Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

When I first read on the list about the SF summit in Malmo about the future of SF, I immediately wrote to Björn and asked if I could be included. I knew that they could only host 30 guests and therefore it would be a high profile meeting. I was hesitant to ask since I’m a “baby” in the SF world and said so to Björn. He replied immediately that if I wanted to come I was probably the right person. And so I went to Malmo.

What an experience! We were invited to climb a mountain to the summit and get an overview of the SF landscape. What a view! Here is my bird’s eye view of it. Through Harry Korman’s presentation on micro analysis of therapeutic conversations I gained a new appreciation of how effective and important the SF approach is. It is not to be reduced to one or two factors but must be seen in the interplay of a variety of factors. Of all the many factors the most important to me is probably the fact that SF practitioners are very tentative in their interactive approach to clients and customers and thereby open up space for customers and clients to enter into and unpack their needs. Through the discussion that followed the meeting started to identify markers in the rumor or narrative about SF that can be part of the paradigm.

Mark McKergow presented us with his views on SF as a paradigm and practice. We looked at the pros and cons of trying to formulate a SF paradigm and at the connection between SF and other fields. We asked ourselves if it is possible to formulate a paradigm and what would be part of the SF paradigm. As a work in progress it is sometimes easier to say what SF is not. What seems to me to be uncontested is that SF is a highly successful interactive approach to change. There are lots of studies and research to proof that SF presents a huge challenge to conventional wisdom about people and how they work. How come then that there is little common understanding about SF in academic circles the world over and that SF has little academic clout in comparison to other approaches and models to coaching and therapy? There is no shouting about SF thought. Hasn’t it become time that we start formulating the relationship of SF ideas to one another and form a generally accepted paradigm of SF? From the conversations we had I gleaned a need that some of us have for a conceptual framework within which scientific research can be carried out. It would be especially useful if this research were to be done by non-SF people in the academic world.

Gale Miller presented us with his ideas about where SF thought and practice is today. He thinks SF might be three things simultaneously. We find it first in the narratives or rumor about SF that circulates in the SF community. From amongst the entire collection of narratives one becomes eventually a paradigm which the community embraces on the grounds of formal logic and empirical evidence. From this follows an imaginary as spoken and unspoken orientations or assumptions to its existence. The imaginary is grounded in the paradigm and projects into the future what it is going to be. In a sense it rewrites the paradigm. It also forms the background to practice. As I understood it, this means first of all that we must ask ourselves where is SF at in this moment in time. Secondly that without a SF paradigm there can be no SF imaginary. And without a SF paradigm and imaginary it becomes difficult to distinguish SF as an applied methodology from other approaches. Talk about the future existence of SF practice then becomes almost impossible.

In reflecting on everything we heard and talked about we asked ourselves the miracle question about the future of SF. What would it look like? Then we talked about what is already there in terms of the miracle that has brought us to the present. What is working and should be continued? Then we moved on to next small steps in promoting the future of SF. I was impressed with the creativity and wide range of thoughts that was generated by the different groups and I won’t even try to summarize what has been said.

What I would like to do is to stress a few of the thoughts that resonate with my own needs as an advocate for SF in South Africa. This is only a sort of personal bird’s eye view I registered in Malmo. I think that it is highly important that we have a paradigm of what SF is and do even if we define it only in minimum terms. There is to my mind already a paradigm. What I would like to see is that it is defined in a less ambiguous way. Much of what is sometimes claimed to be SF is not SF. A paradigm is also important in the market place to “sell” what we practice. Success stories of SF practice should also become more abundant. It still surprises me in how many spheres of life, inside and outside the workplace, SF has made a significant impact. These stories however are mostly known only within the SF community. We should find ways and means to make it known to the world. We should publish and tell more stories in media outside the SF community. I am of the opinion that our tentative approach to clients should not be carried over into our advocacy of SF. We should be more assertive on the benefits and positive results of SF without being argumentative or offensive to other traditions. We have something worthwhile to offer the world. We could perhaps look into how others professionally market their “products” and have a public relations strategy to reach decision makers in the public and private sector. More research into SF should also be done and published and perhaps this should be done by people outside the SF community to give greater credibility to SF in the academic and business world of today. We could also start talking about the possibility of creating grants for research by people inside and outside our community. Over the years thousands of people were trained in SF but many disappeared from the SF scene. We should ask ourselves what needs to be done to create a new generation of SF practitioners and what can be done to actively involve them with the SF community. Doing more visible pro bono work in our immediate social communities could also enhance the public profile of SF. Some great initiatives of the recent past, like SFCT and the journal Interaction, should be embraced and expanded. These are but some of the ideas that stimulated me in Malmo. Others would probably write about different things and hopefully will. What I think is important is that we should discuss the future of SF more. Personally I will also take responsibility to promote SF more and better.

A warm thank you goes to Björn and Eva for organizing this wonderful initiative so excellently. And last but not least thank you to my fellow attendees for being so supportive and sharing to the “baby” in the group.

Stanus Cloete

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Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on June 7, 2010 at 12:49
Yes, very interesting .... and similar to discussions in the "agile management" - field, which also is seen to be driven by "experience" and a "set of techniques" only .... and not based on a specific "theory of management" with an "academic reputation".
On the other hand "agile management" in our days is more an more accepted by a lot of managers because it is driven by "experience" and a "set of techniques" and not based on a "academic theory of management".

So: considering, that academic science is more a "reconstruction" of those theories and theory-based practices which are following the traditions and mind sets of the existing academic sciences and not in first instance a source for mind-blowing innovations my thought is:

What is the benefit for SF to become also one of those "academic reconstructions"?
Comment by Mark McKergow on June 7, 2010 at 8:44
Hi Eva and Stanus,

Very interesting discussion here. I used to think that the 'theory of no theory' was a great idea, like the 'paradigm of no paradigm'. I have revised my opinion - I now think it's a cop-out. I agree with Eva that the paradigm in which SF sits is not the same kind of paradigm as CBT etc. However, there IS definitely a sense in which one knows SF practice when one sees it, and there IS surely a framework in which the techniques of SF make good sense (otherwise we wouldn't do them). I have been in discussion with Jerry McLaughlin at Univ W Michigan - he teaches SF and many other models as part of a counselling dept. He and I both think that one of the reasons why SF has not caught on in a much bigger way is that it is taught as technique, without paradigm. People are thinking the same way as when they so CBT when they ask questions, and so respond differently - and the approach doesn't seem as effective. SImply because a paradigm has post-modern aspects doesn't mean we simply have to throw up our hands and cry 'too hard'!
Comment by Eva Golding on June 7, 2010 at 0:58
Hi Stanus,
In this case, the 'paradigm of no paradigm' can be the SF paradigm.
Comment by Stanus Cloete on June 6, 2010 at 19:40
Hi Eva,
Thank you for your wonderful contribution to this debate. It is enlightening and contributes to my learning.
I agree with you that SF is embedded with the characteristics of post-modernism. This is most probably why there seems to be not much enthusiasm for formulating a paradigm for SF. And I agree with you on the fact that a paradigm cannot be planned in advance, it emerges from practice as an epistemological stance. I most definitely agree with you that a paradigm “can only be understood and appreciated in the context it originally acquired its meaning, therefore it also subjects to shift and change according to the inevitable change of the socio-political arena in society. In other words, whilst we think how we work is based on a given paradigm; however there is always a gradual and subtle shift of this paradigm we have faith in.” In Malmö I said that at the moment we formulate a paradigm it has most probably shifted already. Gale Miller said that to formulate a paradigm can be like catching air in a bag. I also believe that SF has grown since the eighties and hopefully will keep on growing.
What attracted me to SF in the first place is that it was developed inductively and not theory driven. Being a theory without theory however is a theory in itself. And in the same sense I think that a ‘paradigm of no paradigm’ is a paradigm in itself. As Gale Miller and Mark McKergow said in Malmö: SF has a paradigm, an ‘It.’ The question is what is ‘It’? I think that it is important to find an answer to this question. The ‘It’ has to be researched and formulated however tentatively. Without this paradigm the academic world will not take note of us. Without the ‘It” it becomes difficult for SF to have an identity of its own. And SF has so much to offer to the world. Should we be satisfied with where we are at this point in time and let the results of SF practice speak for itself? Personally I would like to see more. Or am I searching for the impossible?
Comment by Eva Golding on June 6, 2010 at 14:52
Hi Stanus,

I had to dig out my past work and re-familiarise myself with this very interesting topic, my view and understanding of the topic is as follows:

It is exactly the paradigmatic differences that distinguish one paradigm from another. The medical model traditionally view problem as positivistic that needs to be identified before solution/cure can be administered. As for the so-called post-modern one which is characterised by the post-modern trend, by which there’s no one authoritative way of knowing and a strong believe of the non-existence of an objective truth. So, the trend can be seen as the shifting away of factionalism and parochialism of the traditional model towards that of dialoguing and rapprochement of the post-modern. Wouldn’t you agree that the SF approach is embedded with characteristics of the later?

Paradigms are emerged rather than planned-out. They emerge from a cultural and historical context through people (i.e. you and me) who work independently from each other, yet simultaneously adopt a similar epistemological stance that reflects the similar values and beliefs we have for our individual practices. Eventually and gradually, a particular paradigm emerges out of this silent ‘movement’.

As any paradigm can only be understood and appreciated in the context it originally acquired its meaning, therefore it also subjects to shift and change according to the inevitable change of the socio-political arena in society. In other words, whilst we think how we work is based on a given paradigm, however there is always a gradual and subtle shift of this paradigm we have faith in. You might have realised already, since the early 80s, the practice of the SF approach has been perpetually undergoing a process of shift and change in terms of ideas and methods in response to the ever changing values and beliefs in the society. Consequently, what we have now is a new generation of practitioners who can be thinking and doing things differently from that of the 80s, and it is a good sign.

For the above reasons, a colleague recently mentioned that a ‘paradigm of no paradigm’ is better for our field of work.

Comment by Stanus Cloete on June 2, 2010 at 8:40
Hi Eva,
Thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree with you about the two approaches of the medical model and the post-modern route. SF, Agile NT, AI and maybe others fall within the post modern route. But what distinguish them from one another? If we use the definition Thomas Kuhn gives to a paradigm then I would like to quote the Wikipedia: “One important aspect of Kuhn's paradigms is that the paradigms are incommensurable, meaning two paradigms cannot be reconciled with each other because they cannot be subjected to the same common standard of comparison. That is, no meaningful comparison between them is possible without fundamental modification of the concepts that are an intrinsic part of the paradigms being compared. This way of looking at the concept of "paradigm" creates a paradox of sorts, since competing paradigms are in fact constantly being measured against each other.” (My italics)
In my mind a SF paradigm therefore needs to be more than this basic difference in approach. Many coaches and therapists use typical solution focused techniques without being SF or even understanding how SF co-construct meaning in the interaction between customer and coach. I think we ourselves as SF coaches and therapists sometimes use words from other fields with worthwhile insights and thereby confuse ourselves. Or do we not? Let me give an example. Is SF strengths based? Some of us would argue yes. Coert Visser initially thought so too. But in 2008 he wrote a blog ( on Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach in which he said he changed his mind. He sees the difference between the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach as:
• Standardization versus ideosyncratism
• Plan+implement versus try+learn
• Applying strengths versus doing what works
This is just to illustrate how important the discussion is on what the paradigm of SF is or should be. I am sure any attempt to formulate it will change over time as SF is a work in progress. We learn from our clients and customers and from other approaches as well. But not to be confused or confusing we should know what the paradigm in the here and now is. At least I am personally in need of this.
Comment by Paolo Terni on June 1, 2010 at 20:58
Thanks for posting this summary, Stanus!
Comment by Eva Golding on May 31, 2010 at 17:16
As far as I understand it, I believe there are 2 existing paradigms that practitioners follow. The traditional vs 'postmodern', Psychodynamic, CBT are 2 examples follow the traditional whilst SF and NT etc. adopt the later:

Traditional route (the medical model):
1) Problem-focused -->
2) Accessing problem, which includes investigating into history, determine symptoms, and hypothesis etc. -->... See more
3) Solution-match-problems

Post-modern route:
1) Strengths based -->
2) Collaborative, key words i.e. frame of reference, story, diverse realities etc. --->
3) Language effect change.

Isoo Kim Berg mentioned this in one of her videos, and Coert Visser conceptualised it here:




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