Six styles of SF working in organisations
Describing our practise with more precision
May 16, 2021
Introduced by Paul Z Jackson
As a new area of practice grows, such as the flourishing of SF in organisations, it takes a while before we can stand outside what we are doing and get to the point of defining it. This article is of particular importance in adding to our ability to define what we do.
This article sets out six different styles of Solution-Focused working in organisations. We hope these styles will help practitioners such as leaders, facilitators and coaches to describe their work more precisely. Together the styles provide a means to reflect on how different structures require different ways of working, with implications for the choices we make at different times. While each style is an ideal type intended to be helpful for framing what we do, we realise that in the real-world things may not always be as clear cut.
Two Cross Sections
The six styles divide solution-focused ways of working into two cross-sections:
1. How conversations are facilitated
The first relates to how conversations are facilitated. We start by assuming that all solution-focused conversations are facilitated and that any magic happens in the interactions between two or more people. Someone steers the conversation, either by asking solution-focused questions or offering solution-focused statements such as examples of what’s been working or constructive compliments. The other person or people in the conversation typically take(s) ‘the customer for change’ position, they want something to be different.
In a therapeutic or formal coaching context these roles are fixed and one-way. In some types of organisational working, however, these roles may be flexible and shared, with participants taking turns facilitating solution-focused conversations with each other or making progress as a collective. Our first distinction, therefore, is between sole (or one-sided) facilitation and shared facilitation.
2. The size of the group
Our second distinction relates to the size of the group. In organisational solution-focused working, we range from 1-to-1 interactions through to small groups of three or more, to larger sets of people or crowds. This last option opens up opportunities for multiple individual conversations or patterns across events or organisations.
Six styles of Solution Focused Working
The diagram shows the six styles of solution-focused working. We describe and discuss each in turn, starting with the three requiring sole facilitation.
Sole facilitation is the most traditional model of working in organisations. A solution-focused practitioner (or practitioners) take sole responsibility for steering the work.
1. Sole facilitated 1-to-1
This is the classic and probably most familiar style of solution-focused working, reflecting its roots in the therapy room, in which therapist and client sit with each other for a fixed-time conversation. In organisations, we see 1-to-1 in coaching and in many meetings of clients or colleagues.
One-way facilitation by one person to just one person allows for concentrated individual attention and intensity, represented by a thick arrow. The facilitator conducts the conversation – designed for, tailored to and adapted along the way – for that one client.
While resource-intense (though still only a conversation), the interaction allows the recipient to receive the full benefit of clarity and resourcefulness promised by a solution-focused interaction, which – as the research shows – can be a powerful promoter of change and progress.
2. Sole facilitated group
Sole facilitated group facilitation is still face-to-face and live (whether in a real or virtual space) and we can still recognise a debt to arrangements such as solution-focused family therapy. In organisational work it might be seen in a session of small group coaching or in a facilitated team strategy workshop with a small team, for example.
In this style, facilitation is likely to be less intense for each individual, as the facilitator engages each client in turn (illustrated by a thinner arrow) or at least spreads the attentional load. The solution-focused facilitator may:
Aim to draw out common hopes and ideas Or may capitalise on the differences that members of a group bring for the benefit of the organisation This will help articulate the collection of resources in the room and illuminate how this group has and will function at its best. The bigger the group, the more the facilitator will be attracted to and benefit from the ‘sole facilitated crowd’ style described below.
3. Sole facilitated crowd
Crowd facilitation takes place when the number of participants is large enough to make sub-group interactions more attractive than all-in plenary sessions, for example to provide networking opportunities or for more people to be able to speak in a given time. This more ‘remote’ facilitation is indicated by a dotted line.
Once we have sub-groups, the facilitator loses direct face-to-face interaction with everyone at once. Instead, the facilitator issues instructions before activities and asks clients to work independently (in sub-groups or alone) or with minimum supervision.
One facilitator option in this style is ‘trusting the process’ and staying out of the action until the designated return time. Another is to side coach (as Viola Spolin described it[i]), checking in with any sub-group that looks like it would benefit from a coaching nudge.
The challenge here for facilitators is to design and brief activities as effectively as possible, propelling a sustained focus on the task so that it produces the resourceful outcome. A good demonstration can work wonders (as John Brooker suggests[ii]); as can offering the participants a clear description of the desired output(s) such as a prioritised list.
The many advantages of this style include the economical use of facilitator time with a large group, and the multiplied opportunities for people to work together constructively and in all sorts of combinations.
Shared facilitation styles happen when the power and responsibility for bringing the solution-focused facilitation skills are redistributed from the facilitator to the participants, either in part or whole. This may appear more experimental, less familiar and perhaps trickier to pull off, but clearly opens up a whole new set of possibilities – which after all is one of the promises of a solutions-focused approach.
4. Shared facilitated 1-to-1
This style presents solutions-focused working in organisations as a two-way constructive conversation with each person either taking turns or acting simultaneously as the facilitator and the client. Instead of the focus being on what one party wants to be different, here they aim to work together on a common project. The project may belong to one or the other, or to both. The work between the two can be relatively intense (as shown by a thick double arrow), as both are contributing to the process and to the content.
Each person requires some competence in facilitating a solutions-focused conversation, though this may range from a minimal ability to read from a solution-focused script, through to being a fully qualified / experienced practitioner.
A challenge here is to know who is leading the process at any given moment and when to switch turns. In practice, there are many neat methods to accomplish smooth turn-taking, including a ‘marker’ for the facilitator such as ‘he or she who is wearing the facilitator hat’, timed turn-taking, switching at agreed points in a sequence of conversational events or simply signalling transitions when the moment seems right. Watching that conversation might resemble watching a pair of hacky sack[iii] champions keeping the ball in the air . As with hacky sack, the players can decide the ‘rules’ for keeping the ball in the air that are the most helpful to them (thank you to Dave’s friend Esko Reinikainen for this metaphor).
5. Multi-facilitated group
This style takes shared facilitation 1-to-1 a step further. A group, whether at a meeting or an event, agrees together that they will share facilitation and take a solution focused approach.
Within the group, anyone may take a turn to be the facilitator. This role of solution-focused facilitator may be shared explicitly, as in, for example, the London SF group in which each member takes a turn to facilitate all or part of a meeting. Or it may be more organic, such as implicit ‘guerrilla SF’ in which skilled practitioners plant solutions-focused comments or questions into the group discussion – ‘I remember we did well at this a few weeks ago, when we…’ or ‘Remind me what we said we all wanted…’.
This style is distinct from 1-to-1 shared facilitation in that a group working on something usually requires slightly more structure, with SF facilitation able to operate formally and informally within that need.
6. Self-facilitated crowd
Here we imagine a solution-focused culture where individuals, perhaps after some training, incorporate solution-focused facilitation naturally into any aspect of organisational life, certainly at meetings and events but also during informal conversations by desks and at water coolers. In this scenario individuals can choose to put on the ‘facilitators’ hat’ at any time that might be helpful.
This may be the ultimate ambition of working with SF in organisations – to create what could be described as a ’solutions-focused organisation’. If that is the aim, then it makes sense to apply a variety of solution-focused approaches to encourage such a result. For example, a consultant might start the engagement by asking when the desired kinds of constructive interactions happen already (if only occasionally) in the organisation. This follows the principle of ‘finding what works and amplifying it’ and resonates with Yasuteru Aoki’s[iv] idea of ‘SF Inside’. It’s what you observe when watching a group of SF practitioners conduct a Solution Focused Reflecting Team[v] session.
As well as uncovering and articulating an organisation’s unique existing and historical recipes for the successes they seek, the practitioner can simultaneously train people to practice solution-focused working for themselves, offering instruction and experiences through the entire range of styles. A train-the-trainer process encourages the organisational learners to use solution-focused facilitation in a wide range of organisational activities during and after the training, acting as facilitators to those around them.
In presenting these six styles we hope that anyone practising solution-focused approaches in organisations will find them as helpful as we did when we discussed them at a recent meeting of the SFiO UK (South) Chapter. We thought about them as a means of making choices, a way to highlight aspects of our practice and even as a series of stages we might incorporate into our organisational work. While they have been created with solution-focused working in mind, they might usefully be applied to other similar approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry. Either way, we hope that they might start some helpful conversations in the world of SF in organisations.
[i] Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd edition, 1999
[ii] John Brooker, personal comment, SFiO UK Chapter Meeting London 2019
[iii] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hacky%20sack (Sourced Jan 2020)
[iv] Yasuteru Aoki, ‘SF inside’: Why the ‘SF inside’ concept can be useful in organisational development – chapter in “Solution Focused Practice in Asia”. Edited by Debbie Hogan, Dave Hogan, Jane Tuomola, Alan K. L. Yeo. 2016
[v] Solution Focused Reflecting Teams, Harry Norman, in Handbook of Solution-Focused Therapy, ed Bill O’Connell, Stephen Palmer, Sage 2003