Home » blog » Solution focussed

Category: Solution focussed

Solution focussed is a particular way of thinking about improvement work.  Similar in some ways to Appreciative Inquiry, it draws attention to a person’s strengths, what they do well and the positive future they want to see. You can read my overview of the solution focussed approach here.

How to move the conversation from problems to solutions

Here are three questions you can use to turn your conversations from a negative problem focus to a constructive solution focus.  These are particularly handy for the chairs of committee and board meetings to have up their sleeve but can be used in any context really.

One of the things I love about solution focussed approaches is the assumption that you don’t need to understand the problem to make progress.

In fact, ‘problem talk’ can actually make it harder to find solutions.  Placing attention on the things that are wrong distracts from what’s working well and what we want our positive future to look like.

Sometimes of course people need to talk about what’s wrong, to download and to get things off their chest.  Sometimes people have to talk about their problems before they can move on to talking about their solutions.  But other than ‘clearing the decks’, talking about problems is not necessarily helpful from a solution focussed perspective.

However, given that people will want to, and may need to, discuss problems, it’s useful to have a few simple techniques for moving people to ‘solution talk’ when the time is right.

Below are three questions that do just that.  I’ve picked them up from the world of solution focus but actually they are useful for any situation to move things from negative to positive.

1.  What would you like to see instead?

This is one of my favourite questions.  People are very good at describing what they don’t like or don’t want but this question encourages people to construct something positive and a direction to travel in.  So, if someone says ‘I wish we could have less arguing in the team’, asking ‘what would you like instead’, might get a suggestion like ‘people agreeing together what do do next’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere in the office’.  It’s much easier to work out how to make progress when you have positive goals to work towards.  Particularly if you can get people to describe in detail what ‘reaching a consensus’ or ‘a friendly atmosphere’ might look like in practice.

2.  Can you think of an instance when this didn’t happen?

For every problem or bad behaviour there is almost always a time when that problem wasn’t present or that behaviour was absent.  Ask people to think about exceptions and you can then move to discussing the circumstances that led to that positive instance.  That time the team worked really well on a particular project might get mentioned.  What was it about that project?  What helped the team to work well together that time?  Attention is then switched to how the positive circumstances can be captured and reproduced.

3.  What are they like at their best?

Often problem talk revolves around an individual or group who are seen as challenging or difficult.  By asking what the people in question are like at their best you are encouraging a conversation about their positive behaviours and qualities.  You can them follow up with questions about what might have led them to be at their best and how they might be supported to be so in future.  Maybe John made a really big contribution to the team when they took on a particular project.  What qualities does he bring to the team when he is at his best? What helps him to be at his best?


Of course these questions might not work every time and you might need to persevere – particularly where problems talk is the default.  However I’ve certainly found these three simple questions useful for nudging conversations from something negative to something more positive and productive.


Photo credithttps://flic.kr/p/8DzMig

Improve public engagement by noticing what you do well

Looking elsewhere for good practice may be useful but it’s not always necessary.  By noticing the things that work for you already, you can do more of what works and get inspiration for new things to try.  This point was really well demonstrated at a workshop I ran at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference on improving public engagement.

“What works for you already?”

People involved in local government scrutiny want to improve their public engagement work but it’s a challenging aspect of their practice.  It was no surprise, therefore, that this was chosen as a workshop topic at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny’s annual conference. It was also no surprise that the workshop was well attended by people who felt stuck on this issue and were keen to find out how to make progress.

However, by focussing on ‘what works for you already?’, we learnt about some great examples – even from the people who felt that they weren’t doing much – it turned out, in fact, that they were!

We used a zero to ten scaling question to find out how well people felt they were doing.  Even though the scores people gave themselves were sometimes quite low, they were able to highlight some really positive practice that had got them to those scores.  In fact, once you start really noticing the things that have worked, you might realise that your score really isn’t as low as you thought.

One example from a council was as follows.  When asked to give a score about their experience of public engagement they gave it only one out of ten. When then asked if they had ever had a good experience, after some reflection they said yes, once we had a really good meeting about the proposed closure of a health centre. After some careful questions it became clear that this had happened because the issue had been spotted by the team in the local press.  Noticing what had worked before led to the idea of scanning the local press for topics that would be of public interest.

Scrutiny practitioner ideas for better public engagement

Just to give you a flavour, below are ten of the good practices for better public engagement that participants noticed.  But remember, the things that are likely to work best for you, in your particular context, might not be the same.

  1. Use third parties to engage with people for you such as partner organisations, voluntary groups and the local media
  2. Use existing council processes to engage through e.g. budget, planning, residents’ associations, social media, media releases, council newspaper
  3. Involve the public in developing your work plan work
  4. Talk and listen to the user / interest groups linked to your council
  5. Use the council comms team to get the most out of traditional and social media
  6. Use committee members to get messages out about scrutiny business and support the especially active councillors to do more
  7. Talk to residents associations and go to their meetings
  8. Use your contacts in other council teams to advise and help you to engage with the people they work with e.g. schools, tenants, community groups
  9. Use social media to contact interested parties
  10. Scan the local media to pick up issues of public concern / issues the public will want to engage with

Noticing what you do well

So, the ideas above might have given you some inspiration but why not try this little exercise yourself?

Ask yourself where you are on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is ‘our public engagement is a complete disaster’ and ten is ‘our public engagement is completely wonderful’.

Got a number?


Now write down ten things you have done to get you to that number, ten things that mean you are not at zero.

See, you do some good things already.  Now get out there and do some more.


P.S. Details of the 2017 Centre for Public Scrutiny Conference can be found here.

Photo credit

Zero to ten scales – simple, useful and solution focussed

Zero to ten scales are a really useful technique for any governing body (or anyone else for that matter) to have up their sleeve.  They are simple to understand, can help you to notice what you are doing well and helpful for identifying  practical next steps.  So here is a brief description of how you might use these scales and of some of the questions that go with them.

I’ve started using zero to ten scales a lot in my work.  They are an important technique for a solution focussed* practitioner and I have found many different opportunities to use them.  They are a useful tool for governing bodies to have in the toolbox – not least for when reviewing what they do.

Making a judgement

The format of the first scale question is simple:

“Imagine a scale of zero to ten, where zero is the worst things can be and ten is the best they can be.  Where would you say we are on that scale?”

As a governing body you might use a scale question like this when reviewing an issue like transparency.  Going round the table and asking everyone what they would give as their score will give you a good feel for where everyone is, how everyone feels.

Of course what you are asking for is a judgement, not a scientific statement of fact.  If there was a simple measure of the subject under review you would of course use that instead.  But, when it comes to a question like ‘how transparent are we?’, there is no simple objective indicator to be used – that’s why we need to employ subjective human judgement.

In some ways the first question (and the number itself) is not that important – more important is the process of making the judgement because this process leads into further useful areas of questioning.

Noticing what we do well

Once you have a score from everyone you can ask each individual what got them to the score they suggested.  Even for a ‘one’ or a ‘two’ there must be some positive things being done to get them to that number.

It might be asked like this:

OK Janet, you gave a five for transparency.  Can you share some of the things we are doing as a governing body that get us up to that five?

One of the many things I learnt from my solution focussed training with BRIEF, was that writing down lists of things that we do well can be very powerful.  Not only does it build confidence when we reflect on our positives but it gives us inspiration for things to do more of and for new things to do.  These things are what Mark McKergow calls ‘counters’ – things that count towards achieving what we want to do.  These are things we can often fail to to notice – scale questions help us to notice them.

Being ambitious

Of course we can’t always be a ten and sometimes we don’t even want to be.  Scale questions can help us to get a sense of just how ambitious we want to be.

We can ask:

OK Jane, you said we are at a five.  Where on the scale do you think we should be?  What number should we be aiming at?

Once a number has been given it’s then possible to discuss what that that would mean.  What would people notice if we were at that seven or eight? What would you notice?

Taking the next steps

Another great thing about the zero to ten scale is that it can help us to identify improvements.

The next question is the ‘plus one’ question that might go something like this:

OK John, you gave us a six for transparency. What could we do that would get us up to a seven do you think?

What I like about this question is that we are not being asked to come up with some detailed or long term strategy.  Rather the question invites us to suggest  small, practical steps that might move us towards our preferred destination. Going round the table with this question should help to generate a whole list of things that will help to move the governing body forward.

Another way of asking this is like this:

“OK John, you gave us a six, but what would people notice was different if we moved up to a seven? What would the public notice? What would our partners notice? What would our staff notice?

Again, the aim is to get people thinking in concrete terms what improvement might look like.

It’s all about the destination

It’s worth noting that scale questions work best when you have a clear destination in mind – the more detailed the description of what good looks like the better.  Ideally you will want to develop your own descriptions but ready made ‘destinations’, say from expert organisations, can be used if they make sense to you.

This destination is often referred to in the solution focussed world as the preferred future.

Assessing progress

Zero to ten scales are also a neat way of discussing progress.

OK Jane, last month you thought we were a five for transparency.  Where do you think we are now? Oh, a six you say?  What tells you we are now a six?  Interesting…. now what would a seven look like?

You get the picture.

Benefits of the technique

Of course this is not a technique that will suit everyone and every situation – but it can be very useful.  Here are some things I like in particular:

  • As a solution focused approach it places attention on assets and aspirations rather than problems
  • Scale questions allow you to be both ambitious about the future AND realistic
  • The approach helps to ensure that conversations stay manageable and practical
  • It’s easy to move quickly from an assessment of the current situation to what the response might be
  • It’s easy to explain and to get people engaged – you could use scale questions as the basis for public engagement, for example.


*I’ve written about what it means to be solution focussed here.

Modifiable image from pixabay.com

What does it mean to be solution focussed?

Solution focussed is something everyone aspires to be, right? After all, who wouldn’t be interested in solutions? It may seem obvious at face value but solution focussed does have a particular meaning and implies a distinctive practice that might not be exactly what you expect. As an approach I think it has lots of potential to help with organisational change and improvement. And, as I describe myself as a solution focussed practitioner, so I think it’s worth setting down something about what it means.

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert and there are many others who are much more experienced. I’ve been interested in the approach for a couple of years and have experimented with some of the techniques. I’ve also had some training with the excellent BRIEF organisation but I’m very much still learning. Having been involved with a number of different approaches to organisational change over the years, however, this approach feels right to me.

By the way, solution focussed approaches were originally developed by therapists in the US in the 1970s and have many similarities with other asset based approaches such as appreciative inquiry. It will already be familiar to many people working in therapeutic roles in health, education and social services for example. More recently it has been applied to organisational challenges — hence my interest (Mark Mckergow has written a few useful books on this topic).

This, then, is my take on the approach.


Here are some of the ideas that underpin solution focussed practice.

  1. Progress is always possible because organisations are made of human interactions, language and stories. This means that people, through their own behaviours, can influence social change.
  2. The act of describing a preferred future in detail can help to make that future a reality.
  3. Change is something you do — not something you get others to do.
  4. Because your reality is complex, considering the perspetives of others can help you to construct your preferred future.
  5. It’s possible to make progress towards a preferred future without dealing with perceived problems — in fact, focussing on problems can make it harder — at best this wastes time and at worst draws people down into a negative spiral.
  6. As everyone’s context is unique, discovering ‘what works’ to achieve a goal starts with ‘what works already, for me, in my circumstances’. General theories and ‘best practice’ are of limited use.
  7. You are the expert in your own world. Sometimes you might not realise that you have the solutions but the right questions might help you to find them.
  8. Change is continuous and unpredictable — sustainable change, therefore, comes through small steps, feedback and reflection.

Of course people don’t get to choose their circumstances. Social, cultural and organisational contexts can be extremely challenging. Nevertheless, it’s powerful to know that organisations can be changed for the better — sometimes simply by acting out the future that you want to see (this is very similar to the liminal thinking ideas of Dave Gray as Esko Reinikainenpointed out to me yesterday).

In Practice

In practical terms, being solution focussed involves one or more of the following activities.

  1. DECIDING where you want to go. It’s important to establish a positive goal before you set off. This may be obvious and it may not (by the way, an absence of something is not a destination).
  2. DESCRIBING in detail the reality you want to see once your goal has been achived — this will help you to make that preferred future a reality.
  3. NOTICING what’s already working to help you to make progress towards your preferred future — even when things are really bad there are always exceptions that you can build from.
  4. IDENTIFYING small steps to help you achieve your goal. These steps might include doing more of what’s already working, or might be things inspired by what’s worked well for you in the past.
  5. EXPERIMENTING with these small steps and reflecting on what has been better as a result.

This is not an approach that suits every situation and it is not always successful (although proponents will point to evidence that it usually is). It is, however, often helpful for making progress complex situations, particularly when things seem stuck.

Originally posted on Medium