Solution-focus in larger processes

Teksti: Peter Sundman
Kuva: Marika Tammeaid

Traditionally the solution-focused principles are implemented by a practitioner in supporting individuals and groups in their processes of change. However, the larger the process, the less useful the practitioner becomes, since there is no way for a single person to be involved in all the necessary parts of the change. What if solution-focused principles would be shared as supportive tools for all the involved? This article argues that this could be more useful in large scale processes.


Limitations of the current use of solution-focus in larger scale

There are a lot of successful examples of how solution-focused (SF) ideas and tools have been used in organisational contexts. Usually a SF practitioner (coach, consultant or alike) is hired by an organisation to help with some challenges at a particular time: ‘come and help us to fix this!’. SF offers the practitioner a whole bunch of good tools for such a situation: Finding out who is a customer and for what, then focusing on the most pressing issues with engaged people and thereafter building a limited ‘pilot’ to start with. Or, building on questionnaires or quality measures to find out areas to improve and then involve a SF practitioner to address them. The organisation can choose one or two solution-focused principles fitting the values and goals of the organisation and teach people in the organisation how to use them in their work. One strategy has been to train key persons, like the middle managers, to use solution-focused tools.
Such well targeted and executed timely interventions might be enough, and even have favourable ripple effects. On the other hand, as a clinical supervisor and a trainer, I have heard and seen many of such “fixing interventions” ending without any sustainable change. Other challenges than those addressed might be unsolved. Useful ideas and resources unused. The chosen issues might have been less relevant than others. Or the intervention might have been too short.


Solution-Focus in larger scale use

So, when individual efforts aren’t enough for practicing SF in large scale, maybe a more collective use of SF could work? It could involve the whole community and create a common ground for desired actions. In other words, instead of a few people knowing SF and trying to use it for the benefit of the others, making SF available for all and enabling the use of SF in a collective way could really pave the way for a lasting change.
Conceptually the difference is shown in the table and picture below.


Individual vs collective perspective

In the individual perspective the practitioner knows and uses solution-focused principles in his/her own way, whereas in the collective perspective SF is shared by the individuals. In the individual approach the practitioner can of course involve the client(s), but the practitioner usually leads the process. When the approach is shared collectively, it is understood and used by those involved and in individual ways, which may enrich the change process and the results. The main benefit is that it creates broader ownership of SF and the change and SF as an approach is more in the hands of the users.


Solution-Focus (SF)

SF process in larger settings is one part of the whole. In an organisation or a community there are many interwoven patterns and methods with their own ‘grammar’. Luckily SF can be described as a loose set of value based ‘tools’ to use in a way and order that fits to the situation at hand. ‘Best hopes’/’the vision’ can thus be expressed with words like ‘Something that we want’, ‘Our hopes are…’ or ‘Our company goals are…’. ‘Progress’ can be detected from the interaction by the involved.

In larger scale processes

Larger scale processes refer here to complex settings, contexts, human systems with lots of interconnected parties and somewhat unclear borders, like larger organisations, combinations of organisations or communities. ‘Larger’ is an ambiguous concept, but from a practical point of view one could say that it involves more people than you can easily have in direct interaction with each other.

‘Ok, so what’s the situation?’ is the natural question in a larger scale process. The question captures in a nice way an attempt to define and assess a situation. It brings attention to the nature of the context. – The specifics within an environment. The appropriate language. The people involved and their roles. Desirable behaviours. Typical interaction structures. Possible outcomes. Regulations to follow etc.

A description of the situation and trust in the naturally evolving process are both important ingredients in a larger scale use of SF. It is furthermore important to address the broader context and recognise that all the needed knowledge is not known. The context is thus more ambiguous than in individual settings. There needs to be ways to map and coordinate with the others. Here SF has an advantage over problem focused approaches since positive things and experimenting are easier to coordinate than problems.

The relationship between SF and context is a two-fold. It influences the context to some extent through its focus on everybody’s involvement, competence, and future building. The context also influences SF via who is present, what can be done, what roles and behaviours are appropriate and what kind of language is used. In addition, larger organisations also have other useful concepts, methods, and approaches. A workable blend with them is important. SF and Lean principles are, for instance, quite possible to combine. In these processes the solution-focused principles and tools become something to look at and consider as a shared part in the interaction ‘what can we make of this’, not something the expert presents for the others.

In my experience well prepared illustrations and material in a context sensitive language makes a good start for a grounding dialogue and gradually shapes the common ground of the change or move at hand. For example, in a child protection organisation starting to use SF, a new staff member by accident asked how the problems could be ‘expelled’ when she intended to ask how they could be ‘explored’. In Finnish the difference is only few letters (karkottaa vs. kartoittaa). We realised immediately that she had invented a great concept. Expelling problems that harm children makes a great goal!

In theory, SF-practise can be used in any larger scale situation. There are processes where other practices probably are more useful, for example hardball negotiations and escalating crisis to mention a few. Likewise, some processes might conflict with the core values of SF, uniqueness, tolerance, pluralism, and empowerment.


Enabling and supporting

The purpose of SF is to enable and support desired change. In some processes elements of SF are already in use, like planning for the future or gathering people to work with each other. There SF can support best practices and get people to work together in a resourceful way. In jammed processes SF can enable a shift forward by shifting the attention from problems and blame to a description of progress and the preferred future.

SF practice can also support the way an organisation is structured, how decisions are made, what the house rules are, how problems are solved etc.


Desired move or change

A focus on the desired change is one of the core ideas of SF. Instead of looking at what is wrong and why something happens, SF looks at what sort of change is desirable. In collective processes this phase of the process is often extensive and time consuming compared with individual processes, because there are many people and levels of decision making involved. The desired change to strive for is a synthesis of the collaboration, the result of dialogues or a decision by those in charge depending on the situation. The question of power and hierarchy is important. Who has power over what and how is it used? Most organisations have a ready-made hierarchy. The more it is based on equality, reciprocity, and interdependence the better SF probably fits.

Larger scale processes with SF ingredients are also unpredictable. One cannot know much of what will happen, so building on an experimental and improvising mindset is important. In twists and turns of large-scale processes full concentration on the meetings and processes at hand with the SF main principles is essential.


The preferred future

In larger scale processes I suspect that a detailed description of one specific preferred future for all isn’t possible. There will be too much variation in different parts of the process. Instead, the preferred future as steps or sub goals might work well. Therefore, the traditional concepts of vision, direction, intentions, and purpose might fit better. Highlighting the positive aspects of change is another useful strategy as well as continuous evaluation of the progress made. The desired change can mean changes in mind-sets and descriptions of the situation or the goal besides changes in behaviour. Organisations can for instance be supported to find a strengths story of themselves and use it in defining their role in relation to their surroundings in a fruitful way. To ‘move on’ instead of ‘change’ can also be a useful reworking and help to find ways to recognise what is already working well and taking the organisations towards the future.
We live in a time where economic, social, and environmental sustainability is important. SF can contribute to it by suggesting what to keep on doing, what already works well, and changing what doesn’t work. The move forward can thus be more about keeping what there already is than changing it. In larger processes such choices can have huge impacts. Think only of how much a new digital database system can cost.


Competence/strengths-based collaboration

There’s a saying ‘what we talk about gets stronger’. Consequently, promoting strengths, relationship- and future oriented dialogues is vital. Also listening with an appreciative ear is important. What can we learn from others? How can we share progress? How do we deal with setbacks? SF influenced strengths-based collaboration seems to create great of the results. It is a way to highlight the efforts that help to get the best out of people i.e., to use peoples’ knowledge, skills, and experiences for the desired change. Sometimes the strengths are readily available, but in big difficulties quite some enabling is required to shift from weakness to strengths.

Appreciation and involvement are two further core ingredients in SF-collaboration and many practical ways can be used to enhance them in the large-scale change process. For instance, initiating meetings where all involved take part in as equals can have a huge impact on organisational culture. Creating curiosity, energy and enthusiasm might furthermore be essential in keeping people in large scale processes engaged. So, when it is hard to know the outcome: What can we imagine? What useful can the challenges promote? Maybe an embodied feeling can act as a good guide?

Documenting resources, appreciation, ideas, and progress are significant to support and evaluate during the process. Sharing progress stories can, for instance, have a profound effect on the process.

SF has many interesting ways to build a structure of participatory collaboration that supports and accelerates the process. For instance, ‘vertical scaling’ of the situation or the future from different levels of the organisation. For the decision-making level it can be a policy, for the top level a goal, for the middle level a commission and for the executing level a task.

The basics of SF are easy to train, learn and use. Benefits come quickly and few resources are needed initially. After that more efforts are probably needed to understand the craftsmanship of SF . This can probably be achieved with reflective practice, peer supervision, mentoring and sharing the progress. For example, in one large organisation each of the workers were asked to pair with a colleague each week and talk about the useful experiences in every-day work.



In a larger scale practice, one needs to be alert to, work and consider many, if not all, people and organisational parts involved. Characteristics for the SF approach is to recognise the value and power of relationships and inclusiveness and hence support multiple forms of collective interaction. A nice example of this was Insoo Kim Berg’s child protection project in one of the US states, The goal set by the top leader was to change the focus of the work from police style actions to partnership with the families. Insoo decided to start from ‘the bottom’, meaning the parents. Among other things she formed focus groups with them to get feedback to the organisation. These became very influential for the change.

The leaders’ involvement is both necessary and natural in a SF style process. A board, a CEO, experienced staff, and specialists, can benefit a lot of using SF in their daily work. The current Finnish coalition government started, for instance, its policy negotiations with small round table discussions with the best hopes for the future.

All this makes a SF practitioner more of an integral part of the change and perhaps taking different roles during the process and in different parts of the organisation. In some cases, it might even be useful for an SF practitioner to just do his/her assignment without announcing using SF.

When some people inevitably aren’t interested or don’t like the approach or the common goals at hand, an SF practitioner can ask what kind of a role they play in the whole and how can they participate? I have noticed that many critics have good ideas, and they might be involved later. They can contribute as a quality controller or help in envisioning alternatives. In the Scandinavian countries’ coalition governments are common. The parties tend to keep a respectful relationship to those outside, because after the next elections they might need to cooperate with them in the government.


Case: Rehabilitation services

The use of SF approach in larger processes can be illustrated by the case of a rehabilitation centre providing publicly funded rehabilitation services for children with behaviour and neurological problems and their families.

I was engaged with the centre in many roles. Sometimes I sat in with a family reflecting on their rehabilitation. Sometimes I supported the managers in some issues. As a coach, I talked a lot with the teams about how to manage and coordinate the team-members’ different activities. How to deal with conflicting needs and how to settle with “good enough” work.
The centre was created from the staffs’ vision to make a new kind of family-based services for children at a time when the place was doomed to close. Hiring a leader, who knew SF well, they moved towards the vision in a clear way. Strengths and skills determined who was doing what, both joint and delegated team-based decision making was used. Building on and celebrating progress and success was in the culture of the organisation. The results were evaluated both with the customers and with researchers.

The centre organised SF training, supervision and mentoring to support the staff. Also, strong peer support, validation, appreciation, and direct support in difficult processes was encouraged.
The organisation used SF in client work with the children and their families, and in how the work was organised. The team responsible for a family planned the rehab with the parents and the referral agency, made and carried out a tailored day program for each family.

SF was used even in how the kitchen worked and how the maintenance of the premises were done. The dining room was one of the most popular places for the children and staff. There one could hear SF language like, ‘How did you do that?’, ‘What went well?’ ‘What did the family say?’. The dining room was designed in a way that even the smallest children could pick up their food themselves with some encouragement by the kitchen staff. SF was embedded also in the labels for various activities. ‘Metsä’ (the forest), for instance, meant an empowering hike in the nearby forest. The staff supported the children and their families to succeed with the hike and reflected on the successes in relation to the goals afterwards and also documented the progress it made. SF was combined with adventure pedagogic and neuropsychological methods to provide a unique blend of services tailored for the customers.

The centre continued this path successfully for many years, always adjusting to the environment. When they didn’t get families from child protection, they first tried to improve the situation and when that didn’t help, they shifted to services with more demand. The centre also faced internal challenges. A critical strategic choice of the leadership of the centre was to employ experienced professionals, who usually wanted to work in a specialized way. Sometimes they became frustrated with having to deal with the ever-changing duties of the process organisation of the centre. Trying out some specialised tasks and positions helped somewhat. The cleaners didn’t, despite several attempts, want to have an active role in carrying out the rehabilitation.



I have in this article explored what solution-focus in larger processes can be and how it might differ from practices, where a solution-focused practitioner is hired for single interventions.

In larger processes SF can be a natural part of the context in many ways and enable desired moves or change with SF strength-based collaboration of the involved. Used in this way, SF can also be the organising principle of the process and play a key role in formulating shared orientations and actions towards the preferred future. Compared to single interventions, deciding the moves and describing the desired future will be complex, because of many people and levels of decision making. Withholding appreciation, curiosity, energy, and enthusiasm throughout the process is essential to keep people engaged. A workable blend with other approaches is probably also needed.

In a larger scale process, it is not necessary or even possible to have an SF expert in involved in all moves. Instead, one needs to focus on booting devoted leaders’ persistence, SF materials, SF training, SF incorporated documentation, coaching, and peer support.

In theory, SF can be used in any larger scale process. There might still occur processes in conflict with the core values of SF, uniqueness, tolerance, pluralism, and empowerment.


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Peter Sundman

valtiotieteen kandidaatti
sosiaalityöntekijä, kehittäjä
työnohjaaja, valmentaja
psykoterapeutti (VET)