Solutions Focus Approach

by Paul Z Jackson

Strategic thinking

How do I take a solution-focused approach rather than a problem-focused approach at a strategic level?

In taking a strategic overview, we can compare a traditional problem-focused approach with the contrasting solutions-focused approach.

First, a problem-focused model...

Time is represented along the bottom axis from past to future.

The blue dot in the middle stands for the current situation.

The P on the left is a problem – arising in the past.

The no entry symbol at the bottom right represents the dreaded future that will happen if we keep going in this direction.

The red lines connecting these points represent, respectively, an analysis of how we got from the original problem (P) to where we are now (dot), an exploration of the causes of our current difficulties and an extrapolation or prediction of what will happen to take us from the current position to the dreaded future.

We call this the problem axis.

By contrast, the fluffy cloud on the right is the future perfect – a preferred state, in which current problems have vanished.

The Solutions Strategy model explores this diagonally contrasting axis, which runs through the same current position.

On this axis, we look back to the past to discover what it is that has been happening in our organisation and we look at those aspects that are already taking us in the direction we want to go.

This rich body of skills, resources and examples provides the fuel, the encouragement, the motivation and sense of possibility to choose the small step to take next – a step in the direction of the future perfect.

Conventionally, we assume that learning about the problem will help with working towards a solution. But here we can see that the problem axis and solution axis are different and independent. Finding out about the problem makes us experts on the problem – which is usually better overlooked.

Once we do more of what we already know works, we can notice its impact and choose to do more of it if it proves useful.

The next diagram lays the Solutions tools over this strategic axis model.

The art of the constructive conversation is to engage people along the solutions axis. Sometimes they will join you there readily and easily; sometimes you can use the tools to help them to switch at some point from the problem axis to the solutions axis.

Often the most significant moment in a constructive conversation occurs when the other person shifts from the problem to the solution axis, as shown in the diagram below.

In a way, Solutions Focus may not be the best title for this approach, because if you ask people whether they are problem-focused or solutions-focused, they tend to claim that of course they are focused on solutions. We’re using the term in a more technical sense, which can be summarised in this comparison table:

Problem focus (Talking about problems) Solutions focus (Focus on what’s wanted)
  • Complaints
  • Analysis of what’s wrong
  • Searching for causes of problems
  • Identifying barriers
  • Talk of deficits and resistance
  • Checking resources
  • What’s working
  • Describing success
  • Identify useful skills and qualities
  • Discussing and taking small actions