Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Solutions and "problems"

The Solution Focus strategy attempts to maximise attention on solutions while minimising attention on problems. I support this orientation but it can be a challenge under certain circumstances. 

I have puzzled over the issue of solutions being so strongly linked to problems, especially in most everyday thinking. Many people come for assistance or justice with this mind set. And the situation itself often demands direct attention to a very real existing problem.

My personal response has been to address such 'problematic' situations at three main levels.  As much as possible I have worked with those involved to...
  • Contain the problematic situation so that people and property are safe and the situation does not get any worse 
  • Repair any harm done 
  • Learn and Improve* things in order to reduce the likelihood of the problem recurring and to create a better future for all concerned.
The first two levels of response are clearly 'problem focused'. Perhaps only the third response is genuinely 'solution focused'.

However, containment and repairs can be prerequisites for achieving any desired improvements (sustainable solutions).

[* Notice that the last level is about 'improvement' rather than 'prevention'. Why? Because many initiatives aimed at prevention turn out to be counter-measures (containment, extra work,....) rather than actual solutions.]

Restorative practices is one example of a 'solution focused' strategy that often includes all of the above levels of response.

Over time it is possible for an organisation to become solution focused. When things go wrong (and they will go wrong!!) containment and repairs can be achieved fairly quickly because everyone knows that there is a firm commitment to learning from the situation and achieving solutions (long term improvements) that will reduce the likelihood of the problem recurring. I once had a staff member (Teacher) say to me in a puzzled voice: "We don't seem to have many of the problems we used to have !?!". I think this approach works.

Structures, Process & Windows of Opportunity

The purpose of structure is to support and enhance process including
  • bringing the parties together
  • in a timely fashion
  • distributing authority and matching responsibility
  • utilising contributions from all concerned, and
  • achieving some of the purposes of all parties

That is, the purpose of structure is to create ‘windows of opportunity‘ that will
  • enable the process to proceed successfully
  • while meet the various needs of the parties involved

In this sense, for many people, education cannot be treated as piece-work – as simple mechanistic production:
  • Input -> Process -> Output

In contrast, BigPicture and similar approaches incorporate the ongoing construction (and reconstruction) of generous, flexible,managed and negotiated “windows of opportunity”.

Understanding "solutions"

Learning takes a lifetime

I came to Solution Focus late via various milestones along the way, including 
  • Quality Management - particularly continuous improvement (more here). This works well for those phenomena in which cause and effect are consistent over time and place
  • Complexity... encountered while completing a PhD and 
  • Solution Focus - more here. This works well where the relationship between cause and effect are not consistent over time and place...that is, when the outcomes are emergent
It is all very well to be focused on solutions but "solutions" are not always well understood.

Misunderstanding solutions 

For many years, as a teacher and Principal, I was good at resolving unhappy everyday situations, particularly those involving poor student behaviour. I was able to come up with "solutions" that enabled those involved to get back to teaching and learning... our core business.

But then I (finally) realised that I was coming up with "solutions" involving the same students in the same same situations every day or so. While I was 'resolving' the situations I was NOT producing a genuine long term solution that made my involvement unnecessary.  I needed to understand that what I was doing was actually 're-work' (waste) before the light came on for me.

What are solutions?

Firstly, "real solutions" do more than simply resolve current problems.  They also reduce the likelihoods that the problem will recur in the future; and if the problem does recur then it will be easier to resolve it next time.

In addition, genuine solutions are changes that make it easier for people to
  • Know know what is happening
  • Work together to improve what is happening
  • Do their work really well 
They also reduce the need for counter-measures and rework

About counter-measures

While counter-measures may be necessary in the short term they represent low order "solutions" since they consume additional resources and have to repeated. For example, supervision, control, checking, repairing errors, redoing tasks... are all forms of waste. These activities are not really doing the core work. 

In contrast, real solutions are productive and sustainable, in that solutions
  • make it easier to do better, and thus
  • release resources for important activities, and also
  • reduce waste and the need for rework by making sustainable improvements.