Growing the Solutions Tree
A conversation with Peter van Erum
Feb 26, 2023
Introduced by Brian Jennings
Peter Van Erum has spent most of his working life supporting development in rural communities in East Africa. He began as a volunteer science teacher in Tanzania in 1992 and then as an organisational development practitioner, largely in the agricultural sector, working between Uganda and Tanzania with different development organisations. In 2006 Peter participated in Peter Szabo’s Solution Focused Coaching training programme in Uganda, and he shares how this transformed his outlook and professional practice. Peter began to look for the positives in all the different situations in which he was involved. For example, taking advantage of a delayed flight to build relationships, become more accepting and non-judgmental and plan for the ‘unplanned!’ I was particularly impressed by how SF enabled him in his cross-cultural engagement. From a professional point of view, Peter describes how SF has enabled him to begin where people are, appreciating their resilience, accepting their pace of change for their situation, and learning from them. He learnt to start with ‘what is’ and to suggest and demonstrate alternatives. He saw that he could convince people, both of their resources and the changes they can make through step-by-step processes. These all contribute to small changes that enhance people’s lives. Peter highlights two ‘seeds’ that he helped plant that grew into ‘mighty trees’. In the first, a Church-based development organisation approached Peter to improve their staff appraisal system – they wanted something more motivating for both the appraisers and the appraised. Peter organised a workshop for them to review their processes, and they adopted some solution-focused elements drawn from Gunter Luegar’s work (2006). These elements enabled them to focus more on strengths, with the result that everyone became more highly motivated. The second ‘seed’ that Peter mentions is his work to develop a tool for entrepreneurial initiatives with rural farmers by asking them about their resources rather than their challenges. The latter, he notes, emphasises problems and victim status. Whereas to ask farmers ‘What are your resources?’ establishes them as capable and responsible human beings. He stresses that even in the poorest villages, people have resources. The approach he initiated seeks to identify, explore, and develop resources. He records how this solution-focused approach: • Developed farmers’ confidence, • Built relationships with buyers who wanted to talk with them • Increased productivity and quality.
The farmers could produce more at higher prices and so lifted themselves out of poverty. Mighty trees indeed!
Luegar, G. (2006) ‘Solution-focused assessment: new ways of developing HR- instruments.’ in Lueger, Gunter and Korn, Hans-Peter (Eds.) Solution focused management Rainer Hampp Verlag, München u. Mering. pp. 203-212.