Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Using counters

A counter is whatever we can discover that is helping us get towards our desired state of affairs. Whether it’s a strength, skill, resource or previous example of success, a counter is anything that counts.

We elicit counters during meetings, conversations or research, by turning our attention to the following categories, aiming to identify them, make them open and explicit, and of course put them to work:

  • When the solution (what’s wanted) happens already
  • When parts of the solution happen already
  • When something resembling what is wanted happens already
  • Resources, skills and qualities that may be useful
  • Grounds for optimism that matters may be about to improve
  • Evidence for being up to a certain point on a scale
  • Others’ knowledge, skills and experience.

Identifying counters

Let’s explore each of the above in more detail.

When the solution (what is wanted) happens already

This is when the desired outcome already happens periodically or has happened at least once – preferably not too long ago.

If, for example, what you want is for everyone in an office to respond promptly to requests for information, you would investigate when that last happened. Perhaps it was when the system was first introduced or the last time there was a crisis that gripped everyone’s attention.

When parts of the solution happen already

Sometimes parts of what’s wanted are happening. Suppose you have a colleague who feels that her work life is totally disorganised: she’s missing appointments, her office is a mess and she can’t find important documents. She wants her life to be more organised. After a short discussion, you discover that there is one drawer of her filing cabinet that is tidier than the others: the one that holds all her personal documents. By exploring how she manages to get this one part of her life organised, you can uncover counters that may help her organise other areas of her life too.

When something resembling what is wanted happens already

Sometimes what is wanted isn’t happening exactly, but we can find something sufficiently like it to construct a possibility of progress.

Let’s say you have recently been promoted and are struggling with the practicalities of delegation. Perhaps you have experience of something like delegation elsewhere – for example, captaining a sports team or dividing up responsibilities within your family. These offer clues as to how to go about delegation as part of your new role.

Resources, skills and qualities that may be useful

We can often identify skills, qualities and resources, currently applied in one situation, but that may be usefully transferred to another.

Janet, the mother of three young children, had the ability to can stay calm when one of her children had tantrums. Having identified this quality, she was able to stay calm when colleagues were getting agitated and disruptive at work.

Grounds for optimism that matters may be about to improve

In especially tough situations, it may not be so easy to discover the counters. This is when it’s worth articulating any signs of optimism that matters may be about to improve. Perhaps you could comment that the person who you are having difficulty working with turned up to your office to have a conversation with you. You might simply ask, ‘Well, this is very difficult: what’s giving us any hope of progress here?’

When things seem tough for people, you can ask them how they are coping, then identify and highlight their resources, which can build resilience and the ability to handle the situation.

Evidence for being up to a certain point on a scale

Ask your team members, on a scale from 1 – 10, where are we now? How come it’s that high? The answers are good evidence of what’s working.

Others’ knowledge, skills and experience

Sometimes, the people directly involved have useful experience, skills and knowledge, and you can gather enough counters to make progress from these alone. Sometimes, it’s useful to hold a wider search for counters, asking yourselves who else you know or have heard of that has expertise on these matters.

We recommend that your search for counters starts with the people directly involved in your project – what do they know that will usefully help them make progress? It’s important to find counters that fit well – those that will work for the people who want them to work. Like a pair of shoes, the best fit comes directly from the people who’ll be wearing them.

Once you have explored these counters, you can extend the search, looking for counters from a variety of sources – the people you’re working with, other groups within the organisation, other people in your social circle and beyond.

Counters in action

To ensure that the counters you collect are relevant, keep in mind what the people involved want (the platform), staying on a solutions track, rather than getting tempted into finding examples of the problem and its associated phenomena.

Here are some questions you can use when exploring counters:

  • What are you doing well that is getting you to ‘n’ on the scale?
  • What makes it ‘n’ as opposed to 1?
  • When does what you want happen already? Even a little bit?
  • When do parts of what is wanted happen already?
  • When do things like what you want happen already?
  • What do you suppose you did to make that happen? How did you do that?
  • What personal qualities will help you achieve the outcome?
  • What personal qualities would your boss/colleagues/clients/friends say you have that would help you achieve this outcome?
  • When have you been in a similar situation and succeeded? What did you do? What was different?
  • Where else in the organisation does this happen?
  • Who can help you with this?
  • What do you/we want to keep – what’s working already?
  • What else do you know that will be useful for us when working on this project/topic?
  • What’s worked before?
  • What’s working already?
  • That sounds like a tough situation – how are you coping?
  • Who else may have useful know-how in the team or beyond?
  • What’s better since we last spoke?

Counters and story-telling

One way to share your know-how and offer counters is to tell a story. Humans have regaled each other with stories to pass on knowledge, wisdom and experience since time immemorial – our oral tradition predates written culture.

Tips for telling stories:

  • Make them relevant so that they are about the subject and tailored towards what the listener needs
  • They should be empowering – stories of success; avoid stories of failure and despair
  • Fill them with resources and ideas
  • Make them fraught with possibility and choice.

See the topic on Story telling.