Potential Success Concept“There are no problems only solutions”, says John Lennon.

Critical thinking and the ability to solve problems remain capabilities that make it to the priority list for many leaders and organisations. The “knower” versus the “learner”, the expert versus the novice, where the leader finds themself in a role of “problem solver” and solutions finder.

So often, when working with executives, the commonly heard query, is “I am so tired, of hearing about problems, I don’t want to hear about problems, I want solutions from my teams”. If this is a key capability we want from our teams, why are we not getting this more consistently?

Focusing on problems, and getting to the “root cause” has been an attribute valued and embedded in the very fabric of our formal education. Thinking outside of a problem context and engaging in conversations both at the workplace and at home, in “solutions focused” thinking, is relatively overlooked. Using what we know of our brains, if Language tends to be on the left and attention more on the right, should we start paying “attention” to our language?

Having spent the past 12 months immersing my own “root-caused” and critical analysis mindset into the paradigm of solutions focused coaching, I have had some “aha’s” of my own, and struggled to overcome the natural pull to the right – solving puzzles and problems, while enjoyable can also have a dark side when it plays out in business critical situations, where we literally may experience, our survival is at stake… corporate metaphorically speaking.

Performance management as an “enabler” for a high performance culture, is a problem focused conversations, and has its struggle I believe for this exact reason.. it is way too past focused. What good can it do for me, as an employee, to know where I failed, 3 or 6 months ago, and what my skills and attitude deficiencies are now, elaborating the huge gap between me now and where I am supposedly meant to be?

When we take a problem solving approach:

  • the focus is inevitably on feelings and emotions (implicitly or explicitly raised)
  • expert and accurate insight into the problem is a precondition for the solution
  • the problem is ever present
  • we need to ‘find” resources” somewhere and quick
  • looking for faults important and valued
  • understanding who or what is at fault is the question
  • persuasion is an acceptable soft tactic

Problem talk V.S. Solutions Talk

Imagine starting a conversation with an employee who “needs” to improve certain capabilities based on their recent performance review.

Approach 1: (Manager Intention: I need to get to the cause of the difficulty and find solutions and get the employee to do them)

  • What seems to be the problem this week?
  • What’s the root cause/s for this problem?
  • What’s wrong with what you are doing?
  • Why is this the skill not working for you?
  • What things would make it difficult to improve?
  • How can you close this gap?

The manager’s thinking: Mmm, I think this is going to be a tough conversation, where do I find the answers and solutions for them? How will I hold them accountable? What if they don’t improve? …. and the list goes on.

Now, imagine the same scenario.

Approach 2: (Manager Intention: I would like to get more details initially of the desired outcome from the employee)

  • What’s been working since we met last time?
  • What would be a good outcome and make it worthwhile for you?
  • What have you tried over the past that has worked?
  • How did you do that?
  • what’s the very best you have ever done in similar circumstances?
  • What went well?
  • How did you notice that? What did others see?
  • What benefit did it bring: you, your team any others ?

Assumptions Revisited

Problem talk and Solution talk result in a vastly different outcomes for the person you are working with. It is not that one approach is better or good and the other is bad or worse.

Rather, the subject matter and content of these conversations is vastly different, as we should be prepared to decide what area we want to pursue and for what outcome. The question of how sustainable is one approach over the other can be explored too.

They challenge us to evaluate and explore new assumptions:

  • the employee actually wants something different as a result of the interaction
  • things will indeed improve and get better
  • the employee holds all the resources needed to set their own goals and evaluate their progress
  • it is easier to talk about what the person wants to achieve than the problem itself
  • change headed in the direction of “better” can be recognised and observed
  • other people will notice when things improve


“So when do we move into problem or take a more solutions focused approach?”

Perhaps the time is now…

The emergence, success and impact of the interdisciplinary field of Neuroscience in leadership, points to the need for something different in how we lead and develop capability, of people and organisations.   This field is also providing strong evidence in the power of language and thought, in creating neural pathways that make us more effective in decision and actions. This begins with the individual and how they interpret their situation: does this situation minimise threat or maximise reward, consciously or not.

If we embed Approach 2 into this cognitive behavioural framework then the increasing positive benefit of a Solutions Focused practice, where “The Action is in the Interaction” helps create the “reward” future state.

A key principle underpinning solutions focused practice is to “co create” meaning and solutions in the interaction we have with our clients. Through conversation and language, we co-create this future reality and meaning, in the pursuit of the achievement of their goals. This can either be perceived as ‘threat or “reward”. Our experience suggests that Performance management discussions predominantly create the “threat” state, inadvertently or intentionally.

The implications for adopting a solutions focused approach for leaders, managers, coaches and consultants, are many. These early conversations provide the grounding to define the “common project”, or desired outcome that helps create the platform for change.

We have achieved the co-creation of a “common project” when we can recognise:

  • it is important to the client: it is focused on the concept of “better” and a future when the problem does not exist
  • it is something we can engage with ethically and within our professional capabilities

Maybe John’s lyrics, from the Song “Imagine:”, call for us to “imagine” and be a “dreamer” with a plan, can give us more meaning in every element of our lives, as we face daily the challenges and opportunities that go to making a deliberate choice of difference at home work and in life.

What can I do to that will profoundly impact my life, our lives, this world, and helps to co-create a sustainable platform for realizing a “better” me, team, organisation, community, world? A solutions focused reality can help us become “unstuck” from the morass of problem talk, and open up new pathways literally for us to work through the challenges of this complex, ambiguous, volatile, uncertainty and always gift, each one of us, for a life lived “better”.

Further Relevant Reading:

  1. Jackson, P., & McKergow, M. (2011). The solutions focus: Making coaching and change simple. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
  2. McKergow, M., & Clarke, J. (2007). Solutions Focus Working: 80 real life lessons for successful organisational change. Solutions Books.
  3. McKergow, M., & Korman, H. (2009). Inbetween-neither inside nor outside: The radical simplicity of solution-focused brief therapy. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 28(2), 34-49.
  4. De Shazer, S. (1994). Words were originally magic. WW Norton & Co.
  5. Rock, D., & Schwartz, J. (2006). The Neuroscience of Leadership; Breakthroughs in brain research explain how to make organizational transformation succeed. Harvard Business Review, 207.