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

Small-Steps and Prototypes To Create Better, then Bigger Change

Now that people are used to seeking change – correction, demanding it – we often find ourselves like the dog chasing and catching the car’s tailpipe. How do we manage big expectations and actually make something happen?

You've caught the car's tailpipe. What now?
You’ve caught the car’s tailpipe. What now?

I draw your attention to an article by one of my favourite big-picture thinkers, Matt Ridley*. In this one he tackles making government IT better by stepping back from the ‘Big Software’ approach to building the right solution.

…the BBC wrote off £100 million last year after five years of failing to make its “digital media initiative” work.

…big projects in the past consisted of “writing most when you know least”.

Against all odds, it seems common sense stepped in.

…instead, Mr Maude and Mr Bracken are teaching the civil service to start small, fail fast, get feedback from users early, and evolve the thing as you go along. 

How do we apply learning from this ‘Big IT’ small-steps prototype to our universe and everyday non-IT change projects?

One of the most useful tools of the solution focus approach comes when people want to see progress right away.

…life is constantly changing…it means the more we look for small changes, the more we will notice the changes…paying attention to small changes can set in motion more and more changes…the focus is on how to direct our attention to more positive changes that are already occurring – Insoo Kim Berg & Arnoud Huibers

We can view these small changes as a prototype for larger changes.

Prototype: a first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied – Dictionary

A case example:

In a recent client project on improving the workplace, the change planning team had established what people wanted to see happening right away. Under near-crisis conditions, the change team had helped the larger team calm down enough to: a) listen to each other, b) think about what they wanted to be better. But, the demand for big change was still loud and clear. And, the list of changes was long.

Causes of problems may be extremely complex, their solutions do not necessarily need to be.’ – Steve de Shazer

The team then took some 40+ change ideas and shortlisted them to four. Of the four, several were identified as implementable within several weeks.

Of note, the team was new to leading change, but were very adept at producing quality programs. They knew how to make a deadline happen, but wondered how to make a significant people-change process happen.

The team was asked, ‘What do we need to do to make the small changes visible to the larger group and live up to our commitment them?’ Plus, ‘How do we implement them in a way where we are focused on prototype learning vs. carefully produced (and therefore time-consuming) signs of change?’

Having addressed these last questions with some small-steps prototype projects, the team immediately communicated the plans to the larger team and within a week set a date to evaluate progress and next steps.

How do you see the small-steps prototype change planning working for your larger change needs?

*Matt Ridley article…


When Stuck, Small Change is Beautiful

Some people feel stuck when forces make the situation they face seem insurmountable.

It doesn’t seem at all beautiful to them.

I always begin the project briefing with the question: What’s working that you don’t want to change?

Followed by: What will it look like when the problem goes away?

The answers to these questions make me confident they are going to get unstuck. Why? Because their answers are the framework for starting small changes.

Their answers are the first small changes.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together Vincent Van Gogh

Seth Godin assures us that the best way to get unstuck is to ‘start down the wrong path, right now’. Too radical? But, he goes on to say, “As you start moving, you can’t help but improve, can’t help but incrementally find yourself getting back toward your north star.”

Here are two surprisingly easy steps to getting to small beautiful steps:


1. What’s the ideal outcome? What will the situation look like without the problem present in the future?

2. What’s one small step that will take us in that direction, i.e., we can see the small change happening?

Don’t look for miracles…look for learning and move away from letting the client think they are stuck.

You might not end up with perfect, but it’s significantly more valuable than being stuck.Seth Goin

Be radical in the small step and flush out the details in ways that will let the client see the progress happening.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi

Reload and repeat.

Why does this work?

As Coert Visser states in his article Assumptions In Solution-Focused ChangeThere is always already a beginning of the desired situation on which further progress can be built.

Let small steps towards the solution focused change we want start to make a difference.