Rip Up The Rules: Solution Focused Consulting

Management BullyingOver the past 20 years, I’ve been involved in numerous team-improvement and problem-solving interventions, across every type of organisation imaginable (butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and a few others thrown into the mix). Do these interventions always work? Does the problem always ‘go away’? Hymm! Let’s take a quick look at the so-called ‘epidemic’ of managerial bullying as a case in point.

Bullying cases typically follow the ‘legal route’. Participants on both sides of the debate are given time to tell their story. The role for the consultant/facilitator is to listen and carefully ‘capture’ this information (“he said/she said, on X date”) and subsequently ‘present’ this evidence to each party who then have a right of reply/rebuttal. The rules of natural justice allow you to know what you’ve been accused of, to face your accuser and mount your defence. At the end of this elongated process, the consultant makes a finding, many of which would make King Solomon proud (“Yes, there is some evidence of bullying behaviour. However, the complainant was also at fault because he…”).

The good news is that this process generates large amounts of consulting billing time. Horray! I can buy something really nice in the January Sales. The bad news is that the process results in the destruction of multiple trees (huge amount of paperwork) and it often works our fairly – in the sense that all parties are normally unhappy with the outcome. Big Idea: Investigations of this nature seldom improve the core relationship between the people involved. Often, one of the parties directly involved leaves an organisation or transfers to another section following a bullying investigation where the level of ‘trust’ has been completely depleted. So, is there a better alternative?

Solution Focused:
One approach, which originated in the field of family therapy (Brief therapy Centre in Milwaukee, USA in the 1980’s), is worth considering. Families often present with multiple and complex problems. Family members argue among themselves about what exactly the problem is and, more importantly, who’s to blame! The process takes a lot of time and generates considerable hostility. In this atmosphere, people become defensive and are often unwilling to make personal changes. This highlights the central dilemma at the heart of this approach. The families need to ‘change’ – yet the mechanism used actually generates resistance to change, normally resulting in an unproductive ‘stand-off. If you substitute ‘executive team’ for ‘family’ in the above, many of the same dynamics are at play in organisations.

Different Tack:
The US team decided to take a different approach. Instead of working on a ‘historical analysis’ (who did what to whom and when) they focused on the future. What would the solutions look like? How would family members know if the situation had improved? Taking this ‘new’ starting point, the teams found that families argued less and made faster and better progress. As they looked through the ‘windscreen’ (rather than the rere view mirror) the families were able to move beyond the historical traps that were holding them back and a vicious circle of blame and counter-blame could be broken.

Miracle Question:
One specific technique is to ask what has been termed the Miracle Question (devised by Steve de Shazer in 1988) to help by-pass ‘problem talk’. The standard form is: “Imagine one night when you are asleep, a miracle happens and the problems we have been discussing disappear. Since you are asleep, you do not know that a miracle has happened. When you wake up what will be the first signs for you that a miracle has happened?” This type of questioning can access imaginative material not usually unearthed by conventional interventions. A skilled facilitator follows up the answers supplied to help clarify strategies that clients might use. Perhaps some small elements of the miracle are already in place and can be built on.

The Theory:
Arguably, this solutions focused approach is somewhat light on theory. It aims to be minimalist in line with Occam’s principle that ‘it is vain to do with more what can be achieved with fewer’. It reminds me of the quip from Warren Buffett on how the academic community regards his investment approach: “Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory.”

If this all sounds a bit ‘New Age’ you can ask does it actually work? I’ve used this process (or several slight variations) in problem-solving a number of difficult organisation issues. While nothing is ever ‘cast-iron-guaranteed’ (sometimes a divorce is the only solution) it offers a better chance of success than the legal model detailed earlier. If you are making just one New Years Resolution this years think about this. It makes no sense to continue doing the same things over and over and expecting a better outcome. Rip Up The Old Rules. It’s time to push your organisation into high performance mode by making real changes in 2015.



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