeting hero over night? Possibly!

Will this demonstrate to people that you are leader in running productive meetings? Yes!

Download a free preview of the book’s introduction section here

Leaders: 12 ways to ask better questions in 2013

Wondering why last year, good things happened but your performance was just ‘OK’? Was it because many of the things that needed to change remained unchanged?

It’s not leadership style. It’s the questions.

Wondering how to leverage your leadership style in a more productive way?

Wondering how you might better lead in letting your people to make the change happen?

Have you considered…

Changing the way you ask your questions?

Asking people not to bring you their problems, but to bring you their solutions instead?

Not addressing people’s questions with your own solutions?

Helping people clarify the problem by asking what they want to be different?

Asking people to think about the solution they want to create and own?

Being candid – saying difficult things and motivating people to get something done?

Acknowledging people’s idea and asking how it will be, a) useful to others, and b) how they plan to collaborate on the implementation?

Asking how to make people’s ideas fit within the strategy that others are working on?

Getting people to think about the outcomes for their solutions, not just the tactics?

Asking for solutions beyond people’s silos that will work for the customer?

Acting as a coach or mentor vs. a prescriber?

Support people in developing their own productive solutions by asking…

What’s worked until now?

What do you plan to do differently?

What small steps do you see yourself taking to make progress?

In support of this solution focused approach to better questions … change our assumptions about change (Coert Visser)…

If you’d like to help people run better meetings at which these questions are used to help make them be better engaged, productive and creating solutions, try my book Monkey-Free Meetings

“I’ve tried Kay’s Solution-Focus approach in a couple of cauldrons – Operationally, and Board-level Strategic Planning – and it never fails as a remedy against the paralysis of problem-indulgence.” Ray Verdon, Board Director, Canada


How not to handle stress

Here’s a way to make a difficult situation worse. I came across a web page titled, “Work related stress – together we can tackle it”.

What do you think is wrong with this typical to-do list?

It’s clear they are trying to be helpful, but nothing will get better:

  • There’s no room for knowing what people want to be better
  • There’s no attempt to find out what doesn’t have to change
  • It’s not structured to find solutions
  • If anything, it’s designed to institutionalize the problem
  • Risks have to be minimized, just not this way

As I say in my short video about analyzing problems

Leadership in an organization should be looking for alternatives.

How do we get to solutions? We have to be counter-intuitive to what you see in the to-do list:

  • Ask people what they would want instead of the problem
  • Ask them about times when the problem didn’t exist (might have to dig a little at first)
  • Ask them which part of the problem they’d like to get better
  • Ask them to suppose that the problem diminished and things were better, what would be happening?
  • Ask them what small steps might get them moving towards what they wanted to happen.

More about making solutions happen

4 ways NFPs learn from the perils of bad strategy and lack of clarity

Management professor Richard Rumelt asserts that bad strategy abounds in organizations. Former CEO John Bell asserts clarity via strategic plans captured in one page. Not much to disagree with on both counts. They both focus on strategy for shareholder-driven business.

How does strategy apply to multi-stakeholder organizations, e.g., NFPs like hospitals, public service, fund-raising charities, and so on?

The principles of strategy apply equally to these organizations, however the practices have to fit the situation.

The critical strategy issue in large parts of the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is that many organizations are programme and budget driven. This makes them, at best, inefficient. They act incrementally – a new programme and a percent increase in budget have been the norm, and their funders have supported this. Whatever strategy does exist in NFPs can be either somewhat abstract or not outcome- focused. The plan induces status quo and fails to measure and improve the quality of what’s needed in the market or community as they may call it.

The following suggests ways to practice the strategy issues raised by Richard and John in the context of the public / NFP sector.

1. Take a leadership position.

The NFP sector does not enjoy the hierarchical structure that drives decision- making in for-profit organizations. NFPs often look to tools like policy to guide them when the policy is too complex, no policy exists, or the structure is out of date. As someone said, ‘In the absence of a clear plan, leadership matters.’ Better NFP strategy, i.e., outcomes-driven, will come from leadership by the board and executive staff.

2. Engage key stakeholders closely when planning.

In NFPs, it’s not often obvious who the customer is. Strategic planning requires engagement with key stakeholders. The purpose is not to get their wish-list, but to establish their perspective on what’s needed in order for the organization’s leadership to be decisive about the plan. Merge your fact-based data with what stakeholders are telling you – you’ll need their collaboration to make the plan happen!

3. Manage problem diagnosis and decide what needs to be different.

NFPs often tackle complex social or sectoral issues, few of which will be solved, or materialize opportunities easily. Strategists delve into extensive problem diagnosis. This makes it harder for the multi-stakeholder organization to know which of the many problems should be tackled. Strategies built on problems prevent the creativity that’s necessary to be focused and successful. Instead, clarify the problem by prioritizing and explore improved outcome opportunities. And. don’t overlook the NFP’s existing strengths and resources (of which there are always many more than perceived). The strengths/resources are the platform for the future strategy,.

4. Be clear on the difference between goals and strategy (and tactics).

NFP goals must be measurable in terms of outcomes, not just program delivery. Measure in a way that improves (not proves) quality. And, remember the line, be careful what you measure. It’s that simple!

What are your comments on we help NFPs (and for-profit’s) move in the direction John and Richard assert?

Want some ideas on how to develop the plan using solution focus?