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. 

Make the Most of Fear. Move to Creativity and Decisiveness

Fear of failure – even of success – inhibits organizations

Never mind the politician who creates fear mongering to make people want to put bigger locks on their doors, etc.

There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. Michel de Montaigne

We also know these types in organizations:

The team leader or co-worker who spreads fear, sometimes covertly, in order to make people think they have only one choice to make; theirs.

It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety.Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

The individual who turns against those around them because of his or her own deep-rooted but irrational fears.

Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears.– Rudyard Kipling

Then, those fearful of any change.

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. – John Cage

The consequences are multifold, most of them not at all useful.

Fear stifles our thinking and actions. It creates indecisiveness that results in stagnation. Lost opportunities cause erosion of confidence, and the downward spiral begins. – Charles Stanley 

How do we move beyond being fearful to being fearless about decision-making?

And, having decided to conquer fear, how do we do something useful and make decisions vs. waiting to ratify decisions?

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions. Jim Rohn

There’s the wisdom of ants:

…when it comes to walking, most of the ant’s thinking and decision-making is not in its brain at all. It’s distributed. It’s in its legs. Kevin Kelly

Here are some Solution Focused questions to put legs on our fears and get us moving decisively into sustainable creativity about the future:

What do we not need to change? Get a long list of what’s working!

What would the absence of the problem look like? That is, what does success look like? Get a long list!!

What might we learn from going that way? Get a long list!!

What are the barriers to success? Suppose we overcame them, what would we be doing instead?

Now that we are being creative and are about to make a decision, what small steps can we take to move forward?

What decisions do you need to make to overcome your fears? What stories do you have about learning from decisive mistakes you’ve made?

The last word goes to the fearless Rosa Parks:

I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.  


Making the Expert’s Language Work for You

Experts in our organizations don’t speak our language. Nor do we theirs. This frustrates them greatly

Project Managers are a good example. The PM thinks about time, cost and scope. They have systems and processes that we have to fit into.

We are a paradox – they are supporting us – but we represent a volatile environment of constantly changing specifications. We can’t fit their discipline, and we keep disrupting their ‘expert’ status. We really are very frustrating. The PM talks to their partner over dinner about how impossible we are.

Meet Peter Proudfoot* the PM expert.

Peter has to control everything on his project and make clear decisions among a group stakeholders. He’s good at his job, yet feels stuck. How do we help him do his job? Do we tell Peter;

Keep analyzing data until you understand the biggest problems

What I need is a list of specific unknown problems we will encounter 

Since we can never learn the PM expert’s language, how do we help Peter, the expert, make sense of what we are saying? How do we get to solutions sooner?

Who needs to be pleased in this project? Not just us, but other stakeholders and the client? What will we be doing that works for them? What do we need from them? 

Suppose, Peter, this project has been a success – messiness included! How will our team have been useful to you in the work? 

What will tell us that you have understood our processes? 

When you have seen a project like this go well, what were some of the things that worked best – on both sides? What small steps can we take to use those approaches?

Suppose the customer will notice that the project went well for them. How would we both have supported them?

Given that we don’t know your processes, what are some of the critical elements that the team needs to know? How do you see us helping you in those areas?

Suppose the project goes sideways – most do – how do you see helping us with the changes?

Tracking is important to you. What useful tracking processes do we already have in place and how could we build on them?’

Peter, my team may let you down because we can’t always know how to support you. What do we need to do differently in order make a difference? 

What are the first small steps in our project (so that we see progress)?

What other expert languages have you encountered in your organization?

* Peter is best known to John Nicol, who has worked with many expert PMs. Thank you John for the ideas in this piece.

Solution Focused dialogue via disagreement at the ‘Kitchen Table’

How do you make sense of negative dialogue during strategic planning?

Changing the dialogue at the Kitchen Table

During a strategic planning project the client agreed to roundtable dialogue sessions. The organization was successful, but elements of its old culture made change difficult. We decided on three groups of roundtables: the customers, distributors and staff. In all three areas the client was worried that there would be disagreement and negativity. Hence, the use of ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue to overcome the negative perceptions.

My colleague Coert Visser kindly a blog that examines this interesting case where the organization had thought there was disagreement and resistance to change, and instead they created purposeful dialogue and progress.

Click here to view case

How do you handle negative dialogue in your organization?

More on ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue



Five purposeful ways to societal change (by not teaching a pig to sing)

I’m a fan of Michael Hyatt’s blog on which I often comment and tweet his articles, especially those on leadership.

Michael’s blog on the ‘stand up movement’ hit a nerve for me. Michael was sharing a message from what I generically call the unenlightened protesters movement, i.e., people who have some valuable information to share, but loudly insist that they are right and that everyone else must change immediately.  As Shakespeare might have said, “The protestors doth protest too much, methinks.”

I totally agree that standing up and taking exercise is necessary for our short and long-term health. That said, discovering that sitting down is ‘killing’ us is another example of how we humans, when faced with a perceived crisis go into overdrive to prove that we must change our ways.

The ‘stand up’ message is communicated in a black and white, do-or-die, alarmist fashion. It will convince a proportion of people to change (I’m going to buy a stand up desk asap), yet fly over the heads of many, and likely create a group of resisters, a la the climate change deniers. We know that putting health warnings about cigarette smoking changed the habits of millions of former smokers, but that took an extraordinary amount of time and it still remains a habit of too many.

What’s my point? How we communicate the need for change matters. The climate change fanatics have been over-stating the case and using bad information for over 20-30 years and not a lot of substantive change has happened. They have de-legitimized their claim. We still don’t know how much of an issue / problem global warming is – we’re arguing if it exists instead of doing something. Sadly, the government of my country, Canada appears to be in reverse gear on climate change.

The agents of change have not done their job! They are unaware of the line, ‘Never try teach a pig to sing. It will frustrate you and irritate the pig’.

What’s the solution?  I suggest (not insist) some strategies from the world of change management and solution focus.

  • Expect societal change to happen slowly

Why: Not everyone can agree with you all at once. Everyone changes in different ways.

  • Clarify your passion (fixing the problem), but don’t ‘prove’ your point by ranting with statistics that can be challenged or ignored.

Why: Making people feel bad about themselves for non-compliance to your point of view simply deepens their resistance

  • Dramatize the problem message and what could be different, i.e., sell the outcomes from which people will benefit – take the long view

Why: If they can see a future mutual benefit, they will more likely buy into your assertion that things have to change. In the process, you may also hear what’s legitimately troubling them

  • Help people make small steps towards the solution

Why: Everyone changes in different ways. Radical change is almost impossible

  • Remain passionate but calm when inevitably some don’t listen to you. Go back and take a look at what needs to change in your messaging

Why: Everyone changes in different ways

As Covey puts it, to change other’s behavior we must first change ours.

Back, to the ‘stand up’ movement. I actually like what they are doing because they are also talking about the benefits. I could see them moving balancing the problem / benefit message.

Needless to say, for those interested in speeding up change I thoroughly recommend my easy to read and apply handbook for solutions facilitators, i.e., Fry a Monkey, Create a Solution.

Why ask better questions!

I put this challenge out to all my worthy colleagues in the consulting business.
Digging into your client’s problem won’t help clients find solutions that work for them.

To clients who use consultants I say…
When you let your consultants dig endlessly into the problem, they won’t easily get you the solutions you need.

Video ‘challenge’ below:

A Solution Focus Challenge

The solution is in asking better questions.

Four Quotes to Juice up Your Change Project

Wondering why your change project isn’t going as planned? Here’s few insights on making sustainable progress…starting with the quotes.

  • ‘A powerful question alters all thinking and behaving that occurs afterwards.” Marilee Goldberg
  • ‘Change is happening all the time. Our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.’ Gregory Bateson
  • ‘The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.’ William James
  • ‘People are trying to collaborate all the time…just not each other’s way’ Jim Duval

Tell me more, I hear you saying…

  • ‘A powerful question alters all thinking and behaving that occurs afterwards.”

In Solution Focus we call them ‘better questions’. For better change management questions, see below.

  • ‘Change is happening all the time. Our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.’

Resisters, (let’s call them traditionalists) have always previously engaged in change – they just don’t fully realize it. So, we can ask them, ‘When you achieved change on (project name) in the past, what worked?’ This helps them self-identify their under-utilized change skills. The leader then asks, ‘Suppose we used those skills on our new change project, what would happen?’

  • ‘The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.’

Humans are experts in telling you about the problems that prevent them from making progress, and it’s usually the other person. Overlooking the problem conversation is often difficult, but when we do we can ask, ‘So, what would you like to do instead?’, or “If the problem went away, what would be happening?” Their answers start to define what they want, i.e., their goal

  • ‘People are trying to collaborate all the time…just not each other’s way’

Organizations are full of people trying to collaborate, but because they have only a few shared goals (usually elusive), and many diverse goals, they appear to be in conflict with each other. They are using their own unique collaboration model, not a shared one. So, try this question, ‘Suppose we achieve (shared goal), what will we be doing to achieve that?’ and ‘How will that be useful in achieving the goal?’

Points to remember when you use these questions

  • Ask not tell (listen!)
  • Remember they are the expert not you
  • You do not need to have all the answers
  • Find the resources and small steps will follow
  • Enable people to realize and own the choices they have

Thanks to my colleague Mark McKergow for introducing me to the first three quotes and for framing the points to remember

More on Solution Focus

Why creating a culture of solutions is critical, not ‘fluff’

Should a CEO allow her people ample time to analyze problems in the usual manner? You know those meetings…what seemed like a problem last week now looks like a crisis. The players appear to collaborate, yet they explore the problem and who’s responsible for fixing it. Action might happen, but it’s rooted in managing the problem instead of focused on making progress towards a solution.

The answer to my rhetorical question is simple. No.

In times of rapid change (when is it not this way?), the CEO’s job is to get people in the organization out of problem mode and working on solutions. Because our brains are hard-wired to examine and tackle problems – scientists and engineers are best at it – we assume it’s the way to fix everything. It’s not. So, moving to solutions thinking sounds idealistic to some and, to a few, dangerous.

Einstein said ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’

The rational, problem-focused mind asks, ‘what if the solution is wrong?’ The answer is that greater risk lies in pursuing the problem through what appears as rational analysis. Unless it puts lives at risk, a ‘wrong’ solution is actually better than a deferred decision based on problem analysis which prevents decision making. Few solutions are actually ideal, so why not test and learn right away?

We don’t just make wild stabs at the solution. Fact based solutions are important. Rahul Bhardwaj of the Toronto Community Foundation constantly points to solutions built on facts. Rahul uses the quote, ‘It’s not what you look at. It’s what you see.’

What does the CEO need to do help make this happen?

  1. Start thinking of the solutions based outcomes you want, not the complexity of your staff issues
  2. Enable the staff to also think this way, i.e., think about outcomes first
  3. Demonstrate getting to solutions yourself – let the staff see you doing it
  4. Let the staff try it first on small projects and let them see the results

What’s the primary benefit of solutions-based change in organizations? Speed. Taking time to use solution thinking, painting a picture of future success, and deciding on what to do first, creates decisiveness and speeds up movement toward change. It’s that simple.

Also, resilience, an often hidden asset of the organization grows stronger as a result of moving away from problem focus. Those experiencing success find the change sustainable. Further, it improves productivity because people decide what to do and take action by circumventing the low-productivity approach created by problem-focused indecisiveness.

Speed, resilience, sustainability and productivity. Who can argue against those benefits?

What’s holding your team back from solutions?

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