The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

Can it really be that simple?


If we listen to organisational consultants talk we would be obliged to conclude that organisations are very complicated entities. ‘Getting it right’ or perhaps ‘sorting one out’ requires considerable expert knowledge, it may be time-consuming and will certainly be an expensive business. But what if it is not? What if there were a simpler intervention that could make a significant difference? What if better performance, greater productivity, greater happiness at work, less sick-leave, reduced staff-turnover were to be within the grasp of all of us? I think that this may indeed be the case and that Solution Focus might be a part of the answer.

Back in 1992 Charles Handy wrote ‘As organisations everywhere realign themselves around their core activities and competences, they are realising that truly their people are their chief assets’. Philip Whitely (2002), the author and business advisor, has argued that ‘the fixed assets of any company form only a relatively small part of the value in any modern multi-national company’, that contemporary companies are their people and that therefore the primary business objective should be ‘how to get the best out of the workforce’. Jessica Pryce-Jones (2010) writing about Happiness at Work draws on her research to demonstrate the connection between staff force happiness and productivity, engagement and stable staff teams. Now if these ‘experts’ have got things right and it is indeed the ‘people’ who are central, then of course getting the people side of things right is exactly what Solution Focus is good at, the so-called soft skills which although somewhat derided in the past by managers as they chanted their mantra ‘bottom-line, bottom-line, it is only the bottom line that counts’, turn out nonetheless to be truly at the heart of organisational performance, fundamental to ‘bottom-line’.

So let’s have a look at the three steps that every manager should take before calling in the ‘very-expensive-experts-who-know-your-team-and-your-job-less-well-than-you-do’:

1. Focus the team’s attention on the question ‘how will we all know that we are working really well together?’ What will this look like to each of the team members? Who are the key stakeholders in your team’s life? How will those key-stakeholders know that the team is working really well together? What are the team’s key tasks? How will the team members know that they are working really well together in relation to each of these key tasks?

Now let’s make it harder. How will team members know that they are working really well together when they are under real pressure? And what about when the team differs? Differences of opinion are vital to a team’s successful future. Teams need a diversity of view or else they will never think of a better way of doing anything. So how will the team know that they are working really well together at times of difference?

What will the team working well together look like first thing in the morning? What will it look like last thing at night? How will each team member know that the team is working well together when he or she is facing a task that is daunting? How will the team know that it is working well together at times of success and celebration?

Exploring these questions will serve to build up a beautifully nuanced and detailed picture of the team performing well, making the very best use of each of the team members’ unique abilities and talents and skills, which can subsequently serve as a ‘10’ on a performance scale against which to check ‘so how are we doing’.

2. Once the team manager has invited the team to develop a picture of the team-at-its-best only then is it time to meet with each team member individually. The key theme of this meeting will be to elicit from the team member a description of the unique contribution that she will be making in order for the team to achieve its specified outcomes within the context of the description of the team working together really well. What will the team member be noticing about her performance, what will others be noticing, what is the team manager likely to be noticing? And during the course of this meeting two additional thoughts will be informing the discussion, the first that teams perform best when all team members are spending as much time as possible doing what they do really well (Buckingham and Clifton, 2002) and the second that individuals work best when they are given maximum freedom to do their jobs, all those things that they are required to do, in the way that suits them best, ‘freedom within a framework’ (Binney and Williams, 1997). Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their seminal text First, Break All the Rules (1999) write ‘One of the signs of a great manager is the ability to describe, in detail, the unique talents of each of his or her people . . . Finding the strengths of each person and then focusing on these strength is a conscious act.’ It is indeed the uniqueness of each individual that matters and how the team manager can find a way of knitting together a group of unique talents into a team that performs the task that is required of it. And of course we know that giving people the freedom to perform what is required of them in the way that suits them best, giving people maximal control, within the context of what is required of them, is likely to lead to greater engagement. Linda Tirago in her book Hand to Mouth (2014) writes ‘I’ve rarely had a boss who gave me any indication that he valued me more highly than my uniform – we were that interchangeable – so I don’t go out of my way for my bosses either’. If our bosses treat us as automatons, as robots, as ‘hands’, then why should people bring their brains to work with them? And successful organisations needs brains, lots of them.

3. The third part is simple, but also really difficult. What the team leader now needs to do is to watch out! Of course carefully paying attention to noticing signs of the team working well together and signs of the individual members of that team making their own unique contributions is indeed a discipline and one that needs to be practiced and cultivated by the SF team leader. It is always poor performance and transgressions that are easy to spot (because they require intervention), whereas people quietly getting on with the task, doing their job in their own best way risks fading into invisibility. However it is precisely this that needs to be noticed and team members need to know that their on-track behaviour is being noticed; one way or another they need feedback. One of the questions in the Gallup Q12 (Buckingham and Clifton, 2002), the 12 questions that they decided on the basis of extensive research were most predictive of high performance, was ‘In the last seven days have I received recognition or praise for good work?’ For each team member to receive ‘Recognition’ for good work at least once a week does indeed require discipline and focus on the part of the team leader. And of course this disciplined observation may be of particular importance and relevance in those situations where it is most challenging, where it is hardest to notice anything apart from failures. Many years ago Bill O’Hanlon, writing with Ray Levy (2001) about working with oppositional and defiant children, suggested that in order to change children’s behaviour children required constructive to challenging feedback in a ratio of 8:1. It just may be that team members are not so very different and that in order to turn around, to re-engage the previously disengaged team member will require exemplary evidence of good will on the manager’s part, a minimum of 3:1 ‘on-track’ to ‘off-track’ noticings and comments.

So before calling in the (expensive) outside consultants every team leader should be absolutely certain that she has given this ‘simple but not easy’ 1-2-3 a really good ‘go’ over at least 6 months and preferably 12 months. As Kim Cameron in his book Positive Leadership (2012) writes ‘highly effective organisations were far more complimentary and supportive than low-performing organisations.’ His finding seems in many ways obvious, although too often neglected, but actually the process is a little more complicated than he suggests. It is only the team manager’s detailed exploration with her team of what the team working well will look like and with each individual member describing her unique contribution that will focus the manager’s noticing and thus will ‘fine-tune’ the compliments thereby leveraging their effectiveness.

George Binney and Colin Williams Leaning into the Future: Changing the Way People Change Organizations Nicholas Brealey: London: 1997

Marcus Buckingham & Donald Clifton NOW, Discover YOUR Strengths Free Press: New York: 2002

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman First, Break All The Rules Simon and Schuster: New York: 1999

Kim Cameron Positive Leadership Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco: 2012

Charles Handy Balancing Corporate Power: A New Federalist Paper Harvard Business Review: 1992

Ray Levy and Bill O’Hanlon Try and make me Rodale: Emmaus Pen.: 2001

Jessica Pryce-Jones Happiness at Work, Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success.

Wiley Blackwell: West Sussex, UK: 2010

Linda Tirado Hand to Mouth Virago: 2014

Philip Whiteley Motivation Capstone: Oxford: 2002

Evan George


24th November 2023

I wrote this piece for publication some years ago (2017 or perhaps even earlier I think) but can find no trace of evidence that it was ever published or that I ever used it anywhere.



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