Solutionsfocus in organisations – an interview

How has your work with organizations changed over time? What has become different?

My work with organizations has changed a lot over the years. In the early years I had no clue of how I would teach solution-focused psychology to managers and people working in organizations. I was invited to speak to some organizations and I told my audience about brief therapy and solution-focused therapy. People appeared to be interested but I was left with the feeling that they had no clue how they could apply these psychological ideas to their work.

The next step was to start to work with teams and groups by applying the principles of SF to improve their work performance. This was a good idea and seemed to work quite well. I didn’t teach people solution-focused ideas. I gave them an opportunity to have a first hand of experience the ideas as a team. I asked them questions such as “What is your dream?” “What are your goals?” “What have you already done in that direction?” “What are your resources?” “What would the first steps look like?” So on and so forth. We even created a colorful manual with cartoons for this work and called it Reteaming.

We used the Reteaming model again and again, with success, and also taught this simple step-by-step model to many colleagues around the world. But times were changing. I was increasingly asked to give lectures. And you cannot do Reteaming in a lecture that lasts a few hours or in the best case an afternoon. So what could I do? I returned to square one and started teaching my organization clients solution-focused psychology again. But this time I didn’t even mention the word therapy. I started to speak about “solution-focused communication” “solution-focused corporate culture” “motivation” and “collaboration” and I didn’t teach my ideas by showing many Powerpoints. Instead I taught by inviting people to participate in exercises or small experiments. So that is what I am doing mostly these days. Again I have tried to package my teaching style to make it available to others. I have written two books, one called Twin Star and another one called COOPERATION to summarize the thinking and he exercises I mostly use in my teaching. I have even created a website for self study ( that allows users to do exercises online with the computer! I am great believer in exercises but exercises alone do not work. We also need to make sure to give participants time to talk about their experience, about what they learned, and about how they might apply the ideas in their daily life with family and in work.

You have spoken about the use of imagination in SFT. What do you mean? How do you use imagination in your work with organizations?

It is interesting to me that we, who we work in this field, so rarely use the word imagination. Why not? Why we don’t speak about imagination even if that is an integral part of any solution-focused process. ”Just suppose” is an opening line in a lot of SF questions. Just suppose equals ”let’s imagine” or ”may I ask you to imagine”. To talk with clients about preferred futures is to ask them to use their imagination. An SF coach is in a sense an imagination coach. “Suppose we meet for a follow up session, and you tell me that there have been some positive changes. I will ask you what positive changes you are talking about. What do you answer?” That way of speaking is “imagination talk”. Or listen to this: “Suppose next time we meet, you tell me that you have made some little progress, so little that you are not even sure you want to tell me about it. What could that be?” If that is not imagination, then what is? Solution-focused therapy was developed from strategic brief therapy, which in turn was developed from hypnosis. And what is hypnosis? It is using imagination to help people make changes in their life. This is exactly what we are doing in SF. Of course we don’t call it hypnosis (because then nobody would hire us) but our modus operandi is based on hypnosis, the art of helping people (and groups of people) to use their imagination to make positive changes in their lives. I would like SF to reclaim the word imagination because I believe imagination is the most powerful agent of change. When you try changing your thinking or behavior and you will notice that it is very difficult. Changing your imagination is much easier. Imagination is more flexible than thinking or behavior and after all, it’s our imagination that steers our behavior much more than our thinking – I think we all have to admit that.

Can you give an example of the use of imagination?

Once I was working with a mental health department of a city in Finland. When I met them the second time they told me that they have applied for a price the city gives to the department of the city that has, during the past year, succeeded in developing their working environment the most. I said: “Just suppose the people who decide about which department gets the price this year, find out that I have been working with you to develop your working environment. And for some weird reason they decide to call me to hear my opinion of the changes that you have made. I know that is not likely. People who make such decisions do not usually call outside consultants, but just suppose this time, for whatever reason, that is what they do. I pick up the phone and they tell me that they have received your application and they are considering to give the price to you but just to make sure they want to hear from me if I think the price should be given to you. I will of course tell them “Yes, I am in favor of giving the price to you.” So then they will ask me why I think so. I will tell them that I think the price should go to you because you have made so many positive changes. They ask me what positive changes you have made. I will have to give them several examples in order to justify my opinion. What examples shall I tell them? You can understand that the examples I give them have to be concrete. Please organize yourself into groups of four to six persons and come up with examples that I will provide to the person who is calling me from the office that will decide whether the price should be given to your department or to some other department in your city.

Can you give an example of working with SF and it didn’t work? And if it didn’t work, so why do you think it didn’t work?

This has always been an interesting question from a solution-focused perspective. Are we interested in looking at our failures? Are we interested in asking our clients to look at their failures? We are not. We ask them to look at their successes and even when they think they have failed we help them to think about their “failures” as learning experiences that provide them with ideas and energy. I think it was Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, who said ‘I have never failed. I have only found 10.000 solutions that don’t work. Well, well, this is perhaps splitting hairs and rhetoric but the bottom line is that we learn to think that we try this and then it does not seem to work and then very quickly, almost intuitively we change course and try something else, and if that does not work either, again we change course and the more swift we are in doing this, the less likely we are to notice that we are failing because we do the correction movements so swiftly and spontaneously. Having said that, I remember a time when I was working with a team of health care professionals who were having some conflicts within their team and they wanted me work with them a whole day. When we started they looked very uninterested and unmotivated. So before I did anything, I asked them “have you had this kind of workshops before?”. They said “Yes we have! And we would have more important things to do than to sit in these workshops!” In effect, they were saying that these kinds of workshops are a waist of time. I thanked them for the information and said that this is very important for me to know because I like my workshops to be useful to people. Having said that I asked them to form small teams and to think about what difference this workshop would make in their everyday life if – unlike the previous workshops – this one was actually useful for them.

Can you tell a story about your own “failure” and how you recovered from it? 

We have had many business failures over the years. We have been working with an organization, for example, and then they like very much our work and plan to spread the training to the whole organization. We make a plan, create materials and workbooks, and then, suddenly, we learn that they are not going to proceed with the plan. Another department in the organization has other ideas of how the managers and staff in the organization should be trained. You think you are talking with people who have mandate to decide and then it turns out you didn’t. There was another person, department, or trainer that you didn’t know about, who decided otherwise. And you created the materials and used hours and hours for the contract that never transpired. It’s annoying. Many years ago we worked for a big oil company. Our contact was with the health and safety department. They were all excited about our work and had already done a lot of work with us. Then they decided that they would want to spread the ideas to the whole organization rather than the few units that we had already worked with. We asked them if they would like us to create a workbook for them and they liked the idea a lot. Little did we know. When they needed approval for the project from above, a meeting was arranged with the training department of the big company. Turns out they had something else in mind. Our project was cancelled. And we had done a lot of work. We were disappointed (and it was not the first or last time), but eventually we did recover. We presented the workbook to other people and found partners who were interested in organizing training around the workbook… and the rest is history. But yes, we have encountered many failures of that kind in our work. After all these years, we are still not very good at marketing, signing contracts, learning to speak with the right people, and that kind of things.

Can you share with us a success story of yours?

This is a difficult question because when my clients succeed, it’s not really my success. I am a teacher, coach or trainer. I teach people solution-focused thinking and then they get inspired and use these ideas in their own way and then if they succeed in what they do, is it my success? I don’t think so. I am successful when people become inspired of solution-focused ideas and that happens all the time. After training or coaching events people often come to me and say positive things and tell me that they have become inspired or that they have understood something that is meaningful to them.

Success could be defined as people we work finding ways to implement and integrate the ideas into their work. I once asked a woman, who was director of a large social services department in Sweden, how in they solve their own problems in their solution-focused organization. She thought for quite a while and then said: “We ask each other do you need help.”

Once I had been teaching the entire staff of a small telecom company. At the end the day the CEO held a little speech to thank everyone. In his speech he said these unforgettable words: “Now we all understand, there actually no problems. There are only projects we haven’t started yet.

You often say that your work consists of packaging solution-focused ideas to make them more accessible to people. How did you come up with the idea of packaging?

There are people who learn by understanding the philosophy behind an approach. For these people it is better not to teach a method but the philosophy behind the method. Once they understand the philosophy they can create their own methods. But a lot of people are not like that. They can learn the philosophy, and even like it a lot, but then they don’t have a clue of how to put it to practice. I personally learn better by looking at practice, by seeing how people do things, and then trying to do it myself. I am a great believer in do first and learn philosophy as a byproduct. So I have created a lot of manuals, step-by-step approaches, practical guidelines, exercises… not so much theory, just steps of how to do things, how to talk, how to ask questions – with the hope that philosophy or theory – comes with the practice and not vice versa.

And as an experienced teacher of SF, what hint could you give to a leader, how she/he should teach the staff SF?

I like this question and it fits very well with what I have tried to do lately. I like to think that people who come to my workshops are all potential ambassadors of the ideas I am teaching. They can pass on what they learn to their colleagues at their workplaces. For this purpose, I have thought a lot about how to create so simple exercises that the participants can go back to their workplaces and do the same exercises at their workplace with their colleagues. Here is one example of such a simple and fun exercise:

Give one sheet of paper to each team member. Ask them to write their name on the paper, to fold it (so you cannot see the name on it) and to put it into a pile on a table. Then ask everyone to pick up a random sheet from the pile. Everyone has one a week to go to colleagues to find out about the person whose name is on the sheet of paper they picked from the pile. You are supposed to present the following two questions to as many colleagues as possible. 1. “What do you appreciate about this person?” and 2. “Is there something you are grateful to this person about? If yes, what?” After one week you share the information you have gathered during the week with the person whose name is on your sheet of paper. The experiment is very simple. It is, however, not enough to do the exercise. You also need to take a little time to talk with people about what they thought about the experiment and what they learned from doing it. The more we can develop this kind of really simple and fun exercises – or perhaps we should call them games – the more effective we will be in disseminating and spreading SF ideas to organizations and companies.